Sue Blane Interview (1979) 2,700 views
Exclusive Interview: SUE BLANE
The costume designer for Rocky Horror shows her stuff.
Interview by PATRICIA MORRISROE
Sue Blane's Rocky Horror costume designs have been religiously copied by thousands of fans around the country, but she was terribly against doing the play when first offered it. "I thought the story sounded awful," she says. "I had no desire to design a lot of drag costumes for no money. I had enough work at the time not to have to take on something unless it paid a lot or it was great fun. And from what I imagined, Rocky didn't promise to be fun at all."
It wasn't until Blane met director Jim Sharman several weeks later that she became interested in the project. "Jim and I got along like a house on fire. While he was outlining the plot we got incredibly drunk and then went around to the Royal Court Theatre. When I realized that Tim Curry and some other friends of mine were going to be in it, I thought, 'Oh, this is beginning to sound like a wonderful idea.' By three o'clock in the morning, with the start of a terrible hangover, I was doing Rocky."
Blane had already met Curry at the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland, where they were both involved in a production of Jean Genet's The Maids. "In a funny kind of way that was the birth of Rocky for me. Not only was Tim in it, but it was another 'underwear' show. He was dressed up in a corset for his role, and the whole production was quite bizarre."
When the time came to design the costumes for Rocky Horror Blane asked the Citizen's Theatre to loan her Curry's original corset. He wore it for the second time as Frank-N-Furter. "Luckily Tim had worked in a corset before so he took to it like a duck takes to water. And since I had just done The Maids, getting into designing with underwear and garters again was no problem at all."
Working with a limited budget of $400, Blane fashioned the costumes from pieces discovered in junk shops and flea markets around London. "With such a small budget, everything had to be junk. There was no way around it. The bad thing was that nothing was made to last past the three week run at the Royal Court. The show's been running six years now, so ever since then it's been difficult to do. The things that one grows to love, bits of lace, old gloves, a funny pair of shoes, fall to pieces after a few weeks."
Blane keeps Magenta's original shoes in her study. One of the few remaining relics from the early days at the Theatre Upstairs, they are high-heeled and black, with fluffy pompoms attached to the toes. They could have belonged to Marlene Dietrich, or Myra Breckinridge. "Aren't they sweet?" Blane inquires, balancing one shoe in the palm of her hand. "I bought them at a place called 'City Lights' in Covent Garden." Dropping the shoes into a box beneath her chair, she looks fondly at them. "I can't bear to part with the dears."
According to Blane, her costume designs are more a result of intuition than studious research. "When I designed Rocky I never looked at any science fiction movies or comic books. One just automatically knows what spacesuits look like, the same way one intuitively knows how Americans dress. I had never been to the United States, but I had this fixed idea of how people looked there. Americans wear polyester so their clothes won't crease and their trousers are a bit too short. Since they're very keen on sports, white socks and white T-shirts play an integral part in their wardrobe. Of course, since doing Rocky I have been to the United States and admit it was a bit of a generalization, but my ideas worked perfectly for Brad and Janet." They're middle America all the way.
Since Rocky Horror was an unorthodox mix of periods and styles, Blane's costume designs spanned four or five decades. "I thought Brad and Janet were supposed to be mid-sixties, while Eddie was straight out of the fifties. He was a mixture between a Hell's Angel and a Teddy Boy, the English equivalent. The narrator was somewhere in the forties and Frank-N-Furter ... well, who knows what period he was coming from. I'm not really that interested in recreating a certain era when I design. I like to concentrate on minute details instead, like wondering what type of pen Dr. Scott has in his pocket, whether his tie has stripes or not, or whether he's got holes in his maroon socks. It also helps the actors tremendously in creating their characters."
Blane designed the costumes for productions in Sydney, New York and Los Angeles, and was eager to take a reprieve from Rocky when the idea of the movie cropped up. "I remember waking up one morning and saying, 'Oh, I really don't want to do this movie. I really have had enough.' I'd been involved with Rocky for quite a long time by then and was getting scared that that was all I was ever going to do. It was also getting embarrassing when you ran into someone on the street and they'd ask, 'What are you doing?' And I'd have to say, 'I'm still doing Rocky.' Luckily I've gotten over that now."
The costume budget was raised to $1600 for the movie, quadruple that of the stage show. But it still fell far short of the money needed to dress the large cast, which now included several dozen Transylvanian extras. "With a movie you have to double up a lot of costumes which immediately doubles the price. The corsets alone cost $200. Then there was the problem of the pool sequence. We needed several corsets so one could dry out while the other one was in the water."
Blane, like set designer Brian Thomson, is not happy with the addition of the Transylvanians to the story. "Their costumes took a lot of work, and I'm not at all pleased with the results. Because the first 20 minutes of the film was supposed to be in black and white, the Transylvanians played a key part in the color switch. In the black and white sequence they looked quite proper dressed in their tuxedoes, but when the film went to color you were suddenly supposed to notice that underneath their conventional jackets they were wearing these ridiculously bright shirts. I was hopping it would be a really magic moment. Under the circumstances, it wasn't."
While many of the costumes are exact replicas of the stage show, several characters received new wardrobes for their film debut. Columbia, who was formerly dressed in sequined shorts and a gold lame halter-vest, was newly outfitted in a star-spangled tap outfit. "Columbia was always the most difficult character to dress. The part is very peculiar anyway, and it really was tailor-made for Little Nell." In the current London production, Columbia wears black tights and fluffy over-sized pastel sweaters because, according to Blane, she just didn't look right in Nell's cast-offs. "You have to dress the character to fit the actress, not vice versa."
Magenta received the most drastic overhaul, giving up her vampy voile negligee in favor of a prim, black and white maid's uniform. "She was always supposed to be the maid, but we ignored that in the original and made her into this vampire lady. She was much more interesting as a vampette than as a maid, but in the film she had to have a function. When we put a feather duster in her hand I just had to add a little apron."
"I think the most important thing about this is that there is a lot of love in it. I don't mean that in an emotional sense, but in the care that was taken to make things work. Details were very important to us. For example, Brian came up with the idea of the Transylvanian logo, which was that little bolt of lightning which you see on the griffins, and on Riff-Raff and Magenta's space outfits. I carried over that motif to the Transylvanians who all wear these little lightning bolt pins on their sleeves. It's these little touches that make Rocky work."
Despite all the tender love and care, Blane admits "there are still a lot of awful moments in the film. In the church scene the actors look very ill-fitted. And did you notice Janet? Her hat is all bent out of shape. I still think my biggest mistake was with the Transylvanians. I can't pretend to like them. Their costumes are just dreadful, and I think doing them as individuals, a shiek here, a midget there, was too indulgent. They should have looked identical, almost mass produced."
While Blane may not have been totally thrilled with the costumes, she did get a kick out of seeing her designs in multiple when she accompanied Tim Curry and Brian Thomson to a midnight screening in Los Angeles over a year ago. "Unless you've really witnessed it, you can't comprehend it. People would say to me, 'You ought to see this thing, the kids are actually dressing up.' From my point of view I thought it would be just a group of tacky kids with awful makeup and a pair of high heels. I was just amazed at how good they looked."
With a critic's eye for cut and design, she was extremely impressed by the costume knock-offs. "What the kids have actually understood is the whole look of the costume. They've managed to get the silhouettes right. Their costumes aren't just a conglomeration of details, but a whole coherent shape."
It was while watching Rocky Horror in Los Angeles that Blane was suddenly struck by the film's bizarre evolution. "What I found fascinating is that the film is a parody of the cinema turned into a parody of the cinema for film. But the kids in watching the movie are treating it like a live performance. We're back to the original in a sense. The kids are getting their costumes from junk shops and antique clothing stores. Some are even making them themselves. And the funny thing is that's what we did in the beginning. It's all come full circle. How strange!"