Alyson rediscovers passion and brings Georgian fashions to Paxton

Costume designer Alyson Farmer working on some of her period designs dating from 1750-80 the same time as Paxton House.
Costume designer Alyson Farmer working on some of her period designs dating from 1750-80 the same time as Paxton House.

SHE’S worked on some high profile shows for both stage and screen and now a talented Duns costume maker has turned her hand to her real passion- period dress, designing a new collection for Paxton House as the mansion prepares to launch drama workshops for schools.

Alyson Farmer has been living in Berwickshire for eight years now but before her move to Scotland she could be found creating costumes for and dressing household names like Lily Savage, Robson Green and Dame Judi Dench, working for a number of theatre companies and TV stations during an exciting and varied career.

But that’s not to say it was wall to wall glamour, quite the opposite in fact, particularly Alyson’s first tentative steps into the profession that was to serve her so well in years to come.

“When I left school at 18 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she told ‘Life’.

“I started by chance as a maintenance girl, washing actors shirts and doing running repairs on costumes during shows, at the Liverpool Playhouse.

“From there I was taken into the wardrobe crew and it was then that I went back to college to study costume.

“After leaving I spent a lot of time in theatres in Manchester and Oldham working on shows and operas such as ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘She Stoops to Conquer’.

“It was then that I developed a real love for period costume; I’m no good at modern fashion!”

However, despite structured and detailed fashions of yesteryear being her big passion, over the years Alyson proved she had a real knack for many types of garment, and with a CV that includes stints on shows like ‘Blind Date’, ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Stars in their Eyes’, this came in very handy.

“I worked for ITV for a number of years and then as a freelance and I did lots of different jobs.

“I managed not to get starstruck even though I dressed and made costumes for quite a few famous people. I would have to say my favourite was probably Judi Dench; I dressed her for ‘A Fine Romance’, the comedy show she did with her late husband and she was such a lovely person.

“I did one series of ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ and that was probably one of my trickiest jobs and involved working very long hours. We used to get photos of the singers people would be appearing as and told to try and replicate the look as closely as possible.

“This once involved trapsing the streets of London for a black leather jacket to match the one George Michael had on in one of his videos. I’d say the most challenging person to replicate was Connie Francis; she had a very 50s style.”

A show currently enjoying a revival on our TV screens is ‘Surprise Surprise’, another one that Alyson has worked on, although not with Holly Wiloughby at the helm, but when fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black was the hostess with the mostest.

“I had great fun on ‘Surprise Surprise’; my job was to dress Cilla and make sure that her microphones were fitted properly to whatever she was wearing.

“I also worked for a time on ‘Blind Date’, dressing Cilla but also stepping in if any of the contestants’ outfits needed changing. They were allowed to wear their own clothes but sometimes what they had on would be strobed when reproduced on camera or too white or too red.

“I really enjoyed working on that show; you never knew who they were going to pick!

“Lily Savage was great to dress too- there were so many elaborate outfits! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time; once I was freelance people would ring me up saying they’d heard good things about me.”

Alyson, whose roster also includes ‘The Royal Variety Show and ‘Poirot’ gave up her career in TV wardrobe in 1999 to have her son but on hearing about the buzz surrounding costume at Paxton House she promptly got in touch with director Claire McDade and after a look at Alyson’s résumé she was thrilled to have her onboard.

Paxton is due to launch its series of drama sessions in the new year and to give them some added Georgian authenticity, Alyson has been designing outfits of the period for would be thespians to wear.

She started work on them in January and how has six full outfits completed along with a whole host of accessories befitting of the time.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting back into period costume but it has been a challenge. For example I’d never made a frock coat before so I got in touch with the Scottish Opera for some advice. Once I got started it took around two weeks to make.

“I am my biggest critic, I give myself a hard time when I’m making things; I’ll do things over and over until I’m happy with them.

“My favourite era for period fashion is definitely Victorian with all the bussels and glamorous fashions so creating Georgian garments hasn’t been so easy and involved quite a bit of research before hand.

“I get real enjoyment and satisfaction from researching the different periods and seeing the shapes appear as you begin to make the clothes.

“All of a sudden the paintings and photos you have been studying during your research come to life.

“Learning about history of dress through making period clothes gives quite an insight into how our ancestors lived and the fashions they followed.”

Alyson who most recently helped design some of the outfits for Duns Players acclaimed production of ‘Calendar Girls’, is highly thought of at Paxton House, with Costumes & Exhibitions Officer Karen Page, telling ‘Life’ she was thrilled to unearth such creative talent on the doorstep.

“Alyson’s reproduction costumes are a wonderful example of the creative talent that’s hidden in the Borders and Northumberland.

“We were so lucky to find her living nearby!”