Haffenden [ Wilson-Haffenden], Elizabeth (1906–1976), costume designer
by Pam Cook

Haffenden [ Wilson-Haffenden], Elizabeth (1906–1976), costume designer, was born on 18 April 1906 at Homewood, Hazeldean Road, south Croydon, the daughter of James Wilson-Haffenden, a wholesale draper, and his wife, Edith Maud Carruthers. She attended Croydon School of Art and London's Royal College of Art, then became a commercial artist before moving into theatre costume design during the 1930s, in association with the production designer Laurence Irving. Her experiments with expressionist masks on the 1939 J. B. Priestley play Johnson over Jordan were deemed controversial by contemporary critics hostile to German-influenced aesthetics. Haffenden's first job in the film industry was on the 1933 Sound City production Colonel Blood, a historical drama set in the seventeenth century, with Laurence Irving and John Bryan, who also had a background in British theatre, as art directors. Haffenden continued to work in theatre until the 1950s, but joined the Gaumont-British film studio at Shepherd's Bush in 1939, and from 1942 to 1949 was in charge of costume design for the associated company Gainsborough. Her connection with Bryan, who, like Haffenden, went on to become a major international figure, continued during the 1940s. They worked together on several Gainsborough productions, including Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and some of the cycle of melodramas for which Haffenden became renowned: Love Story (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945), and Caravan and The Magic Bow (both 1946).

Despite being made on low budgets in wartime austerity conditions, these films were visually splendid and made the most of Haffenden's flamboyant, stylish costumes, particularly in the period romances. Although critics regarded them as potboilers, the Gainsborough melodramas were very popular with female audiences, and the company promoted several of the films on the basis of their costumes, and on Haffenden's fashionable designs. For example, Gainsborough's publicity for Caravan credited her with having predicted in 1944 the post-war swing to glamorous, new look-style fashions. Haffenden's designs for the Gainsborough costume cycle were often quite daring. Indeed, it has been argued that she used the luxurious abundance of folds and furls in period dress to put on display, in coded form, an eroticized female sexuality (Harper, 44). Some scenes of The Wicked Lady had to be reshot for the US market because the low-cut dresses revealed too much cleavage for American tastes, while in publicity stills for Caravan, it is clear that Jean Kent, as Rosal, is not wearing a brassière under her skimpy Gypsy blouse. Such extravagant sexual display was not lost on British audiences tired of austerity and looking forward to a post-war consumer economy.

In the 1950s, after the demise of Gainsborough, Haffenden became resident costume designer for the British arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, based at Elstree, and worked on historical extravaganzas such as Beau Brummell (1954) and The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955). In the late 1950s she became freelance, and from 1959 consistently worked in association with her close friend the Technicolor colour consultant Joan Bridge (b. 1919), whom she first met at Gainsborough in 1946. They won academy awards for Ben-Hur (1959) and A Man for All Seasons (1966), and British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award nominations for The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) and Half a Sixpence (1967). They also received a BAFTA award for A Man for All Seasons. Haffenden's designs for colour films were as dramatic and evocative as those she created for black and white. The costumes had an eye-catching vibrancy and textural richness, and a distinctive visual style that went beyond the demands of character and narrative.

During the 1960s and 1970s Haffenden and Bridge worked on many highly successful productions, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968), based on Muriel Spark's novel and starring Maggie Smith, Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and The Homecoming (1973), scripted by Harold Pinter from his own play and directed by Peter Hall. Haffenden started pre-production work with Joan Bridge on Julia (1977), but died before production began. Her death brought to an end an illustrious career in theatre and cinema, spanning more than forty years. She died at 20 Devonshire Place, St Marylebone, London, on 29 May 1976.



S. Harper, ‘Art direction and costume design’, Gainsborough melodrama, ed. S. Aspinall and R. Murphy, BFI Dossier, 18 (1983), 40–52 · P. Cook, Fashioning the nation: costume and identity in British cinema (1996) · E. Leese, Costume design in the movies (1991) · SIFT database, BFI National Library · BFI, Special Collections · stills, posters, and designs, BFI · V&A, London, theatre collections · personal knowledge (2004) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1976) · b. cert. · d. cert.







newspaper photograph (with J. Bridge), BFI · photograph (with J. Bridge), BFI, Ben Hur (1959) file

Wealth at death  

£15,423: administration with will, 19 Oct 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Elizabeth Haffenden (1906–1976): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/66083