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Harris, Julie (1921-)

Costume Designer

Main image of Harris, Julie (1921-)

Costume designer Julie Harris (not to be confused with the American actress) had a career spanning over 40 years, earning her a BAFTA and an Oscar. She worked on over 80 film and television productions, as well as several stage plays.

She studied at Chelsea Art School and had just begun working for a court dressmaker when World War II broke out. She was injured in the bombing of London's Café de Paris in 1941, but joined the ATS on recovery. On being demobbed, she was taken on as a design assistant at Gainsborough, working with the studio's top designer Elizabeth Haffenden, where she learnt the basics of film costume design. She assisted on The Magic Bow (d. Bernard Knowles, 1946) and The Root of All Evil (d. Brock Williams, 1947), before taking sole credit on Good-Time Girl (d. David Macdonald, 1947) and Holiday Camp (d. Ken Annakin, 1947).

In the early 1950s she was contracted to Rank, where, as well as designing and sourcing costumes for feature films, her remit was to ensure that the studio's stars looked glamorous off screen, at premieres and festivals. She enjoyed the freedom afforded her in creating glamorous evening wear, but didn't relish the task of designing the infamous mink bikini worn by Diana Dors for a publicity stunt on a gondola at the 1955 Venice festival (mink was considered too extravagant, so the outfit was actually made of rabbit fur). As postwar rationing came to an end and colour films began to replace black and white, Harris was able to experiment with vivid hues and luxurious fabrics on Technicolor titles such as You Know What Sailors Are! (d. Ken Annakin, 1953) and Simon and Laura (d. Muriel Box, 1955).

During the 1950s, her repertoire expanded to include military uniforms (The Red Beret, US/UK, d. Terence Young, 1953; Reach for the Sky, d. Lewis Gilbert, 1956) and 19th century Maori garb (The Seekers, d. Ken Annakin, 1954). She even dressed Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield for the American West in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (US/UK, d. Raoul Walsh, 1958). In a period during which many international actors came to Europe to appear in Hollywood-funded productions, her costumes were seen on Alan Ladd, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Deborah Kerr and Bette Davis.

By the time her Rank contract had finished, Harris was well enough established to get regular freelance commissions, and she worked consistently on two or three features a year throughout the decade. As the 60s began to swing, films like Help! (d. Richard Lester, 1965) and Casino Royale (US, 1967) allowed her to exhibit a sense of fun and demonstrate how costume and sets could work together to give films a distinctive modern look.

Despite her experience with colour, it was a black and white film that won her an Oscar in 1965. Director John Schlesinger got her on board to dress Darling just before shooting began, after the original designer had let him down. This was the last year that two Academy Awards were given for costume - one for colour films and one for black and white - and Harris maintains that had there been only one, she would have lost out to the colour winner, Phyllis Dalton for Doctor Zhivago (US/Italy, d. David Lean, 1965). But Harris showed great foresight about contemporary style and Julie Christie's above-the-knee skirts were all the rage when Darling was released. The role the costumes played in recreating 'swinging London' on screen was crucial, and guaranteed the film Stateside success.

Into the 1970s, Harris worked on bigger-budget movies, including a James Bond film, Live and Let Die (d. Guy Hamilton, 1973), and several American features, among them the Disney production Candleshoe (1977) and Dracula (1979). By now in her fifties, she began to slow down, averaging one film a year. She designed for two directors coming to the end of their careers, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, as well as working on her personal favourite The Slipper and the Rose (1976), Bryan Forbes' epic retelling of Cinderella. By the 1980s, television was taking over from film work, and her last credit was on a feature-length ITV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (tx. 27/12/1988).

Her ability to deal with sometimes difficult actors (Melina Mercouri refused to wear high-waisted dresses on Joseph Losey's The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1959), preferring a shape more flattering to her figure) as well as her understanding of the importance of costume in the creation of character, made Harris popular with busy directors like Ken Annakin and Bryan Forbes. When she started out, costume was beginning to be recognised as a key element of film design, and it was particularly important to the postwar success of Gainsborough, as well as to the emerging giant, Rank. The experience that Harris gained at two of the most important British studios of the postwar years served her well when that era drew to a close, while her originality and skill with both the practical and aesthetic aspects of film costume ensured her a long and successful career.

Jo Botting

Read a transcript of Jo Botting's 2002 interview with Julie Harris at

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Carry On Cleo (1964)Carry On Cleo (1964)

Comedy in which two British slaves end up in Ancient Rome and Egypt

Thumbnail image of Darling (1965)Darling (1965)

Julie Christie gives an Oscar-winning performance as an amoral socialite

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Hard Day's Night, A (1964)Hard Day's Night, A (1964)

The Beatles star in one of the defining films of the Swinging Sixties

Thumbnail image of Land That Time Forgot, The (1974)Land That Time Forgot, The (1974)

Entertaining Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy of a lost prehistoric land

Thumbnail image of Live and Let Die (1973)Live and Let Die (1973)

James Bond returns to the Caribbean, to investigate a voodoo plot

Thumbnail image of Miracle in Soho (1957)Miracle in Soho (1957)

Slight but poetic story about unexpected love in postwar Soho

Thumbnail image of North West Frontier (1959)North West Frontier (1959)

Stirring epic starring Lauren Bacall and set in British-ruled India

Thumbnail image of Reach for the Sky (1956)Reach for the Sky (1956)

Classic flagwaver about pilot Douglas Bader's triumph over adversity

Thumbnail image of Rough and the Smooth, The (1959)Rough and the Smooth, The (1959)

Neglected Brit noir in which a German femme fatale entraps an archeologist

Thumbnail image of Sailor's Return, The (1978)Sailor's Return, The (1978)

An interracial marriage provokes disaster in Victorian England

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Simon and Laura (1955)Simon and Laura (1955)

Soap opera satire: a real-life couple plays a happier version of themselves

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