Interview with Jenny Tiramani, Costume, Stage, and Production Designer, and Principal of The School of Historical Dress, London

An expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean clothing, Jenny opened The School for Historical Dress in London in 2012 to share her passion and knowledge of the design, construction, and historical context of early modern dress (both male and female). A costume and stage designer since the late 1970s, Jenny's glittering career has seen her work in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and the United States. Her historically accurate costumes produced for theatre and operas, including the Laurence Oliver Award for Best Costume Design in 2003, and the TONY award for the Best Costume Design of a Play in 2013. In addition to her design work, Jenny has taught costume courses at several universities and has an impressive publication history that includes several seminal texts for historians and designers of historical dress. 

Read more about The School of Historical Dress

Jenny Tiramani at The School for Historical Dress.

Jenny Tiramani at The School for Historical Dress.

The questions...

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

Discovering something about historical clothing that I didn’t know before and being able to pass that knowledge on to our students at The School of Historical Dress.

What is your background and how did you get interested in historical dress? 

I have always loved clothes and stories. At the age of nine I wanted to be a performer in the theatre and then, when I was twelve my dad took me to the V&A museum where we saw a small exhibition of the costume designs for ballet by Claud Lovat Fraser. I remember asking my dad ‘Is that a job, designing costumes and drawing them?’ He didn’t know but said he would find out. That was it – from then on I wanted to be a theatre designer.

What book or article was particularly formative to shaping your approach to dress history?

When I went to art school in 1973 to study set and costume design there were 5 costume books I was asked to buy before arriving. They were Norah Waugh’s THE CUT OF MEN’S CLOTHES 1600-1900, THE CUT OF WOMEN’S CLOTHES 1600-1930, and CORSETS & CRINOLINES, and Janet Arnold’s PATTERNS OF FASHION 1 and PATTERNS OF FASHION 2. I cannot pick one of these out as the one. They were all equally formative formative to shaping my approach to dress history (and still are).

 Tell us a little about your writing process...

I wouldn’t describe the process as ‘writing’, but more as ‘composing’. I make books, I don’t just write the words. At the moment I am completing PATTERNS OF FASHION 5: The cut and construction of bodies, stays, hoops and hips c.1595-1795. Having been given an Adobe InDesign page template with all the correct typefaces and sizes by my book designer, Lizzie Ballantyne, I work directly onto the page layouts on my imac computer. It has a 27” screen which means I can see the whole page full-size as I am placing photographic images, drawings, patterns and text on each page. This means I can give the maximum amount of information in the available space without leaving blank spaces. It is a bit like composing a comic strip and I like using this combination of image and text to tell the story of a garment, rather than writing a text and then requesting images to ‘illustrate’ the text. My study at The School of Historical Dress in London is south-facing and has a beautiful view onto the Tibetan Peace Garden, opened in 1999 by the 14th Dalai Lama, in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum. Perfect.

Patterns of Fashion 5 : work in progress

Patterns of Fashion 5: work in progress

What’s one thing you wish you’d known earlier? / Number one tip for early career researchers?

I wish I’d known that the subject of Dress History is still in its infancy. When I started 20 years ago (after 20 years working as a theatre designer) I thought everything had been discovered and published. I didn’t think there was a place for me to contribute to the existing body of knowledge.

If you were to sign your name in an album amicorum, what would you write or draw?

 Pictures of my son Jack, wearing his wardrobe of high-fashion clothing and in the special technical clothes he wears to run marathons.

What are you currently working on?

The forthcoming books to be published by The School of Historical Dress - Patterns of Fashion 5, 6, and 7 – and research of the mid-seventeenth century garments found on the Dutch shipwreck BZN17 discovered in 2014 at Texel.

Jenny Tiramani at Amsterdam University studying an Eastern garment from the mid-17th century shipwreck BZN17.

Jenny Tiramani at Amsterdam University studying an Eastern garment from the mid-17th century shipwreck BZN17.

What recent book or article (of the last year or so) do you recommend reading?

17th-Century Men’s Dress Patterns 1600-1630, published by Thames & Hudson for the V&A. I co-authored this volume with my fellows from the School of Historical Dress, Melanie Braun, Luca Costigliolo and Claire Thornton (and Susan North). I am immensely proud of the book and I think that Melanie, Luca, Claire and I all produced our best work yet for it.