May Routh was costume designer on The Man Who Fell To Earth, the film that starred David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who crash-lands on Earth while searching for water to replenish his home planet. In an exclusive transatlantic interview she tells me about her career, her designs on Mr Bowie and loving the alien.
IRW: You have enjoyed a pretty diverse career. How did you come to work as a costume designer?
MR: I studied at St Martin’s when it was an Art School. I was on the fashion course and I became very close to a fellow fashion student, Brian Duffy. We ate, slept and dreamed fashion. Together we discovered a stack of American Vogue and Harpers in the library. We broke up after we both left. I lasted as a fashion designer for six months after I ended up working at Aldgate East.
With dreams of being a famous fashion designer over I survived as a photographic model and on a photo shoot got talking with the creative chief of JWT [J. Walter Thompson, advertising agency] who gave me a job doing illustrations for Ponds. I married a fellow St Martin’s student Adrian Bailey, who helped me with my drawing career. Adrian had shared a flat with Len Deighton (ex-St Martin’s).
Brian Duffy gave up fashion designing and moved into photography. Duffy and Deighton started a film company, and asked me to work on the film Oh! What A Lovely War.
During the 1960s the demand for fashion illustration shrank and so I was looking around for something that would work for me. I became an assistant to the costume designer Anthony
Mendleson [Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, Krull] and then Yvonne Blake [Nicholas and Alexandra, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Eagle Has Landed].
IRW: How did you get the job on The Man Who Fell To Earth?
MR: In 1973 Adrian left me for a sub-editor on Harpers & Queen. Yvonne took me to Madrid to work as her assistant on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge. It was while working on these movies that I met the production designer, Brian Eatwell. I lived with him until he died in 2007. Brian had worked on Walkabout and Don’t Look Now with Nicolas Roeg. The Man Who Fell To Earth was shot in New Mexico, which was a right-to-work state, so British Lion could have an entire English non-union crew. So I got my first Costume Design credit.
IRW: What was your brief for Thomas J Newton? The thing I love most about the wardrobe of Mr Newton is that it doesn’t scream alien although many of his outfits are almost weird in their normalness. Where did you find inspiration, some of his clothes have a decidedly nostalgic feel?
MR: I met David first with Nic to discuss the look of the film. David had a narrow single-breasted suit, which was made by Ola Hudson. I had Ola copy the suit in slub silk. I think I had 3 made, two in black and one blue. Nic wanted Mr Newton, David’s character, to fit in but to just have something that was odd about him. I found the duffle coat in a Beverly Hills men’s shop that stocked older, not trendy, sportswear. I had never seen one in loden green, as in England they were always in camel, which gave it an edge. I ended up buying shirts for him in the boys department to get them to fit. I bought grey and white Viyella shirts made from soft flannel from England. The pyjamas and the tennis outfit came from stores in Beverly Hills and New Mexico.
IRW: Am I right in thinking that some items worn by Bowie in the film were from his personal wardrobe like the culottes he wears during the gun scene with Candy Clark?
MR: The quilt culottes would have come from David.
IRW: Tell me about the space suits?
MR: There were two space costumes. For the first (the look from his home planet), Nic said that Bowie’s character would wear their most valuable possession, water. I was stumped but I had a lot of reference books on fashion and luckily, looking through one about lace, I had the idea to make an outer skin inspired by the lace. The costume was made by the special effects company. Sadly they couldn’t put in the amount of tubes that I had drawn and, of course, I had never thought of how the water was going to move through the tubes. Tom Berman built the backpacks and the suits and made them all work. I remember that there had been a family tragedy as Tom was very hesitant to come to New Mexico. Ellis [Burman Jr – special make-up effects artist] is Tom’s nephew and it was a family business. I had made a shoe out of transparent plastic so that David, his alien wife and children would look as though they were gliding when they walked but I had forgotten that they were to walk on sand. I still have my original illustrations of David with no genitalia, fingernails, ears, etc., and the overlay of space suit. It is shown on the Criterion Collection DVD. Brian [Eatwell – production designer] worked closely with me on space outfit number two. Newton was supposed to be weightless and bumped into things so he wore the suit under his clothes to protect himself. The spaceship was constructed on the inside with polystyrene. His suit was made out of the fabric that lines camera cases. When we fitted the suit, which was made by a wonderful girl from Tom Berman’s studio, it was glued together not pinned. David was very involved in the fitting and his ideas as to how to cut and shape the grey polystyrene helped make the suit work.
IRW: And who’s idea was the fedora and where did it come from? It cast such an enigmatic shadow over Mr Newton.
MR: The black fedora? I can’t remember if that was David’s own. The grey one he wore at the end of the film belonged to Claudia Jennings, who had a small part as Bernie Casey’s wife. She was very beautiful and was the girlfriend of Si Litvinoff [executive producer], but not for long.
IRW: What do you think of Bowie’s style?
MR: David was amazing to watch. He could put things together that you would never imagine. I remember one day he came into our wardrobe room and he was wearing pink tinted sunglasses and a pink plaid cowboy shirt and he had picked up a New Mexico police hat with a visor. He looked incredible. I had to go after him as he was leaving, still wearing the police hat from wardrobe. If only we had taken photos then. I never had a photograph taken with him but there is a good one of him and Martin Samuel who was the hairdresser. He went on to work with David on the Station to Station tour. He lives in LA and we are still good friends. Another friend was telling me about a Japanese fashion designer, who is inspired by David. What is extraordinary is that David has had so much influence.
IRW: And your favourite Bowie song?
MR: While we were in the design process Brian [Eatwell] and I listened to ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ [Space Oddity] all the time, it was the film, but Changes is my favourite.
*May Routh now lives in Los Angeles and teaches costume design at Woodbury University.
Thin White Duke #1 – White Sands, New Mexico, 1976
Photographer: Brian Duffy