Actors' favourite costumier
Saturday 17 September 2005
Actors appearing in period dramas need costumes. Costume designers fulfil their job description and more, but much of the actual work in creating those costumes for the screen - large and small - and for the stage is done by the costumier. In the world of men's costumes, Christopher Prins had an absolutely starring role. He had been, until his untimely death, the head of the men's department of Cosprop, a leading period-costume specialist in Britain, for 32 years.
Prins was born in Bangalore in 1949, where his father was a lieutenant-colonel in the British, and later Indian, army. At the age of 20, Chris went to work for Bermans, then a leading costume-making and hire company that had many outposts spread around London. He learned the basics of his craft at the hire department in Brompton Road. It was there that I first met this lanky and larky young man.
In 1973, he went to work for a young costume specialist, John Bright, who had started Cosprop in 1965. It was then a small but already high-quality company, specialising in largely authentic costumes and clothes of mostly the 19th and 20th centuries. Chris Prins played a major part in the company's striving for a feeling of historical reality, rather than simple traditional theatricality. In the early days at Cosprop, much of the work was for television dramas and classic serials such as The Pallisers and A Tale of Two Cities. Soon, period films and theatre started to recognise the expertise and talent that were at the north London warehouse and workrooms of Cosprop. Big-name male actors asked to go to Prins to fit, organise and find their costumes from the ever-growing stock and to supervise, along with the costume designers, the making of new costumes. Actors such as Albert Finney, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Robert Hardy, Peter O'Toole and Eric Porter.
All went through the fitting process with Prins, who loved the exploratory nature of early fittings, helping the actor to find his way, to discover the external signs of the internal man, the subtle yet telling nuances that could convey character and period, the exactly chosen tie, the most characteristic shoes, the perfect cut of jacket, the wonderful hat. It was as though those garments were his attendants, waiting to step forward and be chosen. Generations of actors and designers are grateful for his skill. It often became a family affair: the Fox brothers and now a son, the Redgraves, Robert and then Toby Stephens and his brother Chris Larkin, three generations of the Wests, Lockwood, Timothy and Samuel.
Chris Prins relished working with younger actors too; he took pride in watching their careers grow: Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Dancy, Johnny Depp, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry, Richard E. Grant, Hugh Grant, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Kline, John Malkovich, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Rea, David Suchet, James Wilby. They learned so much from seeing, in front of their eyes in the big mirror, the visible bones of the character, the costume, appear.
Among the films and television dramas to which Prins, always working closely with John Bright, the owner of Cosprop, contributed were A Room with a View, Onegin, Maurice, the BBC's Pride and Prejudice (Mr Darcy's wet shirt and all the dry ones too), The French Lieutenant's Woman, many "Poirots" and The Golden Bowl; among the plays many directed by Peter Brook in Paris, others at the Almeida, the Donmar and the National Theatre in London, as well as the forthcoming Young Casanova, Bleak House and The White Countess.
Actors and costume designers win Oscars and other prizes. They are featured on posters and in newspaper articles. Chris Prins was one of the many, along with his team of devoted co-workers and colleagues, who are not known to the general public.
He was personally imposing, 6ft 4in tall, with a strong presence but modest and discreet; his views were always clearly expressed, often with a lot of laughter. He took his work, but never himself, seriously. Actors felt safe in his hands. In the fitting room, he often seemed almost invisible. Outside his work, he shared 21 years with his partner, Chris Garlick, and enjoyed classical music, the Proms being particularly favoured, visiting Landmark Trust properties and travel, latterly to India.
Stephen Fry cleverly inscribed a photograph thanking Chris Prins for his help on a production, "To Cos at Chrisprop". But, to all of us who knew him, he will always be "Chris at Cosprop".
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