Ruth Caswell

Award winning costumier and fashion designer/ maker, Ruth Caswell, taught Costume and Textiles at Bradford College from 1986 until 1997.

Ruth CaswellIn the 1970s Ruth’s own label work as a fashion designer for Liberty’s and others was featured in Vogue. A textile historian with an MA in the history of textiles and dress, Ruth was instrumental in initiating Bradford College’s Textile Archive. She was the Textile Advisor on the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice and has costumed numerous other TV programmes, while her film credits include Shakespeare in Love and both the Elizabeth films.

“I was technically taught and trained at Leeds College of Technology in the 1960s. I was just a little girl from Keighley and I had expected a modest job in the clothing trade until I got top marks for design. At 17, I had 2 big windows of my stuff in Brown Muff’s under a banner of ‘Op Art Comes To Town.’ I was encouraged to continue my studies at St Martins but I wanted to be a working designer. I was already selling and that moment would never come again.

Obsessed by theatre, I chose to train as a costumier at Nathan’s in Drury Lane. I went on to work at Glyndbourne Opera and then at 22, I became costumier for the Theatre 69 Company (precursor of The Royal Exchange) where I made costumes for many star productions and premieres, including Othello-inspired rock opera, Catch My Soul, which subsequently transferred to the West End.

When I married and moved to London I had only £12 to my name so I made clothes in my back bedroom and sold them in Kensington High Street on a stall next to Freddie Mercury’s. I delivered them via the 73 bus each Friday and they sold instantly. Asked to bring work in for possible inclusion in Vogue’s January edition, I anticipated warm things and party frocks. We were so casual that my friend spilled tomato sauce from a hot dog on her frock. Grace Coddington then told us she was seeking outfits for a high summer shoot in the Seychelles and she wanted the clothes we were stood up in!

We felt idiots going home on the bus in winter party clothes on a blazing hot day, but Jean Shrimpton modelled the dress I was wearing in a photo with David Bailey. Norman Parkinson’s photo of the bird frock I had made using fabric from Bradford’s Kirkgate market became iconic. The dress was only shot from the back so perhaps the tomato sauce stains never came off! I made 25 of the dresses and they were worn by Anna Harvey, editor of Vogue, and Roger Daltrey’s wife. The dress was often imitated and set a look for the 70s.

There was a really generous youth culture then as older people empowered young people to do things. That is why I wanted to teach. Spontaneity comes with youth and there is an honesty that comes from unselfconsciousness, so you don’t get old, you get different! Teaching is such a responsibility as you have people at their creative prime.”

Photograph by Shelagh Ward