Yvonne Blake, designer of ‘Superman’ costume, dies at 78

British-born and Spain-based, she worked on ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and other 20th-century classics

Gregorio Belinchón
Yvonne Blake, president of the Spanish Film Academy.
Yvonne Blake, president of the Spanish Film Academy.Claudio Alvarez

Costume designer Yvonne Blake has died at the age of 78 after suffering a stroke earlier this year. During her career, the Manchester-born Honorary President of the Spanish Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences won an Oscar, four Goyas (the Spanish equivalent to the Academy Awards) and a National Cinematography Award. But she was best known for the original Superman suit that she designed for Christopher Reeve in 1976.

Blake claimed not to understand the meaning of retirement, and was in fact at work at the Academy when she suffered her stroke in January. She had taken on the presidency in October 2016 after several months as acting president in the wake of the resignation of Antonio Resines.

Blake fought to broaden the horizons of the Spanish Film Academy

Born in 1940, Blake moved to Spain for love and was based on the peninsula for most of her career. Among her accolades were Goyas for Rowing with the Wind by Gonzalo Suárez, Cradle Song by José Luis Garci, Carmen by Vicente Aranda and The Bridge of San Luis by Mary McGuckian. She also took home an Oscar in 1971 for the historical drama Nicholas and Alexandra, and in 2012 she received Spain’s National Cinematography Award.

Over the course of her career, Blake collaborated with a wide range of directors including François Truffaut, John Sturges, Paul Verhoeven, Peter Bogdanovich, Milos Forman and Richard Lester, who became one of her best friends. It was while collaborating with Lester that she was nominated for a second Oscar for The Four Musketeers.

Only months ago, Lester gave an interview to EL PAÍS during which he singled out Blake as one of the biggest talents in Spain, along with Gil Parrondo. “Both had a similar sense of humor that was very English and fun. And they knew how to create an entire universe from practically nothing,” he said.

When Blake received the National Cinematography Award in 2012, the jury highlighted her attention to detail as well as her elegance and the creativity she used to turn a film’s wardrobe into one of its most striking features. But Blake was never one to look back over her achievements. “I neither think of nor live in the past,” she said. “I only think about the present. Once I’ve finished a job, it’s done and I forget about it.”

During her acceptance speech, however, she did allude to one incident in the past: “I arrived in Madrid in 1968 with a miniskirt that was so short that the civil guard who dealt with me was flabbergasted,” she told her audience.

‘My Fair Lady’

At 16, Blake won a scholarship to study art, design and sculpture at the Regional College of Art in Manchester. When she finished the course, she took her portfolio to Berman’s costume house in London, which produced designs for Hammer Studios. There she was offered the role of assistant to Cynthia Tingey, a design legend who not only did the costumes on set but also dressed the stars off screen.

In 1964, Blake was involved in My Fair Lady and, two years later, worked on Fahrenheit 451. “I really enjoyed working with Truffaut,” she said of Fahrenheit 451. “I even had a small cameo role.” But she was not credited for her collaborations on the big screen until Judith in 1966 with Sophia Loren. Then, at the end of the 1960s, she worked for the first time in Spain on two films – Duffy and A Talent for Loving, where she met the assistant director, Gil Carretero, who would become her husband. “The Gils have been fundamental to my life,” she joked, referring to both her husband and Gil Parrondo.

Blake claimed not to understand the meaning of retirement

The last of Blake’s 55 movie collaborations was There Be Dragons by Roland Joffé in 2011. “I’ve been very lucky and I should point out that I’ve never done anything else with my life,” she said.

However, it was not all plain sailing. Less than a year ago, she revealed that she had been raped by a famous American producer at the age of 24 while working on My Fair Lady. “It was a most undesirable and horrible experience,” she told the Huffpost. “On top of everything, he was someone famous and I was afraid. I couldn’t say anything to anyone about it. It was dreadful. In those days, I was ashamed to speak about it and only did so with my best friend.”

Despite all the gongs, Blake is mostly remembered for the leotard and tights she designed for Superman. “For each film, we made 20 to 25 outfits so that the actual joins wouldn’t been spotted during the different scenes and by the different camera angles,” she explained. “They are recognizable because they bear the Berman’s label. It was terribly difficult because the fabric didn’t breathe and because we had to find a shade of blue that didn’t blend with the chroma screens they used to simulate his flight.”

Of the many stars that she worked with, Blake’s fondest memories are of Audrey Hepburn. “She invited me to lunch at her house in Switzerland so I could show her the designs for Robin and Marian,” she said. “No sooner had we met than we were telling each other all kinds of things. It was a shame we had to dress her so ordinarily for the film – so different from the dresses Givenchy designed for her in Funny Face.”

After winning an Oscar for Nicholas and Alexandra, Blake’s next big project was Jesus Christ Superstar, which earned her one of her four BAFTA nominations. For years, she moved between Spain and her native Britain, working on major productions that included Harem with Ava Gardner and projects with Gonzalo Suárez and Vicente Aranda, not to mention Al Pacino in Looking for Richard. “I was always mindful of how Cynthia Tingey had worked; with attention to detail and adjusting the fabric to the era we were designing for,” she said in heavily accented Spanish that was liberally peppered with English phrases despite her years in Madrid.

The fifth woman to offer her services for free as the President of the Spanish Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences, Blake fought to broaden its horizons and encourage international associations. A member of BAFTA and the Academy, Blake had good contacts and she arranged a meeting between the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its Spanish counterpart in October 2017, with guests that included John Bailey, president of the Hollywood-based academy, and his advisor Dawn Hudson.

Blake was also one of the driving forces behind the Federation of Ibero-american Film Academies, which has its headquarters in Madrid and Mexico. Offering his condolences, Spain’s Culture and Education Minister José Guirao pointed out that Blake had been the first non-actor to receive a National Cinematography Award. “The award allowed Blake to make women more visible in cinema, something that is still necessary today.”

English version by Heather Galloway

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