Ray Diffen, stage costumer extraordinaire, died on March 30, 2012, aged 90, one year after finishing his memoir, Ray Diffen Stage Clothes, named for the costume workshop he established in New York City in 1956. From there he supervised costume construction in Stratford, Ontario, Stratford Connecticut, and The Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, after honing his craft at the Shakespeare Festival Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the United Kingdom.
Throughout his career, Ray hired young people with talent to join his workshop, and encouraged them to “make things,” as he had done in his mother’s workshop in Brighton where she supported her children as a dressmaker.
When World War II broke out, Ray served in the Royal Air Force. He became a Morse code instructor at Compton Bassett in Wiltshire and joined the Station’s Dramatic Society, where he met Laurier Lister, a sergeant in the RAF who directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ray played Starveling, the Tailor, and helped with the costumes.
Posted to Belgium, Ray worked in signals until the Germans retreated at war’s end.
Lister helped him get started in civilian theatre. While in Stratford-upon-Avon for a play preview, Ray discovered the Shakespeare Festival Memorial Theatre workrooms:
“I crossed the road from the stage door to a little alleyway, between two of the cottages on Waterside. There I found a rabbit warren of workrooms, painting and dyeing shops, armour and millinery workrooms, including a huge stock of old Shakespearean costumes, some dating back to Henry Irving. ENCHANTMENT!”
“I was just a useful pair of hands, told to make hats, props, jewelry…” said Desmond. “When Ray saw one of my first efforts he tossed it across the room. I was crushed.”
“If you’re going to cry, go to the loo, have a bloody good cry if you must, but come back and start over,” said Ray.
“I did just that,” said Desmond. “Haven’t been afraid to experiment ‘hands-on’ ever since.”
Post-war privations meant low wages and scarce resources. Directors Michael Benthall, Anthony Quayle, Tyrone Guthrie and John Gielgud, and actors Paul Scofield, Robert Helpmann, Richard Burton, Diana Wynyard and Claire Bloom created exciting productions. By necessity, the costume crew invented techniques and processes to create the illusion of the richness and ornamentation of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, as well as the fantasy costumes required for Shakespeare’s repertoire. This became known as the “Stratford Look.” Ray soon exported it.
When thirty years old, in France on his first vacation, Ray met an American, Harry Good, and fell in love. They became life and business partners. Ray returned to England to wrap up his work there and emigrate to America to join Harry in New York City. And Tyrone Guthrie recruited Ray Diffen for the new Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.
In his memoir, “In Spite of Myself,” Christopher Plummer recalls Guthrie’s excitement about starting this new theatre.
“Money! Raise it! Going to need a lot of it. . . . I’ll choose the plays and the actors, but you’ll need a star; I’ll find one—ditto, a lady warhorse. . . . Don’t forget costumes—find a space—gather every seamstress you can. I’ll send Ray Diffen, best cutter there is—he’ll make ’em. Tanya will design ’em.”
In 1956 at Guthrie’s suggestion, Ray set up a workshop in New York City to make clothes for a show he was to direct, with Motley as designer. Ray and Harry raised $2,000, set up a partnership and found rooms on 58th St, above an all-night deli. They furnished the workshop with tables, dressmaker dummies, sewing machines, and, for their fitting room, a large mirror and white fur rug. They bid on the job and lost.
New shop, no show! Yet within a few years there was steady work from a loyal group that included designers Alvin Colt, Leslie Hurry, Cecil Beaton, Donald Brooks, and Dorothy Jeakins; directors Michael Langham, Sir John Gielgud; actors Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, Hume Cronyn, Christopher Plummer, Paul Scofield, Jessica Tandy; and producers Frederick Brisson and Roger L. Stevens.
Returning to New York between seasons in Ontario, Ray found employment with influential designer Charles James, where he met others who reappeared in his career: designer Patricia Zipprodt, and Lon Whitney, who later became his head draper.
Ray sponsored Jane Greenwood, a draper in Ray’s Ontario workshop, for employment in the US, offered her the use of his friend Peter de Rome’s apartment, and gave her work. When her focus moved to designing, she brought him shows, as well as young people whom she taught. Jane has been nominated for fifteen Tony Awards, is on the faculty at Yale, and has designed more than 100 shows for theatre, opera, dance and film.
When Tyrone Guthrie left Stratford, Ontario to start a new theatre in Minneapolis, Ray’s shop built its first
costumes. Designers Desmond Heeley, Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Roth brought in shows. In the ’70s Ray Diffen Stage Clothes became the “go-to” shop for dance companies. Working with Willa Kim on designs for the Joffrey Ballet Company, they invented a laborious technique for hand-painting and embellishing dance costumes that could be successfully machine washed and dried. This innovation created a turning point in dance design, adopted wherever possible by designers and dance companies, and recognized by the general public with the Broadway success of Cats.
One day Ray got a call to remake some costumes for the Metropolitan Opera Company that had been destroyed in a warehouse fire. After producing and delivering them, he recognized an affinity for the task—it reminded him of his Shakespeare days—strong historic and dramatic epics that called for the visual integration of lush costumes and sets to evoke maximum emotional impact.
When he was asked to head up the Met’s costume shop, he said yes, passing on the daily operations of his workshop to one of his protégés, Sally Ann Parsons. In addition to supervising the Met’s costume production, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to design as well: Adriana Lecouvreur, Eugene Onegin and Don Carlo. Though he found the stories and music unfamiliar at first, Harry Good’s extensive record collection, and Ray’s assistant David O. Roberts’ passion for opera revealed a world he came to love.
Two years later, when politics at the Met had changed, Ray’s contract was not renewed. It was one of the biggest disappointments of his life. He briefly returned to his own workshop, was asked to supervise costumes for the Muppets, taught at Yale and designed and produced costumes for Sarah Caldwell, director of the Opera Company of Boston.
When regime change at the Met occurred once again, he was asked to return as Resident Costume Designer. Determined to learn from his experience, he rallied and inspired the talented staff, and became renowned for his deft handling of the egos and bodies of the stars who sang in this multi-storied red, gold and crystal temple to the music gods.
Ten years on he retired to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, to set about writing his memoir. It starts when he accepts the first Irene Sharaff Benchmark Award, created to recognize craftspeople and other professionals, other than costume designers, who made significant contributions to the art of costume design.
In his acceptance speech, he talks about fitting Elizabeth Taylor in her Irene Sharaff designed wedding dressfor her first marriage to Richard Burton.
“When we entered the suite, Miss Taylor, in a dressing gown, holding her beautiful head in her hands, was sitting on the bed. She had a hangover! We started the fitting. . . then I asked if I could see the emerald brooch to match the ribbon samples. . . . Her jewels were kept in the hotel safe. . . (in) a large carpet bag, containing several million dollars worth of jewelry. Elizabeth opened it, reached for a black velvet bag and withdrew the brooch. She then rubbed it on her backside, to shine it up, and handed it to me. It was an oblong emerald. . . surrounded by diamonds the size of peas. Exquisite! I had to match the colour of this beautiful brooch to a piece of half-inch satin ribbon worth fifty cents a yard!”
In October 2011 when Ray read that Christie’s had announced The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor world tour and auction, he informed the curators that he had made Taylor’s yellow chiffon wedding dress. Included in the online press release and catalogue, its value at auction was estimated to be $40,000 to $60,000. However, before the auction started, the Taylor estate withdrew the dress, announcing that it would be donated to a major American institution.
Long may Miss Taylor, her yellow wedding dress, and Ray’s story be remembered.
Ray Diffen is survived by nephew Peter Davis, niece Jacqueline (Mrs. John) Dorkings, both of Eastbourne, UK, Lindsey (Mrs. Keith) Fernay of Brighton, UK, several great-nieces and -nephews, and colleagues, friends, and protégés around the world.