By Julie K.L. Dam
March 06, 2000 12:00 PM

Costume designer Jenny Beavan is no sadist, to be sure, but Jodie Foster might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. During filming of Anna and the King, last year’s lavish, nonmusical film based on the story told in The King and I, Beavan’s staff regularly shoehorned Foster, 37, into a getup that included a tightly laced corset, a crinoline cage made of steel hoops, a camisole, bloomers and a dress made from 12 yards of fabric—all in the sweltering heat of Malaysia, where the movie was filmed. Such misery (which Foster minimized during close-ups by slipping into beach shorts) was all in the name of historical accuracy. As the cheerful designer puts it, the 1860s were, sartorially speaking, “not a happy period.”

Beavan, however, is reveling in the happiest of periods. Last week the 49-year-old Londoner—who has stitched up a reputation as filmdom’s hottest designer for big costume dramas—snagged an Academy Award nomination for her work on Anna. “I’m completely thrilled,” she says. Though Beavan has already won an Oscar for 1986’s A Room with a View and garnered nominations for Sense and Sensibility, Howards End and others, “Anna is the biggest thing I’ve ever done.” Says Foster: “She had one of the hardest jobs. Her department was miraculous.”

In eight months, Beavan and her staff of 60 whipped up a mind-boggling 6,000 outfits from nine miles of silks, cottons and brocades, most of which she bought for cash at wholesale fabric shops in the Far East. Total cost? About $1 million. “We made two of almost everything,” says Beavan, “because of the humidity and the crashing thunderstorms.” Other problems included the ripping of Foster’s too-long skirt by Chow Yun-Fat (the King of Siam), who trod on it during a banquet scene, and the 4-in. growth spurt of Keith Chin, 12, who played the King’s oldest son. (“It was such luck we had enough fabric to remake his costume!” she says.)

To figure out how to make convincing duds for a 19th-century Siamese royal family, Beavan spent weeks buried in old books and photographs at the British Library in London and historic costumes at a museum in Thailand. Says director Andy Tennant: “She was a kid in a candy store.” As for the two top stars, they were so taken with the costumes that Chow asked to keep some of his richly hued silk jackets and draped pants, and Foster took some of the children’s outfits for her son Charles, 19 months. (“He can’t fit into them quite yet,” Foster says. “But I’m very excited.”) The only historical deviation was Beavan’s use of light colors on the widow Anna—who would have worn dark mourning clothes—so that Foster would stand out onscreen. “My brief was to be as authentic as possible,” she says. “But it’s still a film and a romantic story.”

The designer’s own story is almost as romantic. The older of two daughters of Molly, a violinist who died in 1964, and Peter, a cellist who died in 1996, she studied stage design at London’s Central School of Art and Design. While she was creating sets for theatrical productions in London in 1978, a friend recommended her to help with Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s wardrobe for a James Ivory-Ismail Merchant TV movie. Ashcroft took her to the shoot in India, and Beavan’s passion for costuming—along with her collaboration with the Merchant-Ivory team—was born. “Today people are measuring other films to what we have done,” says Merchant, “and that is a great credit for Jenny.”

Beavan lives in a rambling 19th-century London house with 14-year-old daughter Caitlin. (She separated from Caitlin’s dad, theater director Ian Albery, in 1995.) The designer is already at work on her next project: a comedy about a medieval theme-park worker who travels through time. “Sort of loose 14th century,” Beavan says of the costumes. “No corsets!”

Julie K.L Dam

Liz Corcoran in London