Image of the gates of the Liverpool Cathedral

Jane Greenwood

Oration

Presented by: Gillian Reynolds

This is a truly civic university, firmly rooted in this extraordinary city, and its defining ethos is held in three deceptively simple yet very powerful words: dream, plan, achieve.

Each July during Graduation Week, the University's highest honour – an Honorary Fellowship – is bestowed on a select band of individuals from outside the University, in recognition of their outstanding achievement in a given field or profession. These people both personify and inspire others to 'dream, plan, and achieve'. 

We propose Jane today for her outstanding contributions to the fields of design and the arts, following a stellar career in costume design for the theatre, opera, dance and film spanning more than 50 years. 

She has progressed from dressing dolls in 1950s Liverpool to dressing Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway, and in the process has received 15 Tony nominations (the Oscars of the theatre world) and been inducted into the US Theater Hall of Fame. 

Born in Liverpool in 1934, she showed an early interest in costume design: "I liked dressing my dolls when I was a little girl. I always liked that but I didn't know that this was what I wanted to do. Sometimes I would go to the theatre and think I wanted to be a dancer or an actress because it all fascinated me. When you don't have much experience you see the obvious thing. Then I realised that what I really loved, and what I was always talking about, was what everybody wore."

She owes her early interest in costume and the theatre to her grandmother and aunt, respectively: "At the start of World War Two I was five, and was evacuated with my grandmother to Wales. She was an excellent seamstress and made many of my doll' clothes, at my insistence and to my designs. Then I was fortunate to return to Liverpool when all the theatres were getting back to normal. My aunt took me all the time to wonderful theatre and dance, to see people like Margot Fonteyn and John Gielgud."

Jane studied watercolour, anatomy and life drawing at the Liverpool School of Art, and owes a debt to a teacher there who considered her work to be very theatrical, and encouraged her to aim high and go to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, which specialised in theatre design. The Central tutors at that time included some of the great names in costume design, such as Norah Waugh and Margaret Woodward, who helped her lay the foundations of her future career. It was here she realised that costumes fascinated her. 

Since 1976, she in turn has influenced countless students through her role as Professor of Design at the Yale School of Drama. She says that it is a very great treat for her to work with her Yale students after they have graduated: "There is something wonderful about having young people around who are exciting and creative, and have their fingers on the pulse."

Jane's advice for anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps is: "Look! Look at everything! Remember things! Make your eye your strongest instrument- because it's looking at what you see that you're able to absorb and use it. I'm never bored at airports, I spend my time looking at people and thinking, "now what do they do?" and "why did they choose to wear that?" and "who are they?"

Her first job after college was designing and making clothes, running the costume shop at the Oxford Playhouse. Here she met the visionary stage designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who invited Jane to work on a new Canadian Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. In 1960, this involved a six day journey, by transatlantic boat and transcontinental train, but she continued to return to Stratford each year until 1962, when she was offered a job in a Manhattan costume shop. 

In New York she met and married the set designer and producer Ben Edwards, and her long association with Broadway began. His request that she design the costumes for the 1963 play 'The Ballad of the Sad Café' set her on her current path: "The play is set in the American South, and I said I'd never been to the South. He said 'just do the research – look at the photographs.' And I've continued to do that all my life."

When she is preparing for a production, she says, "I talk with the director about his ideas and his concept. Then I go off and look into the place, the time, the period, the atmosphere of it all. I go to libraries, go to museums, go to my own bookshelves, go online. And I have very good assistants who are infinitely better at going online than I am. I amass a tremendous amount of material about the subject. And I do that pretty rigorously before I really start to design." 

She feels very strongly that "it is very important to really know the play, and if the playwright is alive, to talk about who these people are. That's what you're creating - the people, who they are, what they would wear. Whether it's a fantasy, an enormous musical or a small kitchen-sink play, each time you're coming at it with the hope that you're going to enrich the piece visually for the audience."

Jane has continued to "enrich the piece visually" through over 125 stage and screen productions spanning almost 50 years, collecting several major awards along the way, for both individual productions and for lifetime achievement. After so many years, she still continues to dream ("it's the next challenge that's exciting!"), to plan fastidiously and to achieve, and to encourage the next generation to do the same. 

Thus, it is with great pleasure that I present Jane Greenwood, this most distinguished daughter of our city, for admission to our highest honour, as an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.