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Leeds West Indian Carnival
Credit for audio clip: Sonic City

Hughbon talks about the process of making costumes

(Recording credit: Sonic City)
I have been designing costumes since 1972 and it took something like five years before I actually made a winning carnival queen costume. I know nowadays people come into making costumes and they expect to make a winning costume the first time they actually make something and that's without actually spending any time with anyone or looking at how costumes are made in the first place. So I certainly have not, haven't had that kind of high expectation. 

But what I did do was always very keen on understanding, you know, why certain costumes won. I mean I remember  my very first costume - I  said to my family and to my friends ‘oh yeah that was a really great costume, it should have won - but if I'm really honest, on reflection,  you know it was not as good as the others. But even at that point I still was, I started off looking at movement, you know, as part of my costumes. Albeit my very first winning costume was not a costume that moved.  It was called a morning glory and I thought I understood, you know, what it was that made a difference in terms of costumes.  If you look at a photograph of any costume that's taken, quite often the peripheral of the costume is missing, you know,  from the photograph and all the focus is taken around, you know, the girl's face and the upper body and  I thought, well,  maybe what I should be doing is focusing more on that. This particular design I did exactly that. And I spent a great deal of time – at the time it was a great deal of time - just focusing on that area. You know, when it won it was a really good feeling - I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of , you know,  making a winning costume.  And that really inspired me to a great extent.  

But in truth you know winning became secondary. It has always been an opportunity, then, to create a new design, a new concept using new materials, creating brand new portrayals  - something that's never been done before.  Now, my strength as a designer, coming from an engineering background.  I say that because, when I was at school and I was thinking about a career,  I wanted to do art and my dad he sort of said, art is great he said, but quite often artists don't get any recognition until they die, you know, so you’re better off finding a proper job -  so I went into engineering. And I was very keen on, you know,  developing a mechanical engineering apprenticeship but that did the desire to want to constantly create and use my hands to bring ideas to life, you know, that sort of stayed with me,  so going back to the engineering,  I have always used engineering you know as part of the designs and there was even a time when people would comment that you know unless my costume did something,  it wouldn't win, because previously I have made costumes that  transformed from one thing to another , and the caterpillar/butterfly was probably one of the most renowned ones where this costume came out, looked very much like a caterpillar  - you couldn't see the girl or anything - all you could see was this mass of skin being dragged along in the middle of the crowd and it was a quite a big crowd because it was in a marquee and everyone's very close to the costume and then there was a mechanism that opened the front of the caterpillar and revealed the girl standing up in an upright position with some very small wings on her shoulders, and, of course, the crowd was very much delighted by that and you can see from the round of applause. What they didn't know was that within the caterpillar skin was also some wings that were folded up – were fifteen feet tall - and there was  a mechanism that then helped to sort of just split the wings, split the caterpillar skin open and then the wings just came up,  mechanically on their own - into an upright position and she didn't move off leaving the skin on the floor  - and, of course, the crowd quite loved that. 

And I designed this ship. If you think about a ship, I mean a ship isn't exactly a pretty thing - it's not a flower,  it's not a butterfly – you know, you can’t think of it being pretty. And it didn't convert from one to another.  I mean, what you saw was what you get, you know.  But this was quite imposing because what it did manage to do it was have the queen in the middle of the ship - who actually wore the ship on her shoulder - and you could see from the front a complete shape of a ship and it had the bow and the various sails, you know, up and above it. And I think one of the good things about this particular portrayal as well was that I managed to get some tune, you know, that was about a ship sailing around the world, which in a sense tied in quite well with the theme - because I wanted to show that within this particular theme, the concept that drew in the shipping of the slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, the slaves actually overtook the ship and you know sort of became admirals, you know.  

But this ship also had a portrayal of water around the ship as a ship sailing along creates a cut in the waves, and the way the waves moved in this portrayal, if you stood next to it, you can induce a kind of sickness, symptoms of feeling seasick. And, it's not an exaggerated claim, you know, several people said that they thought that when they stood next to the ship.  But the good thing about the ship as well was that the sails looked as though they were full of wind - you know - actually bowed and curved - but the irony was that they couldn't be fixed like a proper sail because once it goes on to the road and then the wind blows, then obviously that would become a problem,  because that’s what the sails are designed to do  - to capture the winds  and move along the ship. So I’ve had to design this so that if the wind was very strong, then the sails would allow the wind to go by without actually creating a proper sail effect. 
Last year’s costume was called the Bushwaria and, again, I used my mechanical ability to create, in effect, what was a structure system from the girl’s body, but, along it, it had some really big leaves and the leaves was held by a very small stem - almost like a reflection of the leaves you would see on the conker tree outside my window here and, if the truth be known, I was very much inspired by the way the leaves moved in the winds.  And that inspired the design.  But the trick was being able to create a design so that you know, you had this massive leave structure just being held by a small pivot point that, you know, could just blow in the wind and flop around – and, you know, sort of, be bashed around in the crowd as they often do in Carnival. Okay, this design was built because we didn't have a great deal of money and it was a question of how can I create something that was effective and only have a small amount of budget to make a good costume.  This question in effect was just a bit of fibre glass, some fabric, making the leaves and then I bought some spray equipment that allowed me then to focus on some of the details of how to use the colours, the contrasting colours,  to create the best effect and design won an award - you would see that it was very, very effective and it again that came first.