May Routh, costume designer who turned Daryl Hannah into a mermaid – obituary

May Routh in 2003 - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
May Routh in 2003 - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

May Routh, who has died aged 87, was an Emmy-nominated illustrator and designer who created costume sketches and designs for David Bowie, Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole, for Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees in the 1978 jukebox musical Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and, perhaps most famously, she made Daryl Hannah’s mermaid costume in Splash!

She began her career as an artist on fashion magazines and for advertising companies across London. By her own admission, the dawn of the Swinging Sixties made illustrators largely redundant: “Work dried up because everything was photography.”

So she took a position teaching at a London art school, where one of her students was Freddie Mercury. The pair would later reunite when she designed the costumes for Queen’s music video Body Language (1982). It became the first to be banned by MTV, for its exposure of flesh – though the band themselves remained fully clothed.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

She made her feature-film debut on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring Bowie as the alien visitor.

“Bowie was unlike any other movie star out there, so consequently my costume design was out there too!” May Routh recalled. “My drawing was supposed to resemble grey woven plastic that was protective enough to pass through the atmosphere. It was tricky, it had to be glued and not sewn together, but the clever studio creatives and I made it work.”

Despite Bowie’s exotic aura, she found the star surprisingly friendly.

“What was interesting about him was that he was so helpful – especially in designing the special effects costumes. At the time I didn’t realise it was anything special, I thought all actors were going to be like him – big mistake.”

Ida May Routh was born in India on July 12 1934 and grew up in the colourful metropolis of Jabalpur, “the Marble City”, before her parents sent her to boarding school near Brighton. From there, she enrolled at St Martins School of Art & Design in London.

Upon graduation, she found work as a mannequin artist, commissioned by British fashion houses and department stores, followed by stints at Elle and Vogue.

When photography began replacing illustrators, as well as teaching she began working as assistant costume designer on films such as Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) – a job she got through her then boyfriend, the photographer Brian Duffy, who had set up a film company with Len Deighton. She also worked on Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973).

After working with the Bee Gees on Sgt Pepper, she designed touring costumes for the band.

May Routh received Emmy nominations for her work on the television film Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter (1991) and the mini-series Andersonville (1996). Her other film credits included Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), starring Peter Sellers. “I found Mr Sellers had good and bad days,” she recalled. “Mostly bad.”

Daryl Hannah in Splash! (1984)
Daryl Hannah in Splash! (1984)

During the 1980s her film credits included My Favourite Year (1982), starring Peter O’Toole as an aged and tipsy matinee idol, and Splash! (1984), for which May Routh designed Daryl Hannah’s figure-hugging mermaid outfit to resemble a dolphin’s skin.

By the end of the decade, she realised that original costume designs were being replaced by pieces bought off the shelf. But she continued working, mainly in television, including the sci-fi drama Roswell (1994) and the 2004 TV movie about Charles Manson and his murderous acolytes, Helter Skelter. She later taught costume design at Woodbury University in California.

May Routh married, first, Adrian Bailey. After that marriage ended she was partner to Brian Eatwell, who had been production designer on The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Three Musketeers. He died in 2007 and May Routh is survived by two stepdaughters.

May Routh, born July 12 1934, died June 1 2022