University of the Arts London (UAL) student Helen Kingwell traced her ancestry back to the Holocaust for inspiration as part of her final year costume on the theatre Costume Design course at UAL’s Wimbledon College of Arts.

Being shown for the first time on Friday as part of the rehearsal for the annual costume design parade, Helen’s design looks at female identity on the theme of forced migration, coinciding with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January 2017.

Tracing the holocaust
Josephine Wilms-Caes, Helen Kingwell's great great grandmother

Josephine Wilms-Caes, Helen Kingwell’s great great grandmother

Helen’s great great grandmother, Josephine Wilms-Caes, was a political prisoner at six concentration camps including Ravensbrűk, during the Holocaust. She was captured, imprisoned and tortured by the Germans for helping UK and Belgian servicemen at Metro Café, Antwerp, which she ran. ‘Mama Caes’, as she was known for her warm personality, was awarded several medals for her role as a resistance fighter during the Second World War and survived until 1980, when her death was reported in the Manchester Evening News.

Commenting on the inspiration behind the costume design, Helen Kingwell, UAL costume design student, said: “I saw photos of Josephine and mapped her travel from Belgium across Europe as she was migrated to various different concentration camps. I was interested in her identity before leaving Belgium and the gradual process of the dehumanisation of female prisoners; the shaving of their heads, wearing uniforms and, as a result of the horrifying conditions, becoming sterile.”


Female identity through costume design

Helen’s final costume design not only looks at the Holocaust through issues of fertility and migration it also links to similarities between political systems and hierarchy in nature that entrap, restrain and alter female identity resulting in her final costume being named ‘Queen Bee’.


The nature of the hive and migration of bees is interesting in terms of hierarchy and systems – the Queen bee is trapped in her role as a producer in a cell. When a new queen becomes available, the workers kill the reigning queen. These issues are echoed in the fate queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII’s wives.


Helen said: “I wanted to combine all these elements into one design showing how they are inter-linked. Throughout history, clothing has represented our identity like nothing else – and so costume design is perfect for visualising and telling this story. I always think of the To Kill A Mockingbird quote: ‘You never really understand a person […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’. That’s what costumes allow us to do.”

Helen Kingwell's design for her Holocaust theatre costume

Helen Kingwell’s design for her Holocaust theatre costume


Describing her design, Helen said: “The ruff represents Queen Elizabeth, who for me, is the ultimate queen of history. Her identity was tied up with fertility which relates back to the Queen Bee, represented by the honeycomb-like shape of the ruff and the fur collar. The sterility of the holocaust is represented here with the tattered red children’s shoes in the stomach.”

Abigail Hammond, Costume Design Course Leader at UAL’s Wimbledon College of Arts, said: “Costume design isn’t just fashion and tailoring, its history and geography. Helen’s costume cleverly manages to weave complex themes about female identity into one design that really makes you think about the impact on women of forced migration.”

The prototype of Helen Kingwell’s costume will be shown at UAL Wimbledon College of Arts Theatre Costume Design Preview Show on Friday 27 January at 4.30pm and 6pm.

The full completed costume will be shown as part of the migration-themed UAL Wimbledon College of Arts annual costume parade in May 2017.