Who can forget that iconic moment as Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, in the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, emerged from the lake at Pemberley in that drenched white shirt? Firth became an overnight sex symbol and the shirt became an emblem of the romantic allure of period drama.

In March, the billowing shirt fetched a whopping £25,000 at auction. It was just one of 69 lots of costumes worn by a who’s who of cinema including Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Heath Ledger and Margot Robbie, and created by costume house Cosprop, founded by award-winning costume designer John Bright, who splits his time between London, where Cosprop is based, and his country retreat just outside Hastings.

The proceeds of the auction went to The Bright Foundation in Sussex, set up by Bright in 2022 to support access to the arts for children and young people facing disadvantage in the Hastings area, where child poverty levels are among the highest in the country. Also donating lots were the foundation’s distinguished ambassadors, who have all worked with Bright, and include Dame Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry and Richard E Grant. Sussex resident Hugh Bonneville pledged a lunch and theatre set visit and Johnny Depp, who Cosprop dressed for Pirates of the Caribbean and Sleepy Hollow, gifted an original artwork he had created, raising over £16,000.

The £418,00 raised in the auction ‘exceeded all our expectations’, Polly Risbridger, CEO of The Bright Foundation, told Sussex Life. The funds, she says, will help the foundation ‘to use arts and creativity to empower children and young people to achieve their dreams and to support them to develop their interests and their passions’. To date, more than 5000 people have benefitted from the foundation, which pairs with local schools with a high proportion of children receiving free school meals, as well as providing programmes for looked-after children and children with special needs.

The foundation’s primary site, The Barn Theatre and Museum, located beside Bright’s home in Westfield, has ‘a very calm and welcoming atmosphere’, says Polly. Set within 24 acres of beautiful countryside, it comprises a 50-seat children’s theatre and a museum displaying Bright’s extraordinary collection of vintage toys, model theatre sets and puppets – a passion since childhood and his gateway into costume design.

‘Because we’re quite a small venue, people feel really cared for when they come to visit,’ Polly says. Both schools and their students benefit from the opportunity to make puppets, participate in a performance or watch a high-quality production. ‘We’re really aware of how the Arts is being squeezed in the curriculum,’ she explains. ‘For many children, it’s their first experience of coming to the theatre.’

The Benbow Arts Space, which opened in Leonards-on-Sea at the end of May and includes an exhibition space exploring the history of cinema, now extends the foundation’s support to those interested in the film industry. Offering skills training and career advice, the centre hopes to inspire a new generation of filmmakers.

As for Bright, he has always had an interest in show business, and at the age of 84, shows little sign of retiring. When, as a teenager, he grew tired of making outfits for his puppets, he immersed himself in the world of amateur and professional theatre, helping to create the costumes as well as treading the boards. Costume design won out in the end, but only because it seemed a more stable career path. ‘I always wanted to act but my father wouldn’t hear of it so he enrolled me in a local technical college to do dress design,’ Bright explains. As a graduate, he had an opportunity to make decent money designing for a London boutique, but it was the theatre that called to him and by the age of 25 he had founded his own costume company, Cosprop.

Doing everything − from the historical research and fabric sourcing to the pattern-cutting, embroidery and button sewing − Cosprop has created some of the silver screen’s most memorable looks. In 1986, they received the ultimate accolade when Jenny Beavan and John Bright won both a BAFTA and an Oscar for the costumes in Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View starring Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. A costume parade for Sir John Gielgud’s 1975 production of The Gay Lord Quek was ‘a total disaster’, says Bright. It took so long that one cast member ‘became so drunk during the day that he lurched onto the stage and fell over’, recalls Bright, who bore the brunt of the director’s displeasure, while a giggling Dame Judi Dench and Dame Siân Phillips couldn’t help but see the funny side.

When it comes to the costume fitting, ‘everyone reacts differently’. ‘Ralph Fiennes will use it to grow into the character and that’s marvellous to see,’ explains Bright, who spent time working with the actor on a look for The Dig (2021) that helped to age him, while drawing out his striking features. Others can be more challenging. Bright had to cajole Tom Cruise into wearing a peaked cap in Far And Away (1992), while Pulborough resident Dame Maggie Smith ‘will say very quickly, oh, I don’t like this’. Much like the brusque characters she often plays, she is, says Bright with affection, ‘more than direct’.

Other challenges include the sourcing of antique fabrics, which are often no longer in production. ‘Sometimes you have to cheat a little bit,’ confides Bright. Mounting modern velvets and satins onto other fabrics, for example, helps recreate the thickness and weight these materials had in the past. But it’s ‘the availability of actors’, that Bright finds the biggest issue. They have very full schedules, he explains, and getting film stars to fittings can be a real mission.

It's ‘the amount of work that goes into each image’ that people often underestimate, says Bright. ‘What they see doesn’t exist somewhere, someone has had to draw all those elements together to make that look.’ The outfits of the extras are also crucial. ‘They make the background, a showcase for the principal artists in the scene,’ says Bright. ‘It’s very much like a painting – you have to flat it in and then bring out the important parts.’

Saying goodbye to his extraordinary creations is ‘fine’, says Bright, ‘because it’s for a good cause and the ones that I know about have gone to good homes.’ Mr Darcy’s shirt, for example, can now be enjoyed by a wider public. It was bought by the Bankfield Museum in Halifax, just an hour’s drive from Lyme Park where the memorable lake scene was filmed.

Are there any costumes that he can’t bear to part with? Some of the principals’ costumes from the Merchant Ivory era, Bright admits, are of sentimental value. But the projects at Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea come first and even these outfits, he says, will be auctioned in time. For now, however, he’ll hold onto them. ‘I know their complete history,’ he says. ‘They’re like old friends’.

To find out more, visit www.thebrightfoundation.org.uk and www.cosprop.com.