Costume Designer John Dunn On His Contrasting Approaches To Stylized Historical Series ‘Dickinson’ And ‘Hunters’07/06/2020
With Apple TV+ comedy Dickinson and Amazon’s Hunters, costume designer John Dunn seized the opportunity to examine weighty historical figures and momentous periods in time through a playful lens, striving in each case to contribute to a nuanced tonal space.
Created by Alena Smith, the former title unfurls the coming-of-age story of Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), an iconic American poet who boldly explored the constraints of society, gender and family, within her New England town, while fighting for her voice to be heard.
Known for his work on series including Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl and Mad Men, Dunn found Dickinson compelling, given what it revealed about its historical subject, while examining her through a modern lens “It was the most unexpected version of Emily Dickinson, certainly one that I wasn’t familiar with,” the six-time Emmy nominee says. “Because Emily Dickinson is sort of this woman trapped in amber, we just have this idea of a woman locked away in her bedroom, and there obviously was a whole life before she became that Emily Dickinson, if she ever even really was that Emily Dickinson.
“I’ve always thought that her poetry was so mind-blowing, and really moved the ball down the field,” the costume designer adds. “And in the scripts, I felt that they were exploring Emily as somebody who was potentially going to be doing something rather radical in her life.”
In his early conversations with Smith about the series, Dunn understood that his costumes would serve as a sort of historical anchor—grounding the poet in her 19th century setting, even as the writing at hand veered from it. “She was very committed to the idea of the clothing being quite accurate, as far as the period silhouette went, and she didn’t want anything jarring in that way,” Dunn explains. “[Given] what she was doing with the writing, I think she felt it would be best to contrast that with a very accurate depiction of the time.”
Subsequently, in his research for the series, the costume designer looked at everything he could. “I went to fashion magazines of the period. I went to the Metropolitan Museum numerous times, where they have actual garments and fabric swatches. I also went to the Fashion Institute of Technology here in New York,” he says. “So, those resources were very valuable.”
For Dunn, digging into the year 1850, in which Season 1 was set, proved a revelation. “It was mind-blowing to see that our perception of that period is sort of dark and gloomy, because our physical evidence that we have, photographs primarily, are sepia toned or black and white. But it was not in any way an accurate depiction of what the clothing was like,” the costume designer says. “The interesting thing to me is that so much of how we think of that period, and that century even, is colored by the Civil War, and also Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who fell into deep tragedy, but that wasn’t until the 1860s.
“When I went to the museums and got fabric swatches, and read about the fabric colors, and the patterns, they were being extraordinarily vibrant and radical, in their mixing of fabrics and patterns and colors, and I thought that would be really interesting to look at,” he adds, “because it was something that was lively and colorful, and not everything sort of washed out in sepia tone.”
While leaning into the gorgeous exuberance of 1850s clothing, it would also be important to create Dickinson’s costumes through period-accurate techniques. “I have very skilled craftspeople who were working with me, and many of them had worked on period productions before,” Dunn notes. “It wasn’t your regular costume shop of just doing alterations. It was folks who were really well versed in accurate costume construction.”
Achieving period accuracy with the show’s costumes meant eschewing machine sewing, as much as possible, in favor of the sewing techniques of the 19th century. “We did a lot of handwork, and we imported a lot of fabrics from England, because there are houses that are still making fabrics that were around at that time,” Dunn explains. “And we really limited ourselves to the range of fabrics that we would use on the show, because the clothing comes together in a different way, if you’re not making it with more modern fabrics.”
Taking patterns from period-accurate garments, Dunn and his team would ultimately dress the series’ cast in all of the layers they would have worn, if they had lived during Dickinson’s time. “The actresses were all wearing corsets, and they wore 10 petticoats at a time, and all the foundation garments. So, it was really quite accurate,” the costume designer says. “But again, it was much more colorful than we’re used to looking at from other TV shows and film projects.”
For Dunn, Amazon drama Hunters was a world apart from Dickinson, in terms of its subject matter, the aesthetic of its costumes, and the way in which they were brought into the fold.
Set in 1977 New York City, David Weil’s series follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters that work to prevent a Fourth Reich in the U.S., following the discovery that Nazi war criminals are hiding out in the country.
With Hunters, Dunn was dressing a group of superhero-type characters, who also needed to blend in with the New Yorkers they were interacting with. “So, I decided that the simplest thing to do was to really give them a basic, iconic silhouette and look that was riffed on throughout the season,” he notes. “[Tiffany Boone’s] Roxy, for example, was very much influenced by people like Angela Davis, but also Cleopatra Jones of the Blaxploitation films.”
From the costume designer’s perspective, the process of crafting looks for real-world superheroes was helped along by the heightened aesthetic of the period, in which this show took place. “The ’70s did have a pretty theatrical look to it, between the bell-bottoms and belts, and the men’s shirts. It was easy to do a slightly heightened [look], but I didn’t want them to be cartoony,” Dunn reflects. “So, I always based them in a very real look, and I didn’t vary their looks very much, so that they just were pretty much consistently wearing the same sort of outfit for the entire season.”
In the case of Hunters, it made sense for Dunn to source lots of vintage clothing, rather than creating every piece from scratch. “From the various shows that I’ve done since Boardwalk Empire, I have a really strong network of vintage vendors that I’ve used for the various periods that I’ve worked on. I just would describe the sorts of clothing I was looking for, and the vintage dealers would hone in on that, and send me clothing to shop from,” he says, of his costume search. “So, it was a lot of resourcing really from across the country, but I definitely wanted to give [the costumes] a gritty New York edge.”
In terms of elements that Dickinson and Hunters had in common, the most obvious would be the use of fantasy sequences. In the case of Dickinson, fantastical costumes served to reflect the interior world of a young writer, which was being actively suppressed by the world around her.
“A lot of Emily’s fantasy moments riff on the poetry that she was writing at the time, and there was a wildness to what she was doing in these little scraps of paper that would be things that she couldn’t really do as a proper, young American woman,” Dunn explains. “So, we did want to heighten and exaggerate things a little bit, but still being Emily. [She] had a very serious purpose with what she was doing there, so I didn’t want to do things that were too comical. They needed to sometimes have even a sinister edge to them, just because it was something that she was doing secretly.”
In Hunters, fourth-wall-breaking moments simply served to counterbalance the gravity of the subject at hand. “The topic is so serious, and needs to be treated with respect, and the weight of what it is that you’re expressing and dealing with, but there is also the human need to play a little bit,” Dunn remarks. “So, I think without getting too disrespectful, we really wanted to get playful with the clothing in the fantasy moments, which are pretty funny. But that was a very, very fine line to be walking along.”
While working on the Amazon series, it was the balance of tone and mood that Dunn kept coming back to, as he went about his work. “It’s a delicate balance of creating the tone and the mood for each show, and Hunters is a very complicated one, in that a deadly serious topic is at the forefront of the story,” he says. “So, just striking the right balance and tone is the biggest challenge of a project like that.”
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