One of the amazing aspects of any film or television show is the artistry that goes into its wardrobe selections and costume designs. One such outstanding artist is costume designer Karyn Wagner whose work has been seen throughout films such as “The Notebook” and “The Green Mile” and the television series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, UNDERGROUND and PREACHER. Costume selection and costume designs always make a film/show even more engaging and stunning to watch. When done with a vision and creatively-inspired eye, costume design invokes a visual tapestry of color and style and becomes a masterpiece of art. In an exclusive interview, costume designer Karyn Wagner reveals all the inspirations she turned to while creating the visual look for the characters of WGN America’s groundbreaking drama series UNDERGROUND, as well as sharing the lessons she has learned about working in film and television costume design through her exciting career.
You have had a long career as a costume designer for both film and television. What gave you the first opportunity to work in this field?
KARYN: My mother used to tell people that I had been a people watcher from the time I was in my stroller, that I would nearly fall out while watching people. I think it must have started there; I must have learned how to imbibe the spirit of other people through observing what they wear. It’s all about story. More prosaically, I was a camera assistant when I started in the business, but after a couple years in a very male dominated part of the field, moved over to try Costumes. It was a great fit and there I’ve been every since! My degree is in Painting and in Art History; I like to say that I paint with extras and reference so many wonderful paintings in a lot of my work.
Then how did the opportunity come about to work as a costume designer on WGN’s UNDERGROUND?
KARYN: I fell in love with the project because the characters were so self-defining, so determined to be in charge of their own destiny. For years the story has been about how enslaved or Jim Crow victims were saved by someone outside their own culture or community, but this story had these people freeing themselves. That was very inspiring. I also loved how strongly written everyone was, such complete and fully formed characters, whether you liked them or not. And I wanted to try something new, go out on a limb with the costumes. Reinvent the wheel a bit, if you will. Fortunately, Joe Pokaski and Misha Green wanted the same thing. So we all put our heads together; the three of us, plus Anthony Hemingway and the PD Meghan Rogers, and started to play.
What was the initial appeal to work on the show?
KARYN: I was initially connected to Joe and Misha through my agent at Sandra Marsh Agency. Michael Vasquez has a very good nose for what projects will be a good fit for me.
What were the specific challenges of creating distinct character looks for the costumes this season on UNDERGROUND?
KARYN: They really fell into two groups this season. The first was creating historical characters that we know lived then, often with little to go on. For Frederick Douglas, there are numerous photos depicting him as an educated aspirational man. We have his letters, which show him to be literate, and with handwriting that showed he was no stranger to the written word. And we have a lot of pictures of him, a man committed to his cause, which shows in the forthright way he addresses the lens. His clothing is subdued, as befits an intellectual of means. Harriet Tubman was another matter. We have only a few photographs of her, one of which was discovered in an album of carte de visite’ whilst we were filming, but it is of a much younger woman. There are only two known extant photos from roughly around our period which show her as the record states; a pious and very serious woman. Her eyes are fierce, her face determined. This very much informed the costume, fabric and silhouette choices for her. For ‘Minty’, the episode in which she gives an impassioned “Ted Talk” about abolitionism, I referenced the above and also Frederick Douglas’s title for her: The General. So the costume had a bit of a militaristic feel. All of my choices were also informed by the personal power of Aisha Hinds. She is an incredible powerhouse of a woman for whom I have immense respect. I wanted to support her as much as possible. Another group of people for whom there is literally no known record AT ALL, pre emancipation, was the Gullah Geetchee of Hilton Head Plantation. They were largely comprised of people stolen from some eleven geographically close West African tribes; they formed a new culture in this country, including their own language. Because this was a rice plantation, thus largely containing a lot of water, the white plantation owners often contracted mosquito born diseases like malaria, which the West Africans were immune to. So the whites moved to Charleston leaving their slaves to their own devices as long as the work got done. This left much of the Africans’ culture intact. I got to invent this culture from scratch. I used the color schemes of Dutch Wax Fabric, (http://www.messynessychic.com/2015/10/30/made-in-holland-the-chanel-of-africa/ for example) which is quite bright and many of the fabrics from India that would have been used to trade for slaves in Africa. This is an anomaly that often happens, people adopt the colors and fabrics and beads of the very goods that were used for slave trading because it signifies wealth and social standing. So a lot of bright colors and a bit more skin than usual showing, as they were not under the thumb of Christian moralizing Victorians.
Do you create character wardrobes for the season or for each episode? And how much prep time do you need to create a look for each character?
KARYN: I do create each character’s costumes (we don’t use the word wardrobe in my field :-)) for the season depending on what has happened or happening story wise to them during the season. As for prep time…(LOL) what I need and what I get are very different things, so I have learned to design in arcs, each costume being a kind of keystone for the whole arc except for very special ones, like Elizabeth’s Can-Can dress or Rosalee’s red dress last season. And quite quickly.
What is it like creating costumes for such a talented ensemble, including Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Jessica de Gouw, Aisha Hinds, and Aldis Hodge?
KARYN: It’s a wonderful but huge responsibility. This is such an important subject matter and I want to represent it responsibly, ethically but powerfully. Each of these people, also including Amirah Vahn, Sadie Stratton and Alano Miller, bring such powerful understanding of their characters and bring it with their whole hearts and souls. So I want to reflect and support that as well. We had a lot of changes this year, I had to hide Jurnee’s (real) pregnancy for a few episodes and also address her personal journey from housegirl to Underground ‘cargo mover’, Jessica de Gouw as widowed, but even more vehemently committed to the cause, Alano as a wealthy freeman, Aisha as Harriet of course, and Amirah, who loses everything but must find herself again in her desire to reunite with her now scattered children. Sadie Stratton played Patty Canon, the infamous slave catcher. I played with the very fashionable green color that was all the vogue at that time but an incredibly poisonous dye, called Paris Green. It made people who wore too much of it go insane and was based in Arsenic. We had an amazing cast and I can’t tell you what a delight it was to work and collaborate with them.
Were there any favorite costumes that you got to work on?
KARYN: So many, it’s hard to know where to start! I loved designing Cato this season, and also his girlfriend Devi. It was nice to escape worn down clothing for a moment and design something fancy and upscale because I had so much latitude to play with that grouping. But I also loved the challenge of hiding Rosalee’s pregnancy, it’s a kind of visual Quantum Mechanics where you should see something but you don’t (if you get the shape just right). There was a very short scene in which we played at the Moulin Rouge. I’ve always wanted to play with that dynamic (dress/undress/mix of classes) and got a little taste of it. And Ernestine among the Gullah-Geetchee. Harriet; we’ve already talked about that. I could go on and on.
What was your favorite part about working on this project?
KARYN: I would say that my favorite part was how creative I got to be, how much I loved my cast and my wonderful crew. I also loved the very close relationship I had with the production designer, the set decorator and the prop master. We had constant and evolving conversations about the scripts’ requirements it it was so nice to collaborate so closely with one another.
What has been the one thing you have taken away from the experience of working on UNDERGROUND?
KARYN: In a very current sense, this project is timely. The takeaway is that history has been written by a particular set of people, but when you dig a little deeper there are many other realities that don’t resemble the one we are taught in school. That this country is diverse and built by many hands, not all of them willing. That it is important to remember that this country is largely built by the cheap labor of immigrants; enslaved people at Underground’s point in history but later but Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, Hispanics and so many others. Some escaping persecution, some here voluntarily hoping to build a better life. It was so strange to be immersed in this project for the better part of two years, feeling as though I was helping to tell the story of ‘Americans’ and to wake up and find that ‘America for Americans’ doesn’t include so many groups of people that I thought it did. It was like waking into a nightmare, rather than from it. So my takeaway, would be to say that I reaffirm my commitment to the importance of EVERYBODY here.
What was the biggest surprise working on UNDERGROUND?
KARYN: I can’t think of much that was surprising other than, again, how well the scripts were written on such a crammed time schedule and how wonderful my cast and co workers were.
What did you learn as a costume designer from that experience?
KARYN: Rather I had reinforced the idea that each economic and social group should have its own color palette and set of textures. I started out creating separate palettes for Southern plantation owners, Southern enslaved, slave catchers, Northern abolitionists and continued that into season two with the Gullah and the more militaristic abolitionists, also with the wealthy on the continent. With so many storylines and so many characters I wanted to help the audience immediately identify each person in how they related to the various groups and the storyline.
What has surprised you most about your career so far?
KARYN: The happy surprise is that there are always new challenges to respond to and new problems to solve; that characters are so varied and respond so differently to circumstances. And the other surprise that I’ve come to be aware of lately is that what I do is not about the clothes so much as it is about story. Sure I’m about clothes, but I’m not about fashion as much as what I do with line and color supports the screenwriter and the director.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the amazing variety of projects you have worked on?
KARYN: I have been exposed to a lot of mindsets and situations that I don’t think I would ever have learned about had I not done this for a living. It has taught me to be very open-minded and to try to see other people’s points of views when they don’t agree with mine. As Krista Tippet would say, “it’s more about what we have in common as human beings than what our ideological differences are.”
What are the perks of where you are in your career right now?
KARYN: I’m very fortunate to be asked to collaborate on really interesting projects and to travel to places I might never pick on my own, but that I get to live in, amongst different groups of people and come to understand their culture a little. I love to travel and I’m very fortunate that I get to do it for a living!
You worked on the film “The Notebook,” which is an iconic love story. When creating costumes for a sweeping romance, how does that differ from creating costumes for historical dramas or even a modern drama?
KARYN: It really depends on the story you are telling. In “The Notebook,” the love story was told from the future, but in retrospect, which enabled me to soften lines and ‘romanticize’ the color, if you will. Other stories require different approaches. Underground seemed to me to require an approach that said, “Look at this. NO! Really look. Pay attention. This is important.” I just finished WACO, a project about David Koresh, the Branch Dividians and the FBI. In that project clothes had to fade into the background. It was not about the clothing, it was about belief systems and what happens when they clash. Cake was about a woman in pain, both emotional and physical. The clothing had to subtly remind you of that. Sometimes clothing needs to come to the forefront, sometimes it needs to fade away. It really all depends on what will help tell the story and what will support the characters.
As you also worked on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, did you also have the opportunity to create costumes for Jurnee Smollett-Bell on that series? And if so, what costume choices did you make for her in that show to help reflect her character?
KARYN: I was only on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS the first season and Jurnee joined the second season I believe. But I did create her look on one of the first movies she worked on, “Eve’s Bayou,” which was my first period movie and one of her first staring roles. She was quite young, 11 or 12. I wanted to create a very iconic look for the town, the family. I envisioned it as a kind of Bayou Camelot, if you will, the culture of Jackie and JFK as the ruling king and queen, but using Diahanne Carrol, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker and Maxine Sullivan as inspiration. Jurnee as a ‘princess’ must represent the social standing of her parents. But the character was also a freethinking tomboy so the costume had to contain a conciliatory compromise!
Are there any cool costumes that you look to for inspiration or that you would like to incorporate more into your work?
KARYN: I have a lot of influences and some I go back to constantly for inspiration: The paintings of Whistler, Sargeant, Ingres, Valesquez, Delecroix, Vige’e Le Brun, also the German Expressionist Painters of Der Brucke and De Blau Reiter. More currently Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonebare, to name just a few. “It” Girls and Boys of every stripe: Audrey Hepburn, Bridgette Bardot, Jane Birkin, Francois Hardy, Karen Blixon, Jane Austin, Greek Temple Maidens, Aubrey Beardsley, Gregory Peck, Oscar Wilde, Gene Kelly, Lord Byron, Prince Albert and on and on. The work of street photographer Scott Schulman and Suzy Bubble. The anthropological photography of the Victorian age and the current work of Steve McCurry. Films that changed the way I saw EVERYTHING: “Dangerous Liasons” (1988), “Marie Antoinette” (1938 AND 2006), “Romeo and Juliet” (1996), “Nebraska” (2013) And “Il Conformisto” (1970), “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I know I’ll think of twenty more. I’m a visual junkie.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten? What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring costume designers?
KARYN: Both incorporated into the following list and in no particular order:
– Know your shit. Be prepared. You can’t be over prepared.
– Know period. Know history. Keep up with the current. See the trends but also see the threads.
– Be brave. Be bold. Be humble. Be kind. Be gentle.
– Travel. Learn to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you and excuse me, in whatever country you’re in.
– Never be afraid to apologize and admit if you’ve done something backwards or offended someone.
– Did I mention be humble? Be humble. Practice humbleness AND humility AND gratitude. The minute you get bitter it’s time to get out of the business. We’re lucky to do what we do, we’re artists and we actually make a living at it. There are easily 5,000 people in the world who at any given moment would happily do our jobs. Remember that when things are not going your way. And there will be plenty of days when they don’t. Plenty.
– Learn from your mistakes.
– Treat the people who work for you with respect. You can’t do it without them. And they are giving you months out of their lives. They could’ve taken a different job, but they decided to sign on to get YOUR back. Respect that.
– Unfortunately there are bitter people in the world. Grow a hide like a rhino and learn to shake of the slurs of others.
– Never retaliate. Take the high road. It may be frustrating and have some momentary setbacks but it will pay off in the long run.
– Practice your manners, including your table manners. Say please, thank you and excuse me. Listen instead of checking your cell phone. This may sound basic but you’d be surprised.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
KARYN: I just finished a mini series entitle WACO. Another timely project. I’m very excited to have it air in January on the newly minted Paramount Television.
At a time when women’s voices are rising to be heard and respected around the country and the world, what do you recommend your fans do to lend support in that endeavor?
KARYN: SPEAK UP. SPEAK OUT. RESIST. WATCH YOUR SISTERS’ BACKS even if their religion, sexual orientation, politics, race, gender identification, WHATEVER, doesn’t agree with yours. We’ve got to stick together. SHOW NO FEAR, TAKE NO SHYTE.
Karyn’s work is always a treat to behold and you can look forward to seeing more of her costume creations when WACO airs next year on Spike TV.