In Season 2 of Hulu’s The Great, creator Tony McNamara‘s modernistic take on the Russian monarchy circa 18th century boasts saucy language and a sexy, vibrant wardrobe. For the women of the Court, led by Empress Catherine, (Elle Fanning) think lots of heaving bosoms, colorful, wide-rimmed dresses supported by bone hoop cages, corsets to sculpt tiny waists, and plenty of petticoats to throw about. For the majestic men, including Peter (Nicholas Hoult), there were frilly poet shirts topped off with button-down vests and overcoats accented with fur.
These looks required a lot of historical research and great attention to detail, and that’s where costume designer Sharon Long thrives. She dived right into the subject matter and consumed everything about the fashion of the Victorian era, especially how it was shaped by the wealthy class. Based in London, Long delights in her work, amassing an impressive array of wardrobe design credits, from Assistant Costume Designer on Gangs of London, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Guardians of The Galaxy to Wardrobe Supervisor on Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace as well as The Social Network. Designing in her own right, she dressed the casts of The Silent Storm (Damian Lewis and Andrea Riseborough), The Legend of Barney Thomson (Emma Thompson and Ray Winstone), and Calm With Horses starring Barry Keoghan.
For The Great, Long was given free reign (pun intended) to play and create couture befitting Russian royalty, from the golden coronation gown that Catherine dons in the episode “Dickhead” to the maternity frocks she embraces in all stages of her pregnant glory throughout the season. The large ensemble, which also features Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) and a regal appearance by Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s mother, provided Long with a joyous challenge to create so many eccentric looks.
Below The Line spoke with Long via Zoom from her home in London, where she was surrounded by sketches of her designs. She talked about delving into the history of the time period and taking it a step further to meet the modernity of the series in all its bawdiness by injecting a certain Russian sexiness into what could’ve been a stodgy period piece in order to subvert audience expectations. Long also took us through the process of how inspiration becomes design, and she discussed the stitch-by-stitch meticulousness that goes into each outfit, from casual wear to fancy dress and even a pregnancy corset that could accommodate Catherine’s ever-growing baby bump. Please enjoy our chat below:
Below The Line: How did you finesse the modern quality of the series with the historical costuming?
Sharon Long: I didn’t expect to be doing this kind of job [laughs]. I mean, the bosoms did heave during that time. My understanding from paintings was that bosoms weren’t such a big thing; whether you saw or didn’t see a nipple was neither here nor there, so some of the necklines were ridiculously low. Because the female characters are so strong, it’s immaterial. I hope we brought sexy back because the men are sexy too, I think. We tried to work the same magic on them.
BTL: How did you make Nicholas Hoult’s Peter sexier via his costume?
Long: He’d already started to go in that direction. We just pushed it a bit further, really. I wanted to get the decadence really rooted in his costumes, so [they’re] a little bit more exotic. He plays with his femininity, so we have a few kinds of laced blouses. The baby shower costume is pale pink and he gets to show off, which is great because he doesn’t have to be King anymore.
BTL: How did the costume for Velementov (Douglas Hodge) evolve?
Long: His costume was initially designed by Holly [Waddington], who did the pilot, and [it was] developed a bit more by Emma [Fryer], who did Season 1. We looked at the way it moved and developed it a bit more again for Season 2. We gave the (fat suit) padding a V-neck so occasionally he could undo his shirt and look a little bit more disheveled. For a while, he couldn’t do that because his padding came out. I hope that we’ve improved it slightly. He and Archie (Adam Godley) don’t change and I thought his costume was fantastic. He’s a brilliant shape and the costume sort of molded to his body.
BTL: You don’t shy away from color at all, I noticed.
Long: I just thought the court needed richness brought in. It’s difficult to express money. We haven’t got original 18th century fabrics so you have to look at what it was and try to reinterpret it. The colors in the paintings of the fabrics of the time are just astonishing. The Russian court was wearing European clothes so it was all opulent and pretty. Actually, the Russian peasant clothes are also very opulent with lots of gold and metallic. I wanted the colors to be something that everyone outside of the Russian court would aspire to and would like.
BTL: Can you discuss designing the casual wear?
Long: Amongst all the research that I did, sometimes when you look at the past, you kind of get only one side — particularly [of] a woman’s story; a portrait for their husband or for their father, so you get a kind of static view of what women looked like. In my research of group portraiture, you see women relaxed or at ease in their homes. I looked at a lot of (French painter Jean-Honoré) Fragonard‘s drawings and you see relaxed, comfortable women who sometimes look as if they have no corsets on; in fact, they look creased and crumpled.
BTL: Throughout the series, Catherine gets more and more pregnant. How did the maternity clothes of the period reflect that?
Long: There is a kind of garment called a robe de volante that a lot of women wore when they were pregnant. There’s a lot of volume at the back, so often they were still worn with a corset, we think [laughs]. That’s where I was heading when Catherine gets more and more pregnant. We went for the volume and lots more room because I just think that would be the way that things were. I mean, we made a pregnancy corset but you can only take it so far. By the time we had the sort of eighth-month bump, the pregnancy corset bit the dust. Elle was happy about losing the corset, but she was even happier about losing the bump [laughs].
BTL: How did you work around the different stages of the pregnancy bump?
Long: There were quite a few [costumes] at different stages. It was quite funny because we started off with a three-month bump and the first day on set it just wasn’t registering enough. It was too small to be pregnant properly on camera so we had to make it a little bit bigger. But we actually filmed for 10 months, so we sort of filmed pregnancy in real-time, which was really bizarre. One of the actors, Charity [Wakefield, as Georgina] was actually pregnant, [so she] then went away, had the baby, and then came back while Elle was still pregnant! Each block she moved up slightly, so there were lots of costumes because she has to change and it evolved. We kept her back really small to keep the sort of shape for quite a long time, and then we had to release the back because it wasn’t possible to release the front and not release the back. There [were] quite a lot of big costumes by the time you get to Episode 8.
BTL: On the other side of the spectrum, you had the coronation costume design. What inspired that look?
Long: Tony McNamara wrote in the script that this was a German wife who is trying to make the court believe that she’s in love with Russia. She is in love with Russia so her kind of enthusiasm for the country that makes her decide to develop something that is essentially Russian folk costume. So that was the basis. So we looked at lots of folk costumes and tried to figure out how to make that work, not just for the audience of the time as if they were looking at it, but for a modern audience so that she looks stunning. It’s her catwalk moment. In the first drawing, we kept the kokoshnik (a traditional Russian headdress) because that worked but she’s pregnant so the dress was going a bit frumpy. We had to work it out to make it more sexier so the shoulders came down. I was staying behind late at night to sneak down to the workroom to look at what was going to make it look absolutely beautiful and keep it Russian hence the beautiful exotic fabrics. There’s not lots of color in there; it’s mainly gold but there [are] pale blues and reds and lovely floral fabrics in the background which felt quite Russian to me.
BTL: What other costumes had a signature design that you favored?
Long: I really loved Aunt Elizabeth’s costumes because of her eccentricity. She’s such a great character to play with. Belinda [Bromilow] is so game for it and a great shape because she’s very tall and slim. I enjoyed playing with her shape and stretching her out of it. There are always little creatures, like insects on her, little pals all over the place on her clothes. She’s got the butterflies and the moths to give her that kind of slightly off-kilter look because you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do.
BTL: What was it like to design Gillian Anderson’s costume as Joanna which looked the most ambitious with wide squared-off hips.
Long: Gillian wasn’t cast with lots of time to come in for fittings. She’s very petite and I wanted to make sure that she occupied the screen. It’s unavoidable because she’s so beautiful and fills the room with her strong presence. I wanted that character, Joanna, to come in and be a thorn in everybody’s side so I wanted her dress to be a bit spiky. In the end, we couldn’t do pointed panniers (wide-hooped undergarments), which wasn’t period. It moved too far out of the 18th century, so my drawing was more angular skirts that we rounded out. That first black dress I just wanted her to walk in like trouble. That’s one of my favorites.
BTL: Talk about the undergarments and how they were designed.
Long: We do make them all. You start with the corset and make them as comfortable as a corset can be. On top of that, you have the panniers which are sort of little cages made out of wire bone and then calico. So there’s a framework that gives you the hip. So they’re not too hard you have to have linen frills over the top to soften them and then tulle which really further softens them so it doesn’t damage the skirts. We’ve been trying to use silk where we can because it reflects the light beautifully and it looks lovely. There are lots of laughs during the fittings where someone is standing there in their socks and shoes and the frills it’s always quite funny before the skirts go on. We did a bit with Elle when Catherine was going mad one evening and she’s pregnant and she’s got the corset on. It’s such a ludicrous kind of look.
BTL: Are all the costumes completely hand-made, particularly the headdress for the coronation?
Long: Oh yeah. None of the main cast was hired. We did make them all. I had a fantastic crew and makers both inside and outside. The headdress (for the coronation) was a friend of mine who is a jewelry designer and a friend of hers who does jewelry and metal pieces. I would send them my drawing and (hair and makeup artist) Katie (Du’Mont) sent back pictures because she was making components like flowers and birds that could fit in it and Michael who was doing the building work was doing the framework. They had to meet in a garden because of lockdown and I’ve got these photographs of the headdress developing and it’s inside a wheelbarrow. We were trying to figure out if Elle would arrive in this thing because they couldn’t see her to measure her or anything. It was quite a feat, really.
BTL: How did the modern take of the 18th century costumes illustrate the world of The Great?
Long: It’s sort of been the case in fashion and history that things reoccur. Those big wide skirts came back again in 1850 and the ’50s. I looked at how that same shape was reinterpreted so it was panniers and then it was crinoline and then petticoats and tulle. I looked at contemporary clothing and used volume and silks and taffeta. It’s not a period piece because the language isn’t period and the way it’s written is supposed to be satirical so it means you can go on a fantasy journey into what would happen. I’m sure if I was transported back to the mid-18th century that there are some real jaw-dropping things to see. I hope that the costumes completely complement the script, the players, and the actors, and that they support the whole The Great idea. All the heads of departments, we kind of made it work as a believable world in all its madness.
Season 2 of The Great is now streaming on Hulu.