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HomeCraftsArt Dept: Evoking Period on Deadwood-costume

Art Dept: Evoking Period on Deadwood-costume

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Costume designer Katherine Janie Bryant talks to Below the Line about some of the unique challenges of creating designs for one of cable’s top-rated shows: HBO’s period drama Deadwood.

BTL: You’ve been on the show Deadwood since the beginning. What for you makes the show stand out compared to others you’ve worked on?
Katherine Janie Bryant: We have such a large cast and so many background folks, so there are a lot of costumes to design. Then there’s the dirt. We have to distress the costumes, and maintaining that distressing is a lot of work for my costumers. We have various secret recipes for dirt, and many techniques for the different materials, from wire bushes to various types of fake dirt. Maintaining that high-contrast texturing with the light dirt and dark dirt is important. We all have dirt under our nails.
BTL: What, for you, are some of the challenges in creating these period costumes?
Bryant: All of my women need help getting dressed with their camisoles and bloomers and corsets, and petticoats and bustle pads. And we’re constantly minding their hair and makeup, which makes for a lot of work. I designed a contemporary job during the break, and it’s so interesting to realize exactly what goes into period work. This was a show in the Caribbean, so they wore a lot of bikinis. It meant I didn’t have to think like a costumer, dressing each principle female. With Deadwood I always have to know that there are enough hands to be able to help these people get into their costumes.
BTL: What kind of time challenges are you up against?
Bryant: David Milch, our executive producer, gives us pages every day, so sometimes I don’t know what’s coming up. Maybe there’ll be a huge background scene with different characters I’ll need to get ready in a day. We have to be ready for anything. But I love working under pressure. You get those little surprises and you’re pushed to be creative, which might not happen when you have too much time. It’s really important, working with David Milch, to know that anything can happen and you have to be flexible, and you have to go with it.
BTL: How many people do you have in you costume design and costuming team?
Bryant: My costume supervisor is Le Dawson. And my assistant costume designer last year was Beth Morgan, who was also with me on the first season. Then I have my three set costumers to take care of my principle cast, and additional costumers come in on heavy costume days. I have a draper/pattern maker and a stitcher. And then I have the wonderful Bud Clark who does my distressing. He’s amazing. I rely on my costume crew, who work really hard. Le and I have been together since the pilot. He coordinates getting all the background costumes together, and he and other costumers do the fittings. I want my designers to be mentally free to add character to their costumes. If there’s a wacky piece they love, I want them to feel able to go out there and be creative. Beth—my assistant designer for my principle characters—she’ll do fabric swatching. We have a very nice understanding creatively about things.
BTL: Where do you source your materials from? Is it hard to find the right type of cloth, for example?
Bryant: I have swatchers in different cities. It’s just about knowing different people. It’s a lot of classic fabrics—a lot of velvets, brocades, herringbones and different plaids. All those are very Victorian, so New York and San Francisco are great places. Los Angeles is great too. There’s an amazing woolen store here called B. Black & Sons which I love. Sometimes I do have to make compromises, because you can’t always get the same quality they had in the Victorian times, especially with the women’s clothes like some of the cut velvets. But you can find things that are close enough and that will photograph beautifully. There are still a lot of silk taffetas and silk brocades around. Also, I’ll source things from other places like upholstery stores, which is really fun.
BTL: How authentic do you try to be? Are the characters wearing old-fashioned underwear, for example?
Bryant: Yes, I really take it that far, especially for the women. They wear their camisoles, bloomers, their bustle cages, their petticoats, all the underpinning—it really helps have the feel of that period. The way I design the garment, the shoulders are set far back, so they have a certain posture in their clothing. A lot of the clothing is padded in the chest under the arm, which creates the Victorian silhouettes of the round breast and the shoulders held way back. And for the men, in the summertime, it’s really hot out at the ranch, and yet, Al Swearingen does wear his long johns. But if it’s not for camera, I won’t have them wear their period undergarments.
BTL: What kind of color palette are you working with? Is there anything you absolutely have to avoid?
Bryant: Yes, I try not to use white white. Everything is tecked, which means to put like a tan or a gray wash on the whites. I don’t use any bright brights, although I did use red in the second season, which I think photographs fantastically. Because there’s so much bloodshed in Deadwood, I like the significance of the red. And then I use a lot of golds and yellows. For the men, it’s mostly about dark texture, and creating high contrasts with plaids, or windowpanes, or through the stripes, like on Bullock’s shirts.
BTL: What’s notable about the episode “Boy the Earth Talks to,” which was chosen as the Emmy-nominated episode for costume design?
Bryant: That’s the episode where Alma Garrett marries Elsworth. There were so many costumes I designed for that episode and we built here for the shot. The whole town was in it, so many characters came out and danced. It was the costume extravaganza. In Victorian times it was not customary for the bride to wear a white wedding gown. A lot of times it was their best dress. So I really wanted to design something for Molly Parker, who plays Alma Garrett, that’s her best dress. It was quite dark, navy velvet with beautiful gold and navy brocade on her shoulder and on the back, and a skirt to match with a silk fringe at the bottom. I tried to tie it in with the story. There are sad undertones, because she loves Seth Bullock, but has to marry Elsworth because she’s pregnant with Bullock’s child. So I thought it would be nice for her to wear something dark, and also to show the custom of that period. She’s also a widow, and she’s from New York society, so to wear a white gown would be inappropriate for her character.
Trixie is in this pink dress, which was really fun to design for her because she’s never worn that color. She’s always in browns and black and dirty whites and ripped clothes. And Calamity Jane wears a dress that Joanie Stubbs has made her wear, so the idea of that was something I could play with. She has this whole character transformation, and her hair is up in a bun. That was fun, putting her in a dress.
BTL: You’re now working on Season 3. Are you in for the long haul?
Bryant: Deadwood is a project I’m so passionate about. I love the period and I love the cast. It’s an amazing thing to come to work every day. Also David Milch, he really lets me and [production designer] Maria Caso and his other department heads be creative. It’s such a great opportunity to be able to do that. I really feel like it’s a team, and I can be very free creatively. It’s the ideal job.

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