The world of Dickinson on Apple TV+ takes place in the 1850s. If you Google what women wore in those days, you’d primarily see bell-shaped skirts and dresses, petticoats, and paisley patterned shawls. For men it was a tailored three-piece suit complete with a jacket, vest and trousers, a shirt and a necktie. The wardrobe in the show reflects all that through an incredible amount of research done by costume designer Jennifer Moeller, who then takes it to a whole other level with her own skillful spin.
To understand what they wore during those times, Moeller took a deep dive into the history of the Dickinson family, even making the pilgrimage to where it all began in Amherst, Massachusetts. Moeller tells Below The Line how authentic the fabric is right down to the buttons and the lace, and what inspired her to create the clothes stitch by stitch that define each of these colorful characters from everyday wear to fancy ballgowns.
Below The Line: This is a big deal for you since it’s your television debut having worked with live productions for so long.
Jennifer Moeller: It’s huge. It was an amazing opportunity. Period clothes were sort of my bread and butter. I did a lot of period Shakespeare for many, many, many years! I feel the craft part of doing that has really helped with the pace of TV, because you have to do it so quickly and really understand the period.
BTL: What type of research went into designing these costumes?
Moeller: I always start with the period and what’s real. I do a real deep dive into whatever year it is that we’re working on. You can Google “1855” and you can see all these images but they’re not necessarily the people that you’re dressing. So I really get into the period and try to understand the essence of the clothes and also the historical context. Why are they using these cottons? Why are they using these prints? Oh, because trade has opened up and you’re getting cotton printing from India. So trying to understand all that and then also understanding the Dickinsons and that life that they were living.
BTL: How did you specifically research the Dickinson family?
Moeller: I went up to Amherst (Massachusetts) to their homestead and made several trips there. I’ve spoken with the staff trying to understand that life. Conveniently my in-laws live in Deerfield, Massachusetts which is the neighboring town so I’m pretty familiar with the way the people are there. And also Deerfield has a beautiful museum with real clothes from that area. I also looked at contemporary references because the show is so entwined in that.
BTL: What is the greatest challenge in creating these clothes?
Moeller: I always say the greatest challenge is finding the fabrics. For every episode I take the research and we get fabrics from wherever we can that are period appropriate but also character driven. I’m trying to combine all those things. We’re always sourcing real buttons and the trim from the period because some of those things exist and can be used to really ground it in reality. In a perfect world you have a couple of weeks to make something but TV schedules are always happening fast and furious. It can take something like 200 hours to make one of these dresses, and the same for a man’s suit so you need that time. That’s just for construction and not including shopping all the fabrics, and getting everything together. For me you throw it all in a pot, you mix it, and you see what comes out. For me it’s a beautiful mess!
BTL: What keys you into designing the clothes for each episode?
Moeller: I look at the poem that’s tied to each episode, and I often listen to the music choices and get inspired by that. Sometimes there’s suggestions of what the music in an episode will be so I’ll listen to that because I feel that gives me a real sense of the spirit of the episode. And then I start drawing.
BTL: Can you recall an episode where you thought the costume wouldn’t come together?
Moeller: It was scripted in that very first episode where we’re gonna meet Sue (Ella Hunt) for the very first time and she’s wearing this ‘glittering gold gown’ which is what it says. There’s a lot of pressure on this dress! It had to say who the new Sue was and it had to be glittery but things really weren’t that glittery in the period. It had to be fashion forward but grounded in some way. So I sent my assistants to a shop to try and find this gold fabric. Every gold fabric in New York City walked through the door and none of it was right to me! (laughs) Folks were getting nervous because we were getting very close to make this dress. We finally found this beautiful French lame that has real metal thread through it. We already had the shape that we liked and I paired that with some antique metal gold lace and it came together. The first scene that we shot with that dress is the one where Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Sue are in the library and it’s very dark where she’s wiping the ink off her face. I walked in on set, looked at the monitor and I gasped, because the dim light was just sparkling off of the metal and it was just luminous. It exceeded my expectations. Sue was the most fun for me this season.
BTL: What type of input do you get from the actors?
Moeller: My mode is to always collaborate with the actors and some have a lot to say and some less so. But at the end of the day they’re the ones in front of the camera and have to feel like it’s right. Their performances are helped by that. Hailee, Ella, Anna (Baryshnikov), Jane Krakowski, everybody is super collaborative. We look at fabrics together, we look at styles together, we look at trim. We talk about their character arcs. It’s fun. Once we do a first round of fittings we have a good sense of their shape and what’s working on them. We make all these clothes so we have to make a lot of decisions so sometimes it’s nice to have some help! (laughs)
BTL: You really stepped it up this season with the ballgowns.
Moeller: In this season it’s just party after party. And not all the parties are the same. The first one is more traditional and then later we have the sort of intellectual party. Each party had a sort of style to them. Then we go to the opera! Not in a million years did I think I would be going to the opera with the Dickinsons. There was a really beautiful moment that (creator) Alena (Smith) shared on set that day where we just looked at all these dresses and we were almost in tears.
BTL: How would you describe dressing the men?
Moeller: It’s equally if not more complicated with all that tailoring. Menswear needs to have a little more structure to it and so you have to build that in. Also it’s a period that’s really fun to do but it’s not always easy to find the right patterns coming together with the paisley waistcoat or a floral waistcoat with a strong plaid pant underneath. Then there’s top hats and shoes and watches. I’m always doing the dance of moving them around and trying to find combinations that work well with each other and are happy together. Then you have to make all the stuff overnight it seems! It’s a lot of fun though.
BTL: What is most rewarding for you through Seasons 1 and 2 and now Season 3?
Moeller: I have this super incredible team of tailors where everything is like shockingly perfect. They really were a labor of love. This show is always turning everything on its head because of the genius of (creator) Alena Smith. Everything you ever thought about Emily Dickinson is gone. I’m excited that the third season is gonna continue to shake it up.
The first two seasons of Dickinson can be watched via streaming on Apple TV+. All photos courtesy of Apple.