How ‘The Great’ Costume Design Makes Fashion a Matter of State
When we think about period drama, the image we hold in our minds is always wrapped up in a show’s setting. The setting is an interesting moment in historical or imagined time, separate from our own, but the setting is also the stuff in it; it’s how different everyone looks. Sometimes that stuff means swords and armor and dragons, and the martial, fantastical nature of a “Game of Thrones” is what makes it visually distinct.
But even when chainmail isn’t involved, it’s the look of the costumes that bring us closer to characters in the past or make them seem all the more imposing and distant. It’s the one place where maximalism and lavishness are always acceptable – “Bridgerton” isn’t a show with costumes; the costumes are in many respects the show.
Costumes also offer the subtlest, intuitive distinctions of character — the cut of Hansu’s and Isak’s coats in “Pachinko” tells you everything you need to know about how they move through the world. It is, therefore, most pleasing when a show is able to do both.
“The Great” has costumes that befit its palace setting in gilding and detail — this is Russia, after all. But they also convey the different approaches characters take in trying to grab and hold onto imperial power. Of course, it makes sense that it’s a story about emperors and empresses, even a comedy one, who’s screwing over who matters; and “The Great” costume designer Sharon Long helps convey the series’ power structure between its imperial couple visually. For Catherine’s coronation dress, besides gilding Elle Fanning all in gold in a deliberate nod to Russian icons, “We ended up getting her really high heels, you know, [so that we could] raise her up, make her taller so that Peter becomes less impressive,” Long told IndieWire.
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Catherine’s attempts to spread her values at court, and relative position within it, is something that the show costumes’ are always sure to shorthand. “She’s still a purist and an idealist, and she’s still quite sort of clean-cut [in her look] compared with the women of the court who kind of get quite exaggerated and overdressed,” Long said. “She didn’t wear any, which was a really good device actually, in Season 1, to keep her really young. So we just did a little bit [more in Season 2]. It’s sort of a gradual increase really.”
It’s always trackable on “The Great” who’s more or less secure in their positions by how the environment harmonizes with their individual choice of style. While the show is never overly ostentatious about its fashion, it does have moments where costumes take the lead in visually showing how a character is on a whole other level and can bend the world to their will, as Gillian Anderson does when Catherine’s mother Johanna appears at court and briefly makes it revolve around her.
“The size of her skirt was an interesting device to use,” Long said of the costume choices for the character. “We kept her as tiny and tight at the top as possible and her skirts as large as we could go, and she moves through the set and takes up space.”
For Peter, on the back heel (and he is wearing at least a little bit of a heel in more formal situations) all season, the happily deposed emperor wears less clothes the more unmoored he is. He does a fair amount of stumbling around in nightshirts and the Russian equivalent of a bathrobe, reckoning with the ghosts of his mother and father, and his moments of genuine connection with Catherine across the season, he tends to be very plainly dressed. That’s impressive for a man who wears skirts to his own wife’s baby shower.
“He’s so male that he doesn’t care if he’s wearing pink or a full-fronted shirt or he is wearing lace,” Long said. “I feel like I pushed him a little bit, and I tried to separate him slightly from Grigor [played by Gwilym Lee], sometimes just in colors. Grigor goes slightly more into blues and the animal print isn’t as prevalent, you know. So even though they were best friends and kind of emulating each other, [Grigor and Peter] started to develop [different styles].”
Courtesy of Hulu
That ability to trace characters’ development slowly through the costumes, even while they remain at a baseline of sumptuously complex, has a long history in stories about Catherine the Great. That matters for a show like “The Great,” which gleefully blends comedy and absolute power politics. It prompts the audience to see the characters the way they are by their court, to judge them on the personas they present, how strongly those ideas are expressed in their fashion, and to see the ways in which they present, perhaps, too much. In doing this, Long and her team pull off the best power move historical fiction has in its arsenal: to show us how we’re not so different.
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