Written by Allyson Portee, Forbes
Currently reaching the number one show on Netflix in the US right now is Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. The costumes in the series are dreamy, and a reminder that the fashion in the 1700s going into the 1800s was anything but flamboyant and spectacular. From their hair to their dress, to their shoes, women expressed themselves in rich fabrics, colorful palettes, and decadent wigs. Costume Designer Lyn Paolo and co-costume designer Laura Frecon, open up on what it took to make the series costume ready.
Costume design is no easy feat but both Paolo and Frecon, tasked with this project were able to tell a sartorial story that flows with the storyline. A passion for fashion and costumes is a natural first step for anyone thinking to go into costume design. “I did not know that this would be my career path. I have a degree in English Literature and Education,” says Paolo. “My passion was to teach. However, during my time at university and then on moving to Los Angeles I found film and the rest is history.”
Things were a little different for Frecon. “I grew up around music and theatre. My grandmother was a singer and pianist, my dad and sister are musicians, and my uncle is an actor and playwright. I went to college to major in theatre and business and then went on to receive my MFA (masters in fine art). I have always loved the performing arts, so it was a natural evolution for me. My work-study in college was at the costume shop and though I originally started out as an actor, I quickly fell in love with costumes. After grad school, I worked in New York for years both on and off Broadway, which then led me to Los Angeles, where I got into film and television,” she states.
As with many of the good things in life that come from connections and knowing the right people, is how Paolo and Frecon got their roles as costume designers. “My relationship with Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes, Tom Verica is a long one. Having worked with the team on Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Inventing Anna and For the People. I was working on Bridgerton in England when Sara Fisher told me that Shonda had an idea for a new show that would be a prequel and of course I was interested. Shonda, Betsey Beers and Laura and I had a Zoom presentation and after we discussed the ideas/visuals of the presentation we were offered the show,” says Paolo.
For Frecon, it was from already knowing Paolo that allotted the opportunity to work on the series. “I have worked with Lyn on a few projects in the past and I was the Co-Costume Designer on Inventing Anna with Lyn. We went to London to consult on Season 2 of Bridgerton and at that time, we were approached about the possibility of designing Queen Charlotte. We loved the idea and the history meets fashion element, so we quickly did a bunch of research, made some boards and presented them over Zoom to Shonda and Betsy Beers. They both liked our inspiration and sketches and from there it was a go!”
Getting the job is one phase, then next comes execution. Paolo’s process for everyone’s costume flows into her natural process of working on productions. “As always, I start with the script, what Shonda has put on the page. Then research, sketching, mood boards, fashion, art, history all of it is so important to get my mind buzzing with images/ideas. This is the exciting beginning, the part where I cannot sleep because I have so many ideas in my head, then the work of building the costumes begins,” she explains.
Her resume of productions is long. In addition to the shows she mentioned, she’ also done Maid (Netflix) and Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu). Costume design requires a lot of experience and her past jobs prepared her greatly for Queen Charlotte. “I feel that experience is something you need to help with a show that is this grand,” she says. “The amount of costumes that were designed/built, the glamour and the jewels. Every tiny detail in the costumes and the accessories was so important and managing the logistics and keeping the team moving was a huge task.”
Research, textiles, and challenges
Since this is a period piece it requires lots of hours of research, relying on paintings and primary source documents. “We did countless research based on the time period and historical characters by reading books, going to museums, and scouring the internet,” says Frecon. “However, our pitch to Shonda was that we wanted to bring a high fashion, modern element to our characters. We wanted it to feel as if you could wear these clothes on the runway or to a Met Ball. Our inspiration was a mix of high fashion, Dior’s New Look, impressionist paintings and our research.”
The fabrics are rich and colorful for both male and female characters. The coronation gown in the second episode, in all its gold glory with detailed embroidery was extraordinary. “We sourced our fabrics from all over the world,” continues Frecon. “We used laces from France and Spain, had our silks woven at the mills in England, we constantly sourced from Italy and also New York. For Charlotte, we used meters and meters of silk taffeta and organza to give her a lighter, more modern feel. For Augusta, we worked with heavier silk brocades and damasks to give her a more traditional feel. The embroidery was done in-house by our machine embroiderer, Twan Lentjes and also embellished by hand by Beth Perry and Hattie McGill. We also worked with a team in Budapest to do the embroidery for the crowd costumes.”
Frecon has worked on various films from Inventing Anna to Men In Black III, and her process for those productions differ greatly to Queen Charlotte. “For Queen Charlotte, almost every single gown, suit, accessory, shirt, shoe, underpinning was custom made,” she states. “We even custom made a majority of our crowd costumes and the livery for the different houses. Inventing Anna was contemporary high fashion, so most of those clothes were purchased at designer boutiques and pulled from show rooms. As for Men in Black III, that was a combination. We pulled from various rental houses in Los Angeles and New York but all of the aliens and MIB3 ladies were custom made as well as the suiting.”
The biggest challenge for costume design for the show was the large volume of costumes that were needed for the show. Lebanese designers inspired gowns in the series. The French dress that Young Charlotte brings with her to England to marry George III, in episode 1 was inspired by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad’s final dress in his AW18 Couture runway show. It took the team over five-hundred-thousand individual stitches to embroider the dress by hand. And, the tiara from Young Charlotte’s wedding was inspired by a tiara from the Elie Saab AW19 Couture collection.
I took the costume team thirty-nine to forty-six feet of fabric per gown, without underpinnings like corsets, petticoats, and stockings. In Bridgerton, it takes their team sixteen to twenty-three feet of fabric to make a gown. “Overall, Young Charlotte has 80 gowns and changes across the show, which doesn’t even include layer changes such as corsets,” state production notes. “In Episode 102 alone, she has twenty-seven costume changes. Young Agatha Danbury has about sixty custom costumes, and Princess Augusta has thirty.” These are just snippets of details that went into the costume making. There are far more details and work that went into making the costume side of things for Queen Charlotte a success.
“The gowns took about a month to make from start to finish. Having the amount of costumes that we needed in the time that we had to prep the show was a huge undertaking. We had over two-hundred people on our crew to help facilitate the execution of these costumes, as well as costume houses all over the UK, Spain, Italy and Budapest,” shares Frecon.
It takes a village
Costume design isn’t just the costume designer making sole decisions. Directors, creators, and producers are also a part of the fashion sense of productions. “This is a collaborative art, and of course Shonda and Tom are pivotal in decisions,” stresses Paolo. “We discussed color/palette/tone and character. However, Shonda puts everything on the page, her descriptions are masterful. Once I read what she has written I can often visualize where we need to go with the costumes. Then I talk things over with Tom who is the most amazing collaborator. Between having Laura as a partner on this one, Tom as the Director, and Jeff Jurr as the Director of Photography, I felt so supported. This was a dream team.”
Sharing her thoughts on the costume design in press notes, the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes states, “one of the things I really loved about the way the hair and makeup was done for this series is it really embraced — especially the hair design — the idea that these are women of color with the hair needs of women of color. Lyn Paolo, who's designed costumes for me before on almost every one of my shows, really came in and brought such a quality and a grace to the way they're all dressed. And they feel almost like they're dressed like their personalities. For instance, Young Agatha Danbury only wears the colors that her husband likes until after he's gone. So, you get to see her become this new person. And Young Charlotte’s wedding dress in the first episode, I am obsessed with that gown. I think it might be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.”
Director Tom Verica finds the costume design component a valuable puzzle piece to a production. “Once the costume shows up on set, it's nothing short of brilliant. It makes my job easier because she is thinking through character, through story, and that is really pivotal — the costumes aren’t just a presentation of beauty for the sake of exhibitionism; they’re well thought-out, with a very distinctive flavor and point of view behind them,” he states in production notes.
The series is captivating and moving, and for some the last episode will bring a tear to the eyes. Every arm in a production has part. The acting, the sets, the actors, the make-up, the jewelry, the writing, the producing, the directing- all the arms did great. But, it’s the costumes that also bring greater understanding to the series. “It was an honor to work with Lyn and have her trust me to Co-Design “Queen Charlotte”. We have worked together as a team for years and this was a very special project for both of us. I will always be grateful to Lyn, Shonda and the rest of Shondaland for this incredible opportunity,” concludes Frecon. “I am so grateful to the team in England, without their talent we would not have executed Shonda's vision,” says Paolo. “Shows of this size and complexity take a small village to create, the team both production and creative along with the hair and makeup team all come together to create a wonderful world. I would like to take this moment to say thank you to all.”