“The Man in the High Castle”
December 21, 2016
On the surface, the television show The Man in the High Castle may look like a period piece, but in actuality, the Amazon show is set in an alternate history where the Nazis, the Japanese, and the other Axis powers win WWII. “[Costume Designer] Audrey Fisher set up the world in season 1, and it was incredible to have that to walk into,” says current Costume Designer JR Hawbaker. “The second season has an exponential build out of these worlds, quite literally into other countries.”
This is a tricky paradigm. Hawbaker, a voracious reader, begins with extensive historical research. After establishing an understanding of our world, with its cultural influences and nuances, she begins to remove elements we take for granted. She calls this the fashion of eradication, or the eugenics of fashion. “Like any sort of cultural cue, fashion is like a river where one decade affects the next, and the next,” says Hawbaker. “That’s where the sci-fi or the fantasy element comes in, because within the clothing of the present lingers a residue of the past. I work backwards. You have to realize that Paris was bombed by the Axis powers. It no longer exists. There’s no rock ‘n’ roll influence. There are no glittery Parisian fashion houses, no swinging London scene, Carnaby Street, or Mary Quant.” Which begs the question, what remains?
Hawbaker replaces our cult of individuality and consumerism with a reverence for totalitarianism and our structure of supply and demand with the dictates of a national state. She focuses on perfect form and the architecture of the human figure, while trying to imbue the costumes with a feeling of nobility. “I thought about how the Nazis would really love the mathematics of tailoring, and that influences fashion,” she says. She also considers the Nazi obsession with classical form and the Japanese poetic geometry underscoring them with a feeling of national pride and collectivism.
These dynamics inform the costumes in subtle and intriguing ways. Hawbaker found early on that the strongest visuals were the ones she built. Through tailoring, she sought out specific lines and shapes, which emphasize the show’s aesthetic or functionality. When Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) goes to Berlin, she took elements from military uniforms and traditional Bavarian costume. She constructed garments for an “It Girl” based on the columnar lines promoted by head Nazi architect Albert Spear. In another instance, she added pleats to the front of the men’s pants and the backs of women’s skirts to facilitate the Japanese custom of bowing and kneeling.
The key to The Man in the High Castle,” says Hawbaker, “is the feeling that reality is only separated by a few choices, and that is actually the hardest part of the job. You like to think of yourself as different from the Nazis or the Japanese Empire, but really it’s about small shifts and we could be just like them. The clothes had to reflect this.” She adds, “You have to feel like you could access these people and make them human because as Rufus Sewell, our amazing actor who plays Obergruppenführer John Smith says, ‘Monsters don’t do this.’ That’s why we humanize the show and try to make it accessible. On some level you don’t want to glorify these regimes. But, I also wanted people to feel like they wanted these clothes, but also feel a little unnerved by them. You have to hit that balance. I’m a little unnerved by it too.”
The Man in the High Castle is streaming the new season now with Prime on Amazon Video.