“Queen of the South”

August 12, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

“I didn’t go to fashion or Costume Design school,” says Frank Helmer, Costume Designer of Queen of the South, “because I really love how cultures create themselves. I have a background in cultural anthropology. I always thought I was going to be an academic. But there is this visual shorthand in costumes that says volumes about the character, and I love creating a full person versus just a pretty dress.”

Helmer aims to root every show in truth and revels in the research process. “I love finding out what people wear in real life and then adjust that for the camera. We all have the things the producers want, or that we want as a stylistic choice, but if I ground my decisions in reality, the results seem much more organic to me,” he explains.

Whenever dealing with a group outside his own experience, Helmer feels a strong obligation not to resort to caricature or parody, or to be inadvertently insulting. Because Queen of the South peers into the gritty underworld of the Mexican drug trade, this is especially important. But he was surprised that his research showed that he could take many of the looks further than he had originally believed.

In order to prepare for the show, Helmer watched numerous documentaries and tried to compile as many images as possible of real people. The show is set and shoots in Dallas. Helmer found this advantageous because he was able to go to specific neighborhoods and observe the local peculiarities of the people firsthand. Also, he combed thrift stores and Mexican flea markets to find authentic elements for background characters. Helmer dislikes TV shows where garments are obviously brand new, and used aging and dying to add a unifying patina to his looks.

He tried to make clear distinctions in all of the groups of characters. In the novel the show is based on, Batman has big ears. Because that wasn’t possible with the actor (Gerardo Taracena), Helmer chose to clothe him in all black, highlighted with details like white alligator boots and a belt tooled in real silver thread. “I wanted to find some way to explain his name, as it was never explained in the show. It was something people could put together,” notes Helmer. “He is supposed to be deep in the cartel in Sinaloa, Mexico. I needed to show a sense of region, a sense of place. The other thing I didn’t want to do is whitewash the culture.  I had to struggle with the network and the show runners at times, to show what they would really wear.”

Helmer takes particular delight in playing the two pivotal characters, the white queen (Alice Braga) in whites, creams, and ivory against the red queen (Veronica Falcón) who always is in tones of red or black. It is only with these two characters that he uses any conspicuously new garments.

Helmer has costumed many brightly colored comedic shows in the past, and finds his last few series, which are darker and grittier, to be refreshing because he is able to delve deeper into reality. Helmer remarks, “That’s actually the reason I got into Costume Design. Instead of analyzing culture after it already happened, I wanted to actually make culture. Film and television is one of the most powerful tools that we have for creating culture, and I want to be part of that. It is very satisfying.”

Queen of the South airs Thursdays 10/9C on USA.


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