March 4, 2016
Though the new WGN America series, “Underground,” is based on the historical revolutionaries who formed the Underground Railroad, in some respects, the plot’s suspenseful action makes it more of a thriller than factual antebellum drama.
The creative interpretation of events spills over to the costume department, where fact and fiction blend, sometimes in one garment. Costume Designer Karyn Wagner struck a balance to dress characters, who range from plantation slaves to socialites.
In a pivotal party scene, Jessica de Gouw plays Ohio socialite Elizabeth Hawkes, who makes a show-stopping entrance with her husband.
“They have to look like the most exquisite couple in the room,” Wagner said. The script also called for Elizabeth to dance the cancan on top of a piano at the party.
“The cancan wasn’t invented until the 1880s, but the show is set in the 1850s,” said Wagner. “You know, writers, they do what writers do–they make stuff up. So, I thought, ‘OK, no problem. It’s a challenge. I can do this.’”
However, the silhouette of pre-Civil War America required corsets and huge skirts supported by stiff cage-like hoops. “The cancan skirt is a much slimmer shape,” she said. Given the high social status of the character, she can’t look weirdly out of place with a dress from the wrong era. Nor can she dance on top of a piano wearing a bulky crinoline.
“The cancan is danced by picking up your skirt and having this frilly white lace flying with abandon. So how do you hold the skirt up and not have it so stiff that it will catch the back of her knees? She’ll go flying off the piano and it will not be pretty,” she said.
“I made an enormous underskirt with close to 50 yards of netting in layers,” she said. To achieve volume without weight or stiffness, she built multiple layers of different shimmery hues of netting. Each layer was gathered into the one above it so that each layer got successively bigger.
“At the end of the day, there were all these slight tonal differences in the petticoats.” Wagner said. “I laid down my life and bought the most exquisite silver lace, and that was the very inside of the dress. When she starts to dance, you see the silver lace attached to black and blue netting with little bit of flash.
“The petticoat gets translated into almost like a night sky. I thought of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’”
Another painting inspired the overall scheme of the dress, John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait of Madame X.” Wagner borrowed a similar color scheme–the deepest, darkest midnight blue–and constructed a similar low-cut, shoulder-baring ball gown that also frames an expanse of its wearer’s milky white complexion.
“Tacking an 1880s bodice onto an antebellum skirt. . .made for a very filtered take on the era,” Wagner said. “It’s not like 100 percent perfect period fabric with every period-correct detail. It’s period-ish.”
“Underground” premieres on WGN American on March 9, 10 p.m. / 9 Central