You are about to have a greater appreciation for the clothes you’re fave movie characters wear!
We had a chance to chat it up with talented costume designer Karyn Wagner. She dishes on the challenges and inspirations on designing costumes for her new show Underground, talks about how it was to work on The Notebook and even gives advice to aspiring costumes designers out there.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced with designing costumes for ‘Underground?
Karyn Wagner: For Underground, I would say the biggest challenge has been defining the period and redefining it in a way that is not intrusive, but tells the story in a new way.
What has been some of your inspirations for designing the various costumes?
Karyn Wagner: My inspirations range from everything. They come from nature, they come from fashion designers, they come from the fabric itself — sometimes the fabric itself just speaks to me and tells me what it wants to be made into. They [inspirations] come from everywhere from old daguerreotypes from the era, from research that I’ve done, from travels that I’ve taken in and around everywhere, and sometimes it’s the light that inspires me.
What methods did you use to differentiate between the higher class and the slaves?
Karyn Wagner: I used a couple of different groupings. One was texture — the nicer fabrics obviously thinner weights that were more easily destroyed were for the wealthier people. Especially the north and the south also had different groupings in fabric and color, so in the south it was really lightweight fabrics that were easy to destroy and this is how these people showed their wealth by wearing theses clothes that were very expensive that they didn’t care about. Whereas the house girls had brightly colored things, but at a very durable fabric and then the field workers had very durable, very distressed, very down calicos and cottons. Each group had its own color palette the northerners had darker colors sort of more patriotic colors but also those were sort of inspired by Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten and then the southerners were from Dior in the 50s, I looked at Versace from the 80s, I looked at things from the turn of the century you know all much later than our era but trying to imbue each costume with a sense of its own place in our universe in our galaxy.
What character’s costume from ‘Underground’ would you say was the most fun to create?
Karyn Wagner: When people put on clothing to become a character, they put on costumes. Everybody was fun to create for Andrea Frankle’s costume was fun because she was pregnant and I could barley even find any reference material for what women wore during pregnancy mostly they just took out the seams on their own clothes and sort of waited it out but she has actually created this extravagant wardrobe for herself, a set of costumes that I created for her, that are just for pregnancy so she’ll throw them out the minute she has the baby or pass them down to somebody else so she was fun. Rosalee’s character [Jurnee Smollett-Bell] was fun to create because she went through so many different morphings if you will. The northerners were great to create, the characters of John and Elizabeth and everybody was I can’t really speak to one person that wasn’t fun to create. It was great to make dresses for little Boo [Darielle Stewart].
Obviously you have had great experience in the past. Can you talk about how it was working on big movies such as The Green Mile, The Notebook, The Majestic Land and TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Hawthorne.
Karyn Wagner: The difference between film and television is that in film you concentrate much more on details because you’re going to see the costumes closer up. In television you really want to focus on silhouette and how the fabric moves and thank you for the compliment actually. Every single thing has taught me something amazing and they’ve all been wonderful to work on I’ve been very lucky; I’ve had a very lucky career.
Especially with The Notebook. Did you ever expect while you were working on it that it would become such an iconic movie?
Karyn Wagner: I did not. I had no idea. I had no idea at all. I thought that it would be a lot of fun especially at that point in my career because of the Green Mile I had done a lot of poor and middle class people and to be able to do some really wealthy people was just very exciting for me. I had such a great time with the costumes, and the fabrics and the silhouettes on that, but I had no idea when we were making it that it was going to be that iconic, no I just laugh.
What sparked your interest in becoming a costume designer?
Karyn Wagner: I’ve gone through several permutations I used to want to be a veterinarian and then I wanted to become a director of photography and then I settled in costume and I didn’t even really think that it was going to be a permanent thing it was just something I was trying out. I was not allowed to watch television as a child so the forms of entertainment that were open to me at home were going outside and playing, reading a book you know teaching myself to cook if I wanted to or sewing. My mother made all her own clothes and my grandmother made her own clothes. My grandmother was a Couturier when she escaped from Russia she escaped to East Shanghai and was a Couturier there for a couple of years, so all of the women in my family sewed and it was just something that I naturally took to. When I decided I would try out costumes a costumes designer named Giovanna Melton very kindly took me under her wing and said, “Well come try this and see if you like it” and it just stuck and here I’ve been for I don’t know twenty five years.
What advice would you give someone who is looking to pursue a career in costume designing?
Karyn Wagner: I would say look at everything. I gave you that long list of things that inspire me. I’m sitting looking out my window right now and I’m looking at a bush in my garden and I’m thinking to myself that could be a fabulous inspiration for a green bustle gown. I would say look at everything even though you have to start small and work very very hard, never stop practicing your eye, never stop drawing, never stop looking at things, watch people and really enjoy your life to the fullest because the more you enjoy your own life and your own personality and your own way of seeing things the more you enjoy all those things the better costume designer you’re going to be.