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Costume Designer Karyn Wagner Talks Underground [Exclusive] 

Costume Designer Karyn Wagner Talks Underground [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

I loved the look of WGN America’s Underground from the moment I saw the first trailer. With such a sprawling cast that consisted of people from every walk of life in and around the Macon plantation in 1857, I knew I’d be watching a compelling story and seeing a lot of great clothes.

I had the chance to talk to Karyn Wagner, the show’s costume designer, about everything from the research that goes into both the characters and the clothes they would wear, the challenges of dressing so many people, why she came back to TV, her favorite character to dress and so much more.


TV GOODNESS: When did you know you wanted to be a costume designer and how did you break into the business?

Karyn Wagner: “All my childhood I wanted to be a veterinarian. I got into UC Davis and realized that while I loved animals, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to deal with all the people so distraught over their hurt and ill pets.

That’s when I changed my major and ended up with a degree in teaching and art history. And then I took a gap year between that and graduate work I fell into the film business. I went from production coordinator to camera assistant.

I went to Hollywood High with all the other drama geeks I had gone to school with. A bunch of us got into the film business and I was talking to a friend of mine one night saying, ‘This camera thing. I’m just not sure it’s for me.’ And she said, ‘You’re one of the best dressed camera assistants I’ve ever seen on set. Why don’t you try costumes?’

And so I just kinda fell into costume design, which made a lot of sense because I had been sewing since I was about 4 and my mother and my grandmother made all their own clothes. My sister made a lot of her own clothes. So it was a family that fostered  the atmosphere – think for yourself and think creatively.”

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your credits and I know you’ve mostly done films. You worked on Friday Night Lights a few years ago, so what was it about Underground that made you want to come back to TV?

Karyn: “The script was so compelling and so amazing. It was so exciting to see each of the characters in Underground compelled to direct their own destiny, whether it was the slaves, the slave owners, the abolitionists, the Northerners – both white and black – everybody trying to find their way through their own lives through this time of history.

People in that era must have somehow sensed that they were making history or you’re just in the middle of a situation where you’re simply trying to do your best. But you must know that you’re at some kind of crossroads.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

I mean, the United States was already talking about civil war at this point. It was far off in the distance and people were working so hard to have it not happen, but there was already a lot of talk and I loved the fact that nobody sat back and waited for a savior or waited for somebody else to direct their lives. All the characters are so compelling in their quest to fulfill their own life.”

TV GOODNESS: And even if you hated some of the characters, they still came across as sympathetic at different times. You care about their plight on the show.

Karyn: “Yes. I feel that all the characters are very compelling and even if you don’t like them, I think that the writing is so amazing and so brilliant in that the best villain is a villain that you sympathize with. A lot of our characters are villainous in a way, each involved in a life that seems destiny has picked out for them.

But everybody has something so sympathetic about them that you can’t help but like them and be involved in wondering what’s gonna happen to them. Just saying, ‘God I hope that guy dies or hangs or burns or whatever,’ you are just compelled to find out what they do next.”

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

TV GOODNESS: This show seems like a huge undertaking because it’s a period piece and you have so many characters to dress. What kind of research did you do?

Karyn: “I did a lot of different kinds of research. I have a huge library at home, so I started there. Then I quickly turned to the internet and I did a lot of research there. I started with the basic shapes and fabrics and thinking about palettes and color groupings and also the kinds of fabric and the textures and the silhouette that each group of people would be wearing.

Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

So you have Southern plantation owners, you have the slaves, you have the house slaves, you have slave catchers, Northern abolitionists. You have poor Northerners, richer Northerners and every socioeconomic group and every political grouping has their own palette and their own set of textures as well as a slightly different silhouette.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

I really wanted to figure out a basic blocking of all of that and then from there I went on to reading about the period, the individuals who inhabited that period. Stories surfaced about slaves and how they had escaped and how they had fooled slave catchers and people who were looking for them or people who had escaped into New York or Canada or wherever.

And I have also had the good fortune to travel and I remembered a lot of costumes I had seen at the Victorian Albert in London. There a fabric room upstairs that’s amazing. It’s got thousands and thousands of swatches of actual fabric that you can look at very closely. You can’t touch them, but you can look at them very closely. I remember just drinking that in thinking someday I’m gonna be able to use that and I was able to use a lot of that on Underground, which was very exciting. So I’d say my research came from everywhere.

Once I had established this framework of what I was looking for, I looked at a lot of daguerreotypes from the period. There are a lot of them in books. There’s this one book in particular, it’s called Dressed for the Photographer. There are a lot of daguerreotypes in there from this specific era. This book deals primarily with the 1850s and 1860s. It describes the photography, what people are wearing, it points out where things have been altered and how you can tell if somebody is a free person or if somebody’s maybe wearing a hand-me-down from the mistress.

But what really compelling for me and told stories maybe even more than the fabric itself, was the look in people’s eyes. If you’re looking at people of African descent, you can see whether they’re born free or born into slavery. They may be smiling, but if they are former enslaved peoples, their eyes are dead. The smile never reaches their eyes and there’s this sadness that tugs even at their smile. For me, I get so much of my information and so much of my design inspiration from people’s facial expressions and their body language.”

TV GOODNESS: You work very closely with production designer Meghan Rogers. Tell me about that process.

Karyn: “Meghan and I have a really great rapport. One of the things we both remarked on when we started the job was how we can tell when we’re watching something, if the costume designer is not talking to the production designer and vice versa.

So we really had a wonderful conversation on-going all the time, whether it was text messages or photographs or actual in-person conversations. You need to have these ideas going around in a circle all the time. It’s ok to wake up in the middle of the night and text me with some great inspiration.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

One of the things that we hit upon in conjunction with Anthony Hemingway and Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, was this idea of making the costumes the same color as the walls and curtains in the plantation to drive home the dehumanization of these enslaved people.

Even though they weren’t physically mistreated as much as the field workers. Their work might not be as physically hard, it was just as hard mentally and emotionally because they were not seen as human but more as upholstery, just completely dehumanized. That was the point of that exercise.”

TV GOODNESS: Other than story concerns, do you keep anything else in mind when you’re designing or coming up with a concept for the costumes?

Karyn: “There’s a great quote from a famous writer who said that art should disappear. And I take this into account when I’m costume designing. Unless the script specifically calls for costumes that are a character in and of themselves, the costume should help tell the story and then disappear. My feeling is that I should design costumes that people subliminally take into account and then forget because the actor’s doing their job. So the costume should disappear in a way.”

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

One of the great examples of my own work that I’m very proud of that I think illustrates this, is The Green Mile. The guards for the prison are wearing uniforms. Guards didn’t actually wear uniforms yet in the 1930s in American prisons.

Except for Sing Sing the guards were the guys with the guns and the cons were the guys in chains. Often the cons were dressed better than the guards because they had made a much better living before they got arrested, so you’ll see cons in what would amount to Armani suits now. They’re in chains, breaking rocks, but I needed to set a specific boundary in The Green Mile.

So I designed these guard uniforms that are in this very authoritative navy blue. They’re very aesthetic uniforms that are based a little bit on New York City police, a little bit on the Air Force and then I included these caps that were basically milkman’s caps from the era to soften the look a little bit. And then I made all of the cons uniforms, all the stripes uniforms, all the trustee uniforms. Everything is made from scratch and nobody has ever, every questioned the costumes in that movie.

To me that’s such a compliment because I feel like it illustrates exactly what I’m talking about – that costumes should appear and tell a story and then take a backseat to what’s actually said on the page or what the actors are actually saying.”

TV GOODNESS: Which character was the most fun to dress?

Karyn: “Miss Suzanna, who is sporting a maternity wardrobe costume. Maternity-wear didn’t actually exist in the era. This woman is so wealthy and so bored that she has had made up all these maternity dresses for her pregnancy, which made us all laugh a lot.

There were maternity corsets to keep their waists as small as possible when they were 7 or 8 months pregnant, which makes absolutely no sense to me but there you go. It’s a thing that really happened. But women would just let out their dresses as far as they could and then wait out the rest of their pregnancy in their nighties. It was called confinement, meaning really that they were confined to their rooms probably because they had nothing to wear, I don’t know. [Laughs.]

They would let out their dressed and then wait out the rest of it. After they had the baby as they regained their figure, they would slowly take their own dresses back in. But I’ve come up with this conceit that this woman was wealthy enough to have new maternity clothes made for herself.”

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

TV GOODNESS: Is there one look from the season you’re most proud of?

Karyn: “I’m very proud of a couple of looks. One of the specific looks that I’m so proud of this season was Elizabeth’s can-can dress for Episode 103 at the Governor’s Ball. The can-can didn’t exist yet and had Elizabeth tried to do the can-can in the actual whalebone construction of the underskirts of the era, she would’ve knocked herself out at the back of the knees.

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television

So I had to construct a dress that made her able to jump on the piano and do some version of the can-can and that was hundreds of yards of tulle, actually gathered one into another layer into another layer until I had a stiff tulle petticoat that would support the dress in the appropriate shape but still enable her to pick it up and shake it in that way we love so much for the can-can.”

Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television
Photo Credit : Sony Pictures Television

TV GOODNESS: I’m really excited Rosalee’s gonna be working with Harriet Tubman next season. What do you know about Season 2 and when do you get back to work?

Karyn: “I get back to work around the beginning of July at some point. I have no idea what’s gonna happen next season, but I can’t wait to find out because I know it’s gonna be amazing because I work with two of the best writer’s in the business.”

Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony PIctures Televsion/AMC
Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Televsion/AMC

TV GOODNESS: I know you also worked on Preacher, which we’ve been enjoyed here at TV Goodness. How did you hear about that and tell me about dressing those characters.

Karyn:Preacher has been an obsession of mine for many, many, many years. I first read the comic books in 2004 and have been chasing this project ever since.

I was lucky enough to get into the room to interview for it. I always take in a 2 or 3-inch binder of ideas and things to bounce around to get the conversation going. I walked in and I sat down and took a deep breath and said, ‘I’m totally obsessed with this project and I’m gonna talk too much, too loud, too fast, too long. So just tell me to shut up when you’re sick of listening to me.’ [Laughs.]

They were very, very sweet about it. I think they took pity on me and said, ‘I think there will be hell to pay if we don’t hire this woman. I can’t imagine the heartbreak, so let’s just take her and be done with it.’ And it’s a lovely, lovely collection of people to work with. Everybody is so open to discussion and the roundtable was just so amazing.

The comic book was draw in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and the comic books reflect that clothing, of course. So trying to update the characters and give them slightly more dimension than they had the comic books costume-wise while still cleaving true to their characters as a lot of fun.

Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC
Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

It was a great challenge and it was a lot of fun with other characters. I had a lot of fun with The Sainted Killers and creating that comic book version of the Old West. The scripts. Such great writers. Every week I’d get the script and you could hear me down the hall howling with laughter ‘cause the scripts are just so good.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: I can tell, and I think anyone who watches either Preacher or Underground, how passionate you are about what you do. What inspires you?

Karyn: “Everything inspires me. The Sun is going down where I am and there’s this really bizarre, I guess you’d call them centerpieces, made out of different kinds of pasta. They’re kind of a little creepy, but the way the sun is hitting them, like they look like some combination of something out of a horror movie mixed with a Venetian painter.

The light is insane right now. The light of this beautiful Mediterranean light. I’m looking at the light hit the pasta. The pasta’s creepy, but the light is beautiful. How would I make that into a dress? How would that translate? Then I look out the window and there’s this beautiful rolling forest outside. I could adapt those shades into decoration at the bottom of a hem.

I’m lucky to be blessed with this very fertile imagination. I can’t even really take credit for it. It’s a gift that I got given. Fabric speaks to me and wants to be one thing. And wood speaks to me and wants to be something else. Sometimes wood wants to be incorporated into a costume.

It just comes to me and we’re off and running. Paintings in museums, the way a dog is sleeping on the floor, sometimes a piece of music turns into a costume and sometimes the painting turns into a piece of music in my head. So, wow. I have no answer for you really.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: I love the way you answered that. It sounds like you get inspiration from everything, which is great.

Karyn: “Yeah. Everything. Truly everything.”

TV GOODNESS: And, finally, if you could dress any TV character from any TV show who would it be and why?

Karyn: “I don’t know how to answer that. I’ll give you what comes to mind right away, which is that it’s always about story for me whether it’s contemporary or period. It’s always about story and helping to tell that story as best as I can.

Two shows that come to mind probably are two of my favorite shows, Carnivale and Deadwood. I love those shows for the depth of their characters. I don’t know if I could top those costumes because they did a brilliant job, but I’d sure love to give it a go.”

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

TV GOODNESS: I think it would have been incredible if you’d been able to work on either one of those shows.

Karyn: “I mean the costume designers who did them did amazing jobs, but my show would look completely different because it’s me.”

Edited for space and content.

Season 2 of Underground returns in 2017. Missed any of Season 1? WGN America is marathoning all 10 episodes on Saturday, July 2nd. Click here to read my interview with Underground composer Laura Karpman.

Preacher airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.

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