How ‘The Great’ Costume Designer Captures Power and Whimsy

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Photo Source: Parisa Taghizadeh/Hulu

On its third season, Tony McNamara’s Hulu series “The Great” still wears its “an occasionally true story” label on its well-tailored sleeve. Much of that is thanks to costume designer Sharon Long, who won an Emmy last year for her work on the show’s elaborate period costumes. On Season 3, she dresses the titular Russian Empress Catherine (Elle Fanning) in bold prints even as she tries to hold onto power in the wake of a life-altering event. “I didn’t let go of the whimsical aspect as we went into tragedy,” Long says.

How did you balance the series’ playful elements with the drama of Catherine’s arc on Season 3? 

We don’t get all the scripts at once, although we sometimes have the vaguest idea of what might happen in the future. One challenge is keeping the character balance when it’s coming at you quite fast. I don’t like to work with lots of waste, so I try to choose fabrics I like and think will work for something. I didn’t anticipate that she would start to wear [her husband] Peter’s clothes. That arc is partly a collaboration with Elle. The scripts are so clever and the world of “The Great” is so rich that how the performances work helps me. 

RELATED: How to Become a Costume Designer 

Your mood boards are a mix of contemporary and historical images. How do you achieve a marriage of authenticity and innovation?

I do look at a lot of period research. Should somebody send me back in a time bubble and I look at the person having their portrait done, they wouldn’t look like that because they’re portraits, have a style, and are in two dimensions. This time, I looked at a lot of drawings and sketches to see movement, because when people are sketching, it’s much freer. Season 2 was a lot about volume on Elle. I was looking at recent runways from Comme des Garçons to anybody using parachute silks or Molly Goddard-type shapes. I was looking at all that and then also [sack-back gowns] and the amount of taffeta in a dress at the time. They do marry together; there are recurring shapes. This time, I did play a lot with florals and woven silks.

Catherine’s toile de Jouy–patterned dress on Episode 3 tells the story of “The Great” through the imagery on the fabric. What was your process for creating that look?  

In the prep, before you even start filming, that’s the time to experiment, and I had a few things going on. One of the things that I started to develop was the toile de Jouy, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. I wasn’t sure if we would be printing it in the more traditional colors, which tend to be more blues and browns for the [era]. Benjamin Thapa, the junior [assistant costume designer], is good on the computer, so he started with vague ideas of what we would do and started finding imagery. It took a good two months to develop it because we had to get clearance on everything. 

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning on “The Great”

Christopher Raphael/Hulu 

You also designed Fanning’s red carpet dress for the Emmys last year. What was that experience like? 

She is an incredible person to collaborate with. She’s got fantastic personal taste, which helps. With the Emmy dress, I’m sure she could have got any number of dresses; but she wanted to be supportive of me and the [costume] department and draw attention to the Edith Head–type collaborations [that can happen with costume designers] and not just be an ambassador for a fashion house. [Instead,] she was an ambassador for costume departments and “The Great.”

Dancing, badminton, running, sex, and fighting are just some of the activities the actors are called to perform on the series. What do you have to consider when assembling layered, corseted costumes to deal with the practicalities of highly physical scenes?

We do test everything. For instance, in the black-and-navy dress [she wears] at the end, Elle had to be able to raise her arms. That’s the skill of the cutting team: They managed to do a tight sleeve with tight armholes, and she can still get her arms above her head. That dress, specifically, had lightweight panniers so that she could dance easily. I wouldn’t put anybody in a corset if they’re uncomfortable. Most of the cast are absolutely happy with the corsets, and I did get them all made [starting] in Season 2 so that they’re comfortable. All the underpinnings are as light as we can get them. I don’t worry too much if there’s some damage; it just gets repaired. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring costume designers? 

I know it sounds ridiculous, but [they should have] a love of clothing and costume. There are quite a lot of people who love film; they come into the costume department loving film and wanting to be part of filming, but [they] don’t actually love costumes so much. A love of clothing, why it’s worn, and who wears it—I think [that’s] important. 

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Backstage Magazine.