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An interview with Boardwalk Empire costume designer John Dunn.

On Screen Fashion had the privilege and honor to have a chat with the genius that is John Dunn – the man behind the beaded flapper dresses, beautifully cut three-piece suits, and that carnation we see on Steve Buscemi’s lapel – the man behind the costumes of Boardwalk Empire. 

 

On Screen Fashion: I have read that you custom-make nearly all of the costumes for Boardwalk Empire – is that a difficult task?

John Dunn: The truth of the matter is that a large share of the clothing you see in Boardwalk Empire is authentic vintage clothing and clothing from the Hollywood costume rental houses. The number of costumes required for the large crowd scenes you see on the show make it impossible to manufacture everything in the time we have to prep an episode. That said, we make as much as possible for our principal characters in our on-site costume shop. That way we are able to capture the right mood and detail for our lead characters. We make dresses, lingerie, blouses, hat and coats for the female characters. At other workshops, we make suits, shirts, ties and hats for the male characters.

OSF: If you are sourcing items it must be hard to find something from the 20s that is in wearable condition – have you ever found anything that’s in near immaculate condition?

Dunn: Occasionally we will find an accessory or hat in pristine condition, but in general the real clothing we deal with is quite fragile, especially the women’s dresses. A large part of what our in-house costume shop does is re-enforce and restore authentic clothing so it is sturdy enough to withstand an entire day of filming. And unfortunately, we are often the last resting place for some pieces which are sometimes unusable after we complete filming. We’ve had some dresses and lingerie literally self-destruct in the middle of filming. It did make me a bit sad but now I think when that happens we have at least captured them on film instead of them disintegrating in an attic or musty basement somewhere.

OSF: Are you copying a look from the 20s or are you redesigning from that period to make it slightly modernised?

Dunn: We try to be as authentic as possible; this is for several reasons. I like to help the actors to submerge themselves deeply into the period so we like to keep the clothing as “real” as possible. Of course we do some adaption. For instance, our Al Capone is physically quite different from the historical person so we have to adjust for that. Also, I’ve seen way too many period films re-interpret a period to ill-effect. I try to avoid an egotistical “look at me” approach to period design and instead try to give the audience a visual portal into the period.

OSF: What excited you most about working on season 1 and 2? What do you have planned for season 3?

Dunn: We’ve laid a groundwork in season 1 and 2 to show the changes in clothing and style to come. For most decades in the twentieth century, the signature silhouette of the period does not emerge until the middle of the decade. Season 3 will reflect the coming definitive 20s clothing – rising hemline, cloches, etc.

OSF: I have read that you have one of the biggest television costume teams and while being on one of the most expensive television shows ever made – what proportion of the budget is costume? It must be difficult to stick to a budget with such beautiful vintage costumes to buy or to make…

Dunn: We have a large team as everyone who appears on the show comes for a proper costume fitting and their clothing is made to look as if it’s really theirs. This makes for a lot of detailed work and requires many hands. Tailors, drapers, stitchers, milliners, cobblers, dyers, dressers and design assistants. And the logistics of moving the clothing to the various sets requires additional wardrobe positions. I cannot estimate the proportion of the budget as I am only given information about my department’s budget. It is certainly an expensive costume undertaking but HBO is invested in maintaining the highest quality. We do, however, like all the other departments have to carefully budget and analyze the script to determine what we can and what we cannot achieve given the financial and schedule limitations.

OSF: Today we live in a world when if you were walking down the street and you saw two well dressed individuals – it would be hard to tell if they had bought their outfit from a high-street shop or designer shop – whereas in Boardwalk Empire it’s clear who is rich and who is poor (yet still remaining stylish in my opinion) – what’s your opinion on this? Was it hard to make the poor look poor and the rich look rich?

Dunn: On a personal level, I look forward to a time when everyone in the world has access to the same elements of fashion to express themselves as individuals. But Boardwalk Empire is set in a long gone time when the markers of station and position were clearly demarcated in fashion. And shifts in one’s economic situation were accompanied by major shifts in appearance. Now mostly everyone around the world has access to variations of the same fashions. Today, almost everyone rich and poor in Western culture wears some version of t-shirts and jeans. In Nucky and Margaret’s time, people of their position would never appear in public so casually attired. Even appearing out of doors without a hat was just not done. A certain amount of style has been sacrificed in the name of equality.

OSF: We see huge costume transformations in some characters – in particular Margaret Schroeder and Jimmy Darmody which shows how different your appearance can be with money and power – do you prefer them this way or did you like it more when they were working class?

Dunn: I love being able to help tell the story visually; as in life, some people better themselves and others slide into difficult circumstances.  Portraying these changes for the audience are the nature of what good costume design will achieve.

OSF: Nucky is based on a real person – Enoch Nucky Johnson – how accurate did you try and make the outfits similar to his back then? I’ve searched for photographs and they are mostly black and white – was this a challenge?

Dunn: As Steve Buscemi, the actor playing Nucky, is so different from the real Nucky and the real Nucky’s historical appearance is not widely known, we decided to exercise free rein in designing his clothing. We wanted to capture the spirit of the character without creating a carbon-copy.

OSF: Nucky’s statement item is the carnation pinned to his suit – was it a deliberate decision to not have the stem of the flower going through the button hole of the lapel? If so what was the reason?

Dunn: Oops! You caught that!

OSF: How much involvement does director Martin Scorsese have with the costumes?

Dunn: Mr. Scorsese was initially involved and approved all the costumes for all characters in the pilot episode. We’ve used that as a costume template for the entire series as it continues.

OSF: Beauty pageants were a big thing in 1921 Atlantic City – will we be seeing any in Season 3?

Dunn: It’d be great! I’d love to recreate an early beauty pageant. Unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait and see how the story continues to unfold.

Many thanks to John Dunn. 

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2012 costume design nominations for BAFTA, CDG and OSCAR

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for award nomination announcements… I woke up this morning to find my Twitter feed going crazy for the Oscar nominations – not all people are pleased I must admit. I thought I would do a short run-through of who the potential film and television costume design winners this year for BAFTA, CDG and OSCAR could be with a list of 2012s nominees.

BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Arts)

Film:

THE ARTIST – Mark Bridges

HUGO – Sandy Powell

JANE EYRE – Michael O’Connor

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN – Jill Taylor

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY – Jacqueline Durran

 

CDG (Costume Designers Guild)

Contemporary Film:

BRIDESMAIDS – Leesa Evans and Christine Wada

THE DESCENDANTS – Wendy Chuck

DRIVE – Erin Benach

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Trish Summerville

MELANCHOLIA – Manon Rasmussen

Period Film:
THE ARTIST – Mark Bridges

JANE EYRE – Michael O’Connor

THE HELP – Sharen Davis

HUGO – Sandy Powell

W.E. – Arianne Phillips

Fantasy Film:
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PT 2 – Jany Temime

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES – Penny Rose

RED RIDING HOOD – Cindy Evans

THOR – Alexandra Byrne

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – Sammy Sheldon

Made for Television Movie or Miniseries:
DOWNTON ABBEY – Susannah Buxton

THE KENNEDYS – Christopher Hargadon

MILDRED PIERCE – Ann Roth

Contemporary Television Series:
GLEE – Lou Eyrich and Jennifer Eve

MODERN FAMILY – Alix Friedberg

REVENGE – Jill Ohanneson

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – Tom Broecker and Eric Justian

SONS OF ANARCHY – Kelli Jones

Period/Fantasy Television Series:

BOARDWALK EMPIRE – John A. Dunn and Lisa Padovani

THE BORGIAS – Gabriella Pescucci

GAME OF THRONES – Michele Clapton

ONCE UPON A TIME – Eduardo Castro

PAM AM – Ane Crabtree

Commercial Costume Design:

Carl’s Jr.: MISS TURKEY – Francine Lecoultre

Dos Equis: THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD – Julie Vogel

Swiffer: COUNTRY DIRT COWGIRL – Roseanne Fiedler

OSCAR

Film:

ANONYMOUS – Lisy Christl
THE ARTIST – Mark Bridges
HUGO – Sandy Powell
JANE EYRE – Michael O’Connor
W.E. – Arianne Phillips

There you have it!
What are your thoughts?
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