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. 

Boardwalk Empire – who knew the Prohibition was so god damn stylish?

Boardwalk Empire first graced our TV screens in September 2010, and boy are we glad it did! Having comparisons to Mad Men, particularly in the fashion scheme of things – Boardwalk Empire is making the Prohibition look desirable in terms of styling and costume. Forget Mad Men and the Sixties – it’s all about the Twenties now.

In case you are not familiar with the 1920s period drama (shame on you if this is the case!) here is a short summary of what the award winning TV series is all about:

Based during the Prohibition era, Boardwalk Empire focuses on  Enoch “Nucky” Thompson a corrupt political figure who controlled Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1920s and 1930s yet was bootlegging alcohol himself. Adapted from the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson – the HBO TV series was scripted by award winning screenwriter and producer Terence Winter of The Sopranos. Now come on, HBO joining forces with Terence Winter had success written all over it from the beginning. That’s not all. Directing this masterpiece is no other than Martin Scorsese who is well known for his gangster films such as Goodfellas, therefore the perfect choice in showing the criminality and violence in Boardwalk Empire. The first episode had a final cost of $18 million which received the title of the most expensive pilot episode ever produced in television history.

The love I have for this television programme is strong. A true love at first sight moment was had when I first watched the trailer below, now you give it a try.

Costume designer John Dunn is the man to thank for the brilliant costume choices shown in both series one and two. Just thinking about what the wardrobe would be like on the set of Boardwalk Empire is far too exciting, it would be more like a three-story department store than a wardrobe.

Beautifully cut suits, period lingerie, beaded flapper dresses, top hats and perfectly polished 1920s shoes are so very desirable and goes to show what life you could lead back then with power on your side.

Don’t worry this is not the last time you will read about Boardwalk Empire on here, I’m a massive fan in case you hadn’t noticed, so keep your eyes peeled. Coming soon: How to dress like you’re from the Prohibition era – Boardwalk Empire v.s. high street.

Catch Boardwalk Empire on Sky Atlantic, Wednesdays at 10.15pm

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