Smoke And Mirrors: Why We Buy Into Period Shows

From crumpled chiffon to oversized gadgets, The Connectivist finds out how they get the aesthetics right for the sets and characters of yesteryear.

America has fallen in love with TV shows set in times-gone-by, whether it’s the opulence of Downton Abbey’s 1920s England, the mythological middle ages of Westeros, or the political intrigue of early-80’s Soviet spies in The Americans, viewers are lapping up the diversion that only a decent period drama can give them.

Even Newt Gingrich is smitten.

“Success hinges on mountains of research and an attention to detail that borders on the neurotic”

“I think people like to get away from where they are, with The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, etc. [the time period] gives an other layer to the escapism of television,” says John Mott, Production Designer on The Americans. It’s his job to make sure you believe that’s really how the inside of FBI HQ or a typical suburban home looked some 30-odd years ago.

Claudia
Claudia

Claudia

"Granny's cover is that she always looks like the quintessential perfect wife/grandma/babysitter. The idea is to have her look so safe that she goes completely unnoticed. Love the head scarf–as if she just came from the beauty parlor!" – Jenny Gering

Elizabeth Jennings Incognito
Elizabeth Jennings Incognito

Elizabeth Jennings Incognito

"She is attempting to alter her appearance with false teeth, a wig and a padded dress to change her weight. I had the dress padded with batting and added many layers of clothing to create a subtle shift in the way she carries herself." – Jenny Gering

Philip Jennings
Philip Jennings

Philip Jennings

"Phillip looking devastating! Navy and brown, cashmere and wool. Classic textiles and colors of the time. Note the pleats on the trousers." – Jenny Gering

Paige Jennings: clueless about her parent's occupation
Paige Jennings: clueless about her parent's occupation

Paige Jennings: clueless about her parent's occupation

"Paige is 13 and trying to act like a grownup. She starts wearing tighter clothes, get her ears pierced and wears heels. But there are times she still wants to be a child. I like playing with that contrast." – Jenny Gering

Stan, FBI Agent
Stan, FBI Agent

Stan, FBI Agent

"Stan has spent years assuming various identities as an undercover agent, and now that he's got a desk job, he approaches it with the same mind set. He will look the part as best he can, hoping to become that person." – Jenny Gering

The American Dream
The American Dream

The American Dream

"They look settled, comfortable, healthy and prosperous. The American dream. I like dressing them in classic upscale textiles with just a hint of fashion forward styling. They are trustworthy, but cool parents!" – Jenny Gering

Sandra Declares Her Independence
Sandra Declares Her Independence

Sandra Declares Her Independence

"This dress would have been something she wore to a friend's wedding within the last couple of years. But her coat and bag wouldn't necessarily match the dress. This would be effortless for Elizabeth, but Sandra doesn't have her level of confidence." – Jenny Gering

The Ska and Mods Look
The Ska and Mods Look

The Ska and Mods Look

"Gregory and his crew are based on some street photography of guys hanging out. This is just prior to the Rap look we most identify with Run DMC." – Jenny Gering

Elizabeth in Prim Disguise
Elizabeth in Prim Disguise

Elizabeth in Prim Disguise

"Vintage pieces layered to emphasize prim, serious and nondescript. Modeled after my 7th grade history teacher. She is actually carrying my sister's high school book bag!" – Jenny Gering

Success hinges on mountains of research and an attention to detail that borders on the neurotic, as well as a certain amount of panache and subtlety that enables the designers to convince the viewer to buy into the show without thinking twice. It’s not always obvious to the average viewer when designers get it right but “when it’s wrong it can be really distracting,” says Jenny Gering, costume designer for The Americans.

It’s not uncommon (as was the case with The Americans) for a pilot to be produced and then be sent out to a flurry of production and costume designers like Mott and Gering. If it interests any of them then they talk with the creators of the show about becoming part of the team.

“When I was told it takes place in 1981, I couldn’t have been happier,” remembers Gering, “for me that was godsend.” Indeed, the show’s setting in the early days of the Reagan era is quite unique.

“The Cold War was still pretty cold. It wasn’t anywhere near thawing yet, and fear is a constant subtext”

Mott has designed props and sets for productions set in more theatrical times from the Medieval to the Roman. But he says working on The Americans presented him with a different challenge altogether. “I lived though it, the tension of the Cold War,” he says “and the pilot brought all that back to me.”

Both the designers lived through the 80s (though Gering was only 13 at the time of The Americans) and the temptation is to “think you know it all–but you don’t’” says Mott. The two of them constantly took efforts to ensure they didn’t let the complacency of their own experiences and memories seep into their set and costume designs–one of the reasons they both spent an ungodly amount of time buried in their research.

Mott starts by looking at the macro trends of the era: what was happening politically, socially and culturally, and how they might have influenced the aesthetics and product choices in each scene. “The Cold War was still pretty cold. It wasn’t anywhere near thawing yet, and fear is a constant subtext,” he says.

“I happened to be in a Brooklyn vintage store and believe it or not they had a stack of Playboy magazines from 1981. I snapped them up”

Then he hones in on more specific examples like particular artists of the time. “Art in the early 80s expressed a lot of inner angst. I’d even go as far to say that the Punk movement is a manifestation of this.”

The Americans was Gering’s first venture into the period design world and she started her research undertaking on a more serendipitous note. “I happened to be in a Brooklyn vintage store and believe it or not they had a stack of Playboy magazines from 1981. I snapped them up. They have adverts and also feature articles on fashion, all of which helped,” she says. “From there it was just take your pick online,” where she could access or order innumerable different magazines or catalogues from the time. The 1981 Sears catalogue proved to be particularly useful, she says, because it gave a prime example of what people were wearing off the catwalk.

Gering used the late Princess Diana like a sort of fact-check

Strangely enough Gering used the late Princess Diana “like a sort of fact-check.” If anyone would query or question whether a particular costume was typical of the era, she’d look back and try and find an example of the when the princess was wearing something similar.

But designers aren’t always blessed with such a stylish fact-checking device and Mott says “while the research is very important … we have to draw a line between total reality, which is probably pretty dull, and total fantasy.”

Much of The Americans is shot within the FBI’s headquarters, the entirety of which is made up from Mott’s imaginings, based on the style of the period. He had no idea what it looked like from the inside but because he’d done his homework, the viewer is none the wiser. In fact, he reckons it was decidedly blander that the set he designed.

There are other occasions when “you’re forced by circumstances to go against history.” For example, some sets for other shows and movies just need electricity even though it’s set before it outlets wires were actually commonplace, says Mott, “do we fudge it sometimes? Yes.”

“I’m terrified to see someone say that something wasn’t right with the costumes. I’d be mortified”

Making an error or oversight that doesn’t get caught before an episode is aired keeps Gering up at night. “I’m a big fan of blogs. I look at the comments and I’m terrified to see someone say that something wasn’t right with the costumes. I’d be mortified.”

But, she concedes, “it’s not just about getting it right.” The role of a good designer is to enhance the visual experience and help actors delve into the time period and character they’re portraying. “Mad Men is a great example. Each character is an individual and the costumes are so descriptive of who’s wearing them,” says Gering.

As for our current obsession with period shows, it’s “just like in the 1930s during the depression when there were all those movies about rich heiresses,” says Gering. It makes sense that during hard times we want to re-visit the good times.

Mott and Gering spend most of their time making it look like they were never there but occasionally the props or costumes surprise you and stick out–but not it a bad way. “The spy tools and the spy stuff in The Americans is something that we tried really hard to get right,” says Mott, but you might be taken back by just how sophisticated their technology really was three decades ago. “That’s a good example of doing your research and finding out that they had more than you assumed they did–it wasn’t just an agent with a tape recorder.”

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