Interview with ‘The Essex Serpent’ Costume Designer Jane Petrie

The Essex Serpent - Interview with Jane Petrie

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Jane Petrie is the costume designer behind the dramatic ensembles on The Essex Serpent. From the restrained fashions of London to the earthy townspeople of Aldwinter, her looks elevated the world-building and complemented the storytelling for the period drama starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.

Petrie has been busy at work on Season 2 of Apple TV+’s Foundation, but the Emmy-award winner kindly made the time to chat with us over zoom about her craft. She detailed creating a visual language, sourcing and making costumes during lockdown, and more for the show.

You can listen to the full audio of our chat below. It is preceded by an interview with executive producer/screenwriter Anna Symon and then the interview with Jane Petrie starts at 16:45.

Transcript of Interview with Jane Petrie – Costume Designer for The Essex Serpent

You said you’ve been busy. Are you working on Foundation now?

Jane Petrie: Yeah, yeah, I’m on season two of Foundation. We’re just coming towards the end of it, actually. That’s why I feel like I might be able to kind of surface and, and catch up with the Essex Serpent properly.

What was your process for starting to create for the show? Did you draw inspiration from the book or the screenplay? You know, how do you get from the blank page to, to your designs?

JP: Well, when you’ve I mean, I trust my instincts, really, I think when you read a well-written script,  it kind of tells you what to do.

So you draw on your past experience and your sort of own taste and your experience to help you. But you’re my instincts. It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t find The Essex Serpent difficult to design because it is because it’s really well written and the characters are good, fully rounded kind of humans that you want to kind of go on a journey with. So it wasn’t too difficult. But I’ve done the period before, I think, a bit like maybe your Westerns or something, you know, the kind of 1890s is a Victorian England is something that, that we have a lot of our stories, it’s either that or World War II there are an awful lot of our stories are told during that time. It was a high point culturally.

So it’s a period that I was familiar with, and that I’d worked on in the past. So I definitely didn’t want to do I mean, I would hope I would never want to but I certainly didn’t want it to be kind of standard Victorian fare, you know. So, I was left on the kind of aesthetics that Alice Normington was working with for her set design because we’ve worked we designed Suffragette together, which isn’t far off the period. And I’ve known Alice quite a long time. So I knew what she was doing with the sets for Cora’s world. So I sort of hooked up with Alice. And then I knew that for Essex, we wanted this really otherworldly kind of backwater. And I wanted to kind of push that as well. So I didn’t want just another Victorian village, because we’ve seen so many of them.

You mentioned, I think in an interview earlier that you had specifically chosen Dutch costumes for Aldwinter and Essex? Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

JP: Yeah, I didn’t specifically. I was influenced by Dutch costume. Yeah, I hope that we were sort of [away] we’d moved somewhere else that became Aldwinter, by the time [it kind of] they were our costumes. But I know that in the past, there was a lot of the trade between the Essex coast and there’s sort of Netherlands and that kind of coast of Europe as well. And the fishing communities had contact and there was trade. And then further, just around the corner from where we were filming, when I looked at the map and where the story was set. There was a little village called Little Holland. And I think there was clearly an authentic Dutch influence in the area at the time, which didn’t really come up in visual research for me, but I reckoned you know, it was somewhere really nice that we could explore to sort of have a bit of a visual language of our own for Aldwinter.

Did you get to visit that area before? You know, before the show started filming, in the process of your research?

JP: Yeah, we went on some […] out to the coast. So we were we knew the kind of the landscape and that you know, it’s a bit of a cliché to see it but you know, London’s London is a bit of a, you know, the London story and Michael side is kind of one world and then the Essex, the Essex landscape is that quite a character in that part of the story itself.

So we were both Alice and I were drawing off this sort of texture and the feel and the mood and the kind of zone that you go into in a moody kind of foggy day out there as well, we definitely drew on that on the landscape itself for you know, both of our starting points, I think.

So I sort of put that together with the, the mood along with this kind of Dutch influence, and with everything that I knew about kind of fishing communities in England, well, in Britain, really, because the fishing communities have a very strong historical look as well, you know, the old fisherman’s jumpers they used to have different villages would have different parts, knits in their patterns. So if of a boat went down, and somebody was washed ashore, and they could, the town they came from, the village they came from, could be identified by the knit of their jumpers.

Oh, wow.

JP: You know, there’s, there’s a really great rich, sort of fishing, community textured, you know, in, in Britain. So I was trying to draw on some of that and create kind of our language for our village, really. And I wanted it to feel like something that was unfamiliar to the viewer as a remote part of England. So hopefully.

[The feed briefly dropped due to technical difficulties..]

So we were talking about the, you know, the fishing knits and how you developed all of that, and how you, you know, even came upon that idea, because that’s something you know, that’s something that really stands out and the historical, you know, accuracy and research with the show.

JP: Yeah, I think I mean, I knew quite a bit about, I’d read quite a bit about fishing communities and the and this sort of clothing. And then we wanted to use all these sort of waxed cloth, and it’s so earthy, and kind of like almost like a mud cloth kind of color. Because it’s a really muddy story. And there was an awful lot. You know, so we were sort of trying to sort of hone in on on on the world and the people being of that place, you know, and that’s a very sort of closed community really. And then the London the language that we use in London was when Alice Normington had been designing the house, that is Michael’s house, where we first meet Cora, because that relationship was abusive. I designed all of her costumes through Michael’s eyes. So I wanted it to feel that he chose all of her clothes, and he’d had a very sort of strong input if not complete control over all of her clothing in London. So that as she starts to kind of recover and come into her own place in Essex, all of her clothes and things could sort of start to open up and we, you know, she goes into recovery and everything sort of gets a bit lighter and a bit easier after the release of the all the tension of London.

It really comes across in the clothes because she’s very, you know, buttoned up and stiff in London. Was the intention kind of – can you talk about that transformation? And how you know how that came up? How you kind of decided to reflect her journey, Cora’s journey in her clothes because that’s such a, that’s such a neat, neat bit of it.

JP: Well, because I come my, my kind of background is, is really I’ve done a lot of realism and I did a lot of really kind of gritty urban realism when I first started to design but I’d come through period in my training, kind of putting those two things together. I wasn’t going to go and design Cora a whole new wardrobe for when she was in Essex, because it didn’t make any sense to me. All that made sense to me in terms of the logic of the story was that she was taking her London wardrobe because that’s what she owns, she was taking that she had some traveling clothes, which was the grey coat which had a sort of detachable hood, which would allow it to serve more than one purpose. And then I sort of built her a sort of a traveling wardrobe. And she had her London evening dresses, which meant that she was brilliantly inappropriately dressed for some sequences in Essex, kind of comedy as well. And then I also wanted to be able to get her into her kind of fossil hunting gear. So we had some stuff left over in the that was set dressed actually into the cottage, some leftover kind of trousers in the brown hat, they were set dressing in the cottage as though they’d be left by the previous owner so that I could justify all of the looks and get her into that kind of relaxed Essex look by styling the existing wardrobe rather than kind of just conveniently having loads of new clothes when she got there. Because there wasn’t time in the in the story, there was no place that she could have bought them in that village. You know, it just had all come out of something logical for me.

Now, can you talk a little bit about working with Claire Danes? Was the process collaborative was coming up with her costumes. Can you describe how that all worked?

JP: Yeah, I think it may have been, I absolutely loved working with Claire Danes, actually, just first of all, because I think as a I think women really like Claire. You know, and she’s cool. And she and I talked and I was, you know, it was true that she was going to be a woman’s woman. And she is. She’s really cool and smart and funny and generous and brilliant to work with, I really, really like Claire.  And I think if we’d been if it had we this was all during the second lockdown here, second COVID lockdown.

So some of the collaborative angles were slightly thwarted by that. So Claire was in New York for nearly all of the prep and didn’t come over, and the dates of the shoot pushed. So we would have zoom meetings, and I had to get our first set of measurements and her first corset fitting done by posting the corset and getting somebody to go and work with it in New York, and none of us could travel.

Oh, my goodness.

JP: So doing it in a new way, probably for both of us where, you know, typically, you have your first session, and you just try on loads of shapes, loads of really great kind of period clothing and you figured out what starting to work, this is how I would do it. Just look at some shapes on her or, you know, on the actor, whoever it is, and figured out the direction. And then I would take all of those answers with me into the workroom and start designing specifically for the character on that body with the input from that actor. But we couldn’t really do that. And Claire then because of the restrictions was going to arrive quite late into the prep. So we had a few zooms. And I saw I started sending her. We did some fitting photos on, we did some mannequins, I think I got a body double in at one point to try a load of clothes on somebody who was measured up to the same as Claire so that I could kind of take a look at everything moving. And I ended up sort of doing show and tells with her, but with photographs and a little bit of video long distance. And she was really great. And it was really collaborative. But it was really a new way of doing it because I had to go further than I’ve ever gone before with a lead actor. Before I met them physically for the first time.

And that it’s really it seems very challenging, you know, especially in COVID times and, kind of jumping into that almost. Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with Tom Hiddleston? Was it similar? Was it you know, was he in the UK? How did that [work]?

JP: Yeah, Tom was here. So, but only for a little bit because he had something he had. He was in London and again, it wasn’t I don’t even think it was work. I can’t even remember why. But I saw Tom briefly once at the very, very, very sort of early stage of prep and then I didn’t see him again in a very similar way until much much later. And I can’t remember why and it was it would be to do with lockdown. I think I can’t remember but we were able it because we were in this sort of bubble. I can’t remember why but again with Tom. I mean his wardrobe was quite straightforward.

It was just having the conversations with him about what the village was and who the people that inhabited the village were. And that we had this kind of, he’s got that kind of palor suit that he wears, which is more like a corded sort of cotton. And he really liked that we’d made a toile actually in a suit for him to try on in that cotton. And that was what we called our village cloth and all of the clothes that we made for the villagers, for the men who had to get muddy and needed repeats, we’d use that cloth and we called it the village cloth.

And then Tom really liked it. And he really liked the idea of, you know, his character being kind of really, really part of the village and part of the people and sort more of a man of the people. So we ended up sticking with it. And we didn’t move on to another wool. We were going to make it in wool, and then we stuck with the village cotton in the end.

So it was collaborative. Yeah, very much so because even though there was very little, he was really involved in it. And enthusiastic, it was great.

You’ve mentioned a few times about kind of the mud and the bog, and I’m going to ask kind of, I guess, not so much a costume question, but a practical question. Were there challenges in keeping this all clean? And you know, I wonder about that personally. How do you manage that when you’re working in the mud and the wetness and all of that?

JP: Yeah, it’s it’s just really great standbys, the people who stand by onset looking after the cast and sort of looking after the continuity of the costumes. It’s down to their experience and kind of enthusiasm and keeping their spirits up because it’s, it’s a graft, the thing is, it’s just a graft. And yeah, they, you know, there’s all the practical things that you can do. And you know, they have to do changes and we get looked after, so that we’ve got a warm tent to go into if everybody gets cold and wet and muddy that we can keep people up and get them changed. But it’s, it’s really down to, it’s like work, it’s just, it’s just hard, hard graft and having a good team of people at board set those that both ends, you know, it’s practical, you’ve got somebody running back and forward with kettles or water if you need hot water bottles, you know?

I mean, the mud’s real so you’ve just got to kind of we’re all everyone. You’re all ideas in the, on the table. If anyone can make anyone’s life kind of more comfortable.

[There was a brief break.] So you mentioned the village cloth that you, you know, that you kind of came up with? Can you talk about some of the other pieces and how you, you know, how you came upon them? How you got them, you know because you don’t exactly walk into a department store and pick up something from 1893. So I imagine it was it was a little bit different.

JP: Yeah, so, I mean, you can rent some clothes from that period, you can still get some things in the costume rental houses that are really useful. And it’s always good to go and look at all those original garments as well. We used to we used a lot but I have a lot. I’ve collected quite a lot over the years as well. And I’ve always got things that I’ve picked up here and there that with an intention to you know, come the right project that will be useful.

So there was quite a lot of the knitwear and some of the things that we developed for the village came out of things that I’ve picked up over the years that were kind of little bits of eccentric kind of pieces of knit, or kind of shirts and skirts or some nice fabrics and bits, just bits and pieces that I’ve I’ve collected.

I just thought, well, what am I saving all this for, we might as well use it because the shops were shut, it was really hard to kind of make anything in the way that you might normally. What was hard was picking up anything in quantity. So we had quite a lot of my collection and my sort of pieces that we wanted to work from, then we went and looked at original garments in the costume houses was where you could kind of get in on an appointment basis when, you know, they would just sort of let us in one at a time. And we’d have this big space all to yourself.

So we did a lot of research in that way. And then the original garments that we used are largely mine. We bought some from dealers and we bought some, you know, in I think I think there was some caps and bonnets that we got shapes from that we borrowed from a collector. And yeah, we did that. I’d forgotten about that we went to visit a collector who had some really good children’s wear so we sort of borrowed some and took some patterns from some of those old original pieces.

But I think really because I had so much stuff that I’d collected. And because this is for the village, more than London, London was a lot more rental. Because it’s a bit more straightforward. But for the village, because I had so much fabric that I’d collected. I mean, I’ve been kind of picking up stuff, I had a vintage clothes stall in the early 90s. And I’ve had stuff forever that it was just the right time to kind of raid my own boxes and use it all.

So we just started using it and, and it gave everything a bit of an eclectic feel in terms of the pieces that were put together in the village. You know, there was repairs, there were things that were slightly patched together. And the fact that we were restricted by the amount of fabric helped, I think, and the restrictions meant we were creative with our repair work. And we had quite a lot of knitting done by my supervisor’s mother-in-law, you know, it just wasn’t a normal setup. It was and it was strangely helpful.

Now, so you mentioned that you used to have a vintage clothing store.

JP: A stall.Yeah. Portobello market. Yeah. In the 90s in London, yeah.

Can you talk about, you know, the jump from that to this? Because that sounds like, like a really interesting story.

JP: And it wasn’t a jump, I’d already been in studied costume and done my degree. And I was working in costume when I had that stall. I just, I’ve just always done the second-hand markets and the jumble sales and yard sales or you know, anything like that. And I just, there’s always so I started to do to get rid of stuff. And then I did it for a couple of years, just as a kind of, you know, a bit of extra cash when you’re starting out, you’re a trainee and you don’t earn much money.

Do you have any advice for people that are trainees now or that are just starting out and kind of want to jump into the field and are at the beginning of their careers?

JP: Yeah, I [..] think that don’t undervalue any work experience. I often get asked this. And, and I think if you if you come to me as a sort of a recent graduate who’s really passionate about costume, and you’ve never had a job and you don’t know how to work, I don’t want to have to teach you how to work, I can help you be a really good assistant, I can help you. I can teach you how to work set, I can, you know, we can teach you lots and lots of things, but I’m not going to teach her to work.

So I think it’s I think often people think well, I better not put my waitressing job down on my CV when I’m you know, writing in. And I think if you can actually work and know how to behave in the workplace when you turn up, that’s helpful. And, you know, my Saturday job when I was in college was in a flower shop and I still use those skills in costume. Now, you know, it’s helpful if you’re doing millinery or headdresses that you can, you know, sort of do for some floristry. So it’s not so much. It’s sort of about valuing the experience that you maybe already have.

We’ve talked a lot about the different characters and we’ve talked about, you know, how their costumes kind of reflected the feeling and things you are going for. Are there any particular costumes from the show that you’re very proud of that you want to, talk a little bit more about? Is there anything that was, kind of challenging to pull off and that you’re happy that you did?

JP: I think that we’re all happy that we pulled it off. In, in the peculiar circumstances of lockdown because it was, you know, it was quite, some of it was quite emotional for a lot of people. So the kind of team was, the Teamwork was great. And the bonding that happened during it was really, really good for all of us. And then creatively, I had a bit of a break on the Essex Serpent, because there was, I think, I don’t know, if somebody got COVID, or something happened, I can’t remember, maybe somebody had COVID, who was in the cast, or some I can’t remember. But we, the shoot dates pushed, and we all went part-time, onto a 3day week for something like five weeks in the middle of prep.

Oh, wow.

JP: And that’s, that’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, it was absolutely fantastic, just to be sort of really in it, and then just have just a chunk of extra time for which was just really a lot of thinking. And it allowed us to do a lot of handwork and do some of the hand sewing and just that extra bit of time where we could do some of this slow work that you normally just, you know, things that are quite a lot of costume. I mean, it’s there’s no shortcuts is you can’t there’s nothing. It’s definitely analog, you know, you there are no shortcuts. So, if you get extra time, then it’s extra hand sewing because extra slow making that’s just incredibly helpful on-screen, you know, just to get time is the most valuable thing. So that was great. I didn’t mind that it was part-time in the slightest just extra headspace was brilliant.

[..] So you’re just finishing while you’ve already finished the Essex Serpent and then you’ve made that shift to Foundation? How was getting in a different headspace for that? Because it is a shift. You know, they’re very different, different shows.

JP: Yeah, yeah, they’re very different. I had a holiday. That was the best shift. I had a break. And then I don’t know, I think I think by the end of the Essex Serpent, you know, it wasn’t as intense it had settled down. We were all we were it wasn’t some sort of wasn’t the same as Foundation where we’re going for you know, you’ll go from planet to planet or, you know, you change worlds. The Essex Serpent was kind of quite calm by the end, and there was nothing new going on.

So I was probably finished when we finished, you know, there wasn’t a kind of a hangover of me from being all adrenaline-fueled and still busy with it, you know, so, yeah, we just went on holiday and then came back with a clear head. So that was, yeah, it’s okay. Oh, that’s right. And, you know, Foundation’s exciting. It was like, Oh, wow, you know, and that, and that’s what gets you up in the morning and kind of makes you want to do is, you know, you read a script, and it just you can’t stop your juices. So, you’re in again.

To go back to the script a little bit and to go back to the script for the Essex Serpent. […] Can you talk about working with the director and how everything came together to come up with a mood for the show. Because, you know, the costumes are so big, they’re so reflective of that. They really elevate all of the storytelling.

JP: Oh, thank you. Well, I don’t know how to I don’t want to put this in… I don’t want this to be kind of taken the wrong way. But I think it really helped that there were loads of women involved in the, you know, producing and directing and production design and me and you know, that because it was really kind of Cora’s story. You know, we just talked a lot, we talked an awful lot and Clio’s got a fine art background. So she’s got a really great visual eye.

And we talked a lot about the feelings and the emotions, and for what would be reflected in each part of the journey and where Cora was at emotionally, I think that we did an awful lot of talking that wasn’t necessarily looking at mood boards, and I mean, we did an awful lot of that. But we also just chatted a lot about what the story was, what the journey was, what it was really about where she was, was that coming out, you know, recovery from abuse, all of the different themes, and then the impact that the landscape and you know, the cost would have when you were in recovery.

So I think that we, we spent a lot of time getting into the same zone, that by the time, everything started to get quite busy, we all really knew the tone. And we really knew the mood and the feeling that we wanted to get into each of our own departments. So I think we all sort of supported each other with that in a way.

That was because Clio’s really, she’s really collaborative, she’s really sensitive, she’s smart. But she’s really open to, you know, I could talk to her about something I could we could, we could talk about a piece of music that would have figured for both of us that would have given us the feeling of a scene as easily as I could have shown on a piece of historical research showing up, you know, a corset.  it was much, it was a very, it’s almost like when you work with theater directors, you have these kinds of conversations, and I think her fine art background really meant that we were, we were really digging deep, creatively. It was brilliant.

This has been amazing. And I want to make sure that I’m respectful of your time too, because I think we’ve gone over, and I’m very much appreciative of that. But is there anything last that you want, that you kind of want people to know about the show and the costumes?

JP: I didn’t do it all on my own, you know, I can have whatever’s in my head. And whatever quality of idea I have can only get onto the screen with the, you know, with the right team of people around me making all of you know, putting all their skills and the effort and their care and attention to detail and love of the job and into it. It doesn’t matter what I think or how inspired I am by.

[There was a brief loss of audio.]

JP: So what I was trying to say is that, it doesn’t really matter, how, how well, I can imagine something if I haven’t got the right people around me to kind of make it real. And I have a really fantastic team of people who I’ve worked with quite a few of them. We’ve worked together for years. So we know each other really well. And it’s the team that really kind of can get it onto the screen as well. Because, you know, if I can take credit for some of it, but it’d be nice if I could have the best ideas going. And if I haven’t got the right team of people around me, it’s not going to get to the screen.

You know, it’s the team are fantastic. They’re really great. And they worked so hard. And it wasn’t easy. And you know, people are juggling a difficult home life during lockdown. And you know, it’s really credit to an awful lot of people that it looks good.


Note: There were a few double words and filler removed from the above transcript for clarity.

If you’re curious about The Essex Serpent, be sure to check out our review.

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What is your favorite part about the costumes from The Essex Serpent? Did anything in the interview surprise you? Please share your thoughts with us on Twitter @MyCosmicCircus.

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