Designing Miss Scarlet: Q&A with the Costume Designer
Eliza Scarlet knows how to fight crime, how to get information, and how to dress. Read our all-new interview with Miss Scarlet & The Duke‘s costume designer, Leonie Prendergast, and learn all about the thoughtful details you may have missed in the costumes, what she loved about the story, and more.
Eliza wears a lot of dark blues and that beautiful red throughout the season. And then with William and his team, it’s a lot of grays and blacks and dark colors. Was that more the style of the time or was that a choice that you made based on the nature of the series?
It was a choice made based on the nature of the series and there was a lot of artistic license with Miss Scarlet’s costume. She has pockets in her skirt, which you wouldn’t have had at the time, and when her father passes away, normally when you’re in mourning, you’re essentially wearing black. But in order to facilitate the story and what happens within the story, she’s straight into her day wear again, in order to tell the story. So there were things that would have been the social etiquette of the time.
Rachael (New) had scripted a blue dress. It’s that idea that she’s ahead of her time, that she stands out in the crowd, and also her way of thinking. She wants to have a career. She’s slightly different to everyone else around her, that was the thinking there. And then the blue kind of mirrors a police uniform, navies and blues are police uniform colors, and the details on the end of her skirt, there’s stripes, and a little chevron detail on the cuff of her sleeve just to mirror the stripes and chevrons on a police uniform. So that’s why you see her in the blue a lot. It is like her uniform that she puts on.
How did you come up with the detailing for the rest of Eliza’s costumes?
A lady of the time of her class wouldn’t be running around Victorian London with all the action she has for the first episode, for example, when she goes to the music hall and meets Moses for the first time. If she had a bag, for example, when she goes to handcuff him, he would preempt that happening. So they came from her pocket. It was about coming up with a way of how to disguise the props and how she could use them. So the idea of the pockets came into play then, and Kate loved them as well because she used them with swagger, hooked like a man with his hands in his pockets.
Rachael wanted a kind of a contemporary feel to the piece. So it was maybe using contemporary styles of design but keeping the Victorian silhouette correct. It was about playing around with that idea. So that she, again, stood out more in relation to the other women around her and Kate just wore them so well. She was an absolute dream to work with, so beautiful and she wore them so well. That’s the key — that the clothes don’t wear her, that she feels comfortable so she can do all her actions.
Were most of the costumes for the series handmade or was it a mix?
So myself and my amazing costume supervisor, Dearbhla, I think we spent four and a half days in London. I think we had three days pulling all the extras’ costumes and two days buying the fabric. So it was all done in a week. And then all of Kate’s, the Duke, Frank, Ivy, some of Ansu’s who played Moses, all of Rupert’s Parker’s, all of Mrs. Parker and the chorus girls’ — they were all made. There was a lot of long nights. And long evenings.
I love the juxtaposition of Eliza looking like this beautiful, refined Victorian lady, but she’s also this action packed business woman.
Even if you take the costume element out of it, in our day today, we put on our armor to make ourselves feel good or a certain way. It’s that thing of putting on your armor. The blue is like her uniform and then when you have your hats, it kind of empowers you. That’s always the sensibility behind it. What will empower someone to go and do something? And then the Duke, Stuart (Martin) was such a joy to dress and it was just that kind of moody character that he is… It was having the contrast between the dark and broody and then the light of her.
They certainly do compliment each other.
It really is a love story. It actually could be set in any time period because of the chemistry between them. We did the first read through and no one’s in costume and everyone’s sitting around a table and the excitement from everyone… Obviously actors, they’re brilliant. They can create anything, but the chemistry was there between them and they got on so well, so it was such a fun shoot and a joy to work with the two of them.
This wasn’t your first period drama by any means, but I know that you’ve also worked on some contemporary projects such as Love, Rosie. Is there a period that you most love designing for, whether it be Victorian or Regency or contemporary?
As I always say, I love scripts, I love storytelling. I love stories, I love film and reading books. It’s like I love a good story. So, it’s always about the character for me and what jumps off the page and then bringing it to life. So I suppose I’ve no particular favorite, to be honest. I love what I do. Victorian (projects) brings different challenges, contemporary brings different challenges.
What kind of research goes into when you’re designing a Victorian series like Miss Scarlet & The Duke? When you’re looking at those costumes, where do you start?
Because I’ve done a lot of Victorian, I would know the silhouette, but then I look at a lot of paintings for inspiration and real-life photographs, as well. And then I look at contemporary. Because if you look, contemporary fashion has always been influenced by Victorian, and film is influenced by fashion, and fashion is influenced by film. There’s so much information on the internet now as well, if you need something quick. I have a body of work of images that I’ve curated over the years, as well, so I always refer back to them.
How did you get into costume design as a career? How did it all start?
My mom and dad were very creative people. Dad, he trained as a carpenter, then he was a musician, and then he was always making stuff. Like in lockdown now, his latest thing is he’s recreating boats from history. My mom always made our clothes, we made the curtains in the house. That’s what we did.
I studied fashion and textiles and history of arts in the National College of Art and Science in Dublin. Then I moved to London and I was doing a lot of work for different fashion designers doing embroidery on their collections. I worked for an amazing woman, she did a lot of embroidery for film and that was my kind of Eureka moment. I went, “Oh, this is it! This is what I want to do.”
I’ve always wondered how many costumes do you have prepared for each character?
It’s story dependent. I use color a lot to tell the story, as well. And then the budget comes into it, and how much time you have to actually get the pieces made. With regards to the extras and what you do with the extras is you get a body. Not every extra has a costume. It means, therefore, that you can dress like a hundred extras with one costume, so you’re not having to redress extras all the time for different scenes. Then the chorus girls, for example, all their costumes were made as well.
Of course you’d love to make 20 costumes for Kate, but also it wouldn’t make sense to the story if she had too much of a wardrobe because her motivation at the beginning to do the first job, it’s because the bills haven’t been paid and they have no money.
I try to take all of those things into consideration as well, but also people love seeing beautiful dresses in a period drama. So, we are trying to get the balance right.
What attracted you to the story?
It was a very easy read when I got the scripts. It’s like you just wanted to find out what happened to the two of them, because I’m a sucker for romance, anyway. Everyone loves that. And in these times as well, it’s lovely to have something visually pretty and a love story. People need all of that in these times, I think. It’s escapism and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong taking yourself away and dreaming for a bit.