Getting the Essex look
Set in Victorian England, The Essex Serpent tells the story of a woman’s search for a mythical creature. Costume designer Jane Petrie talks about finding the show’s style and dressing stars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.
On location in Prague, Jane Petrie is coming to the end of a 10-month shoot during which she has overseen the costume department for the second season of Apple TV+ drama Foundations. Set in a fantastical, futuristic world and based on Isaac Asimov’s novel of the same name, the series follows a band of exiles on a monumental journey to save humanity and rebuild civilisation.
Foundations is the latest in a line of projects that have taken Petrie, who has extensive experience across both film and TV, both back and forward in time and to realistic and alternative worlds, from The Crown and Black Mirror to Top Boy, Harry Brown and 28 Weeks Later.
Wherever and whenever a story takes her, “I’m character-driven and script-driven so whatever hooks are in the script will be my springboard,” Petrie tells DQ. But while shows set in the future can be an entirely creative affair, looking to the past gives her an opportunity to pick and choose the bits she likes best.
One example is Petrie’s most recent series, The Essex Serpent, which debuted worldwide on Apple TV+ last month. Based on the novel by Sarah Perry, the story follows 19th century London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) as she moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. There she forms an an unlikely bond with the village vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
Other characters include Cora’s housekeeper Martha (Hayley Squires) and Dr Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a progressive medic who vies with Will for Cora’s attention.
Petrie will always find interest in picking up a script set in a time or place she hasn’t dealt with before, but if she’s not drawn in by the script, it’s a non-starter. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with The Essex Serpent, which is written by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard. The producer is See-Saw Films.
“The scripts were really good and I wanted to work with Clio because she’s smart and artistic,” Petrie says. “I’d worked with Alice Normington, our production designer, before. I also knew the DOP, David [Raedeker], so I felt like it was going to be a really great creative piece that would be collaborative and open in all the ways you want to work. So it wasn’t the Victorian aspect. If the scripts are good enough then you don’t really care whether it’s contemporary or period, you just want to bring it to life.”
As the series opens, Cora is navigating the bustling city life of London before the story takes her to the Essex countryside. Petrie’s early thoughts on the costumes for the drama revolved around how she might want to represent Victorian England and, more specifically, Cora as she moves between two seemingly opposing worlds.
“We’re really familiar with Victorian England on film, so you don’t want to just rehash that. You want to get a tone and a mood that feels like it belongs with our script and our characters,” she explains. “I wanted London and particularly Cora’s London wardrobe to be really driven by [her husband] Michael’s storyline and the fact she’s coming out of this controlling, abusive relationship.”
That meant Petrie designed Cora’s clothing from the perspective of what Michael would have wanted her to wear, such as restrictive, buttoned-up dresses and coats. “There was a good way of manipulating some of the period shapes into his taste and his controlled way of being and the way he’d abused her,” she continues. “Then for Essex, I wanted to really make it its own place. It needed to feel like a backwater.”
In particular, she drew upon the show’s filming location on the Essex coast and the town of Holland-on-Sea. “I’d been thinking about the fishermen and the Dutch coastline opposite, so there was quite a heavy Dutch influence on the silhouettes of the characters. I mixed that with what I knew of the fishermen in actual old photographs of that area, and just tried to create somewhere that could have that eeriness or the otherworldliness of somewhere that was so alien to Cora, arriving from hyper-modern London.”
One cue Petrie took from Perry’s book was Cora’s frequent use of scarves. Meanwhile, a line in the script called for a Japanese kintsugi vase – ceramics that have been broken and restored with gold – in the hallway of Cora’s London home, which inspired the silk Petrie chose for the blouse Cora is wearing when viewers first see her – black with a gold pattern.
“For Michael, it was very fashionable to collect Japanese art at that time, so Alice was using a Japanese influence for Michael’s travels in her set design and production design and I was able to jump on that,” Petrie notes. “They were the kind of cues I ran with. Blues for Stella were in the script and in the book, but the rest of it, when it’s well written enough, it tells you what to do. I always want to understand where the garments have come from and why they’re in a character’s wardrobe. I do give it an awful lot of thought.”
Cora is very much an outsider when she moves to the Essex village of Aldwinter, where she is met by Will. As someone with a keen interest in archeology and paleontology, and the wider study of science, she is keen to understand the true nature of the so-called serpent and what is behind the mysterious events plaguing the village.
Focusing on the idea of Cora as an outsider, Petrie complemented the character’s London outfits with a travelling wardrobe containing country clothes she would have owned as a wealthy middle-class woman.
“Then I was able to style her in a way that would tell Cora’s story,” Petrie says. “She opens her coat, starts to relax and starts to wear things in a really different way. But it helped that she took these London clothes to Essex, which meant she was often inappropriately dressed for the proceedings. It was useful to work with a London wardrobe that was really honest to that character, and then it gives you the sense of her being inappropriately dressed, because it’s working out of what you imagine her existence would be.”
Meanwhile, Will can be seen in a biscuit-coloured cord suit cut from the same cloth that was used to make a lot of the clothes for the men who live in the village, as Petrie imagined a villager might go to the nearest town and buy a bolt of cloth that would be used to make clothes for their family and other people.
“Even though he’s much smarter and has much more of a gentlemanly look, the fabric that we deliberately chose was from the environment where he was working and of the village,” she says. “Then the rest of his costume was researched. For the other men, there was quite a lot of fun to be had with Luke’s wardrobe, even though it was fairly minimal because of the type of character he is. But we could really go for it. We had fun with the waistcoats and bits of frippery here and there that were quite good fun for the young doctors.”
What is particularly noticeable about the costumes in The Essex Serpent is that each character is dressed in numerous layers. That layering was introduced by Petrie to give director Barnard as much freedom as she needed when it came to filming, so actors could take off coats and hats if they wanted to.
“I wanted everything to be able to work,” she says. “Cora wears a knitted jumper, but we hadn’t really taken into account the reality of the big sleeves and it had never occurred to me that I was never going to get it comfortably into a coat. We had to make another one that was sleeveless so Claire would be comfy in it. Some of it was a cheat, even though I wanted it to be real and able to work in any way you could. It’s not all dead comfy. The truth of the period is a bit cumbersome and lumpy.”
Petrie worked with a core team of designers, cutters and makers to help assemble to costumes for the show, which includes numerous crowd scenes featuring dozens of supporting artists who all needed to be dressed in period attire. Then there was the logistical process of wrapping and shipping the costumes to the various filming locations.
Many items of clothing were rented from costume houses, which provided a rolling stock of village and city wear. Then Petrie would oversee the making of new stock, such as knitwear and hats, all of which was created by her team.
Cora’s personal wardrobe comprised around 20 costumes, with some repeats, such as several different versions of the same coat, and Petrie says she particularly delighted in working alongside Danes.
“I just think women really like Claire Danes. She is a woman’s woman. You meet Claire and you’re like, ‘You’re everything I thought you’d be.’ She’s funny and smart and really great,” the designer says. She also enjoyed dressing Squires, who had just three costumes to wear as Martha.
“I always try to use as few costumes as possible when I’m designing because often the edit will move it around and that can be problematic,” she says. “It doesn’t always serve the visual well if there are costume changes happening all the time. I don’t try to do a lot of costumes. I might put in an extra one or two but, when you’re building the wardrobe at the beginning, there are occasionally times when you think, ‘I don’t need that.’”
Preparing for the series during the first Covid-19 wave meant shopping for fabrics was by appointment only, which made Petrie’s job somewhat difficult. Then when the UK went into a second lockdown at the end of 2020, the shoot was pushed back seven weeks. To avoid losing the entire crew, many continued to work part-time, while the hiatus gave Petrie an unexpected opportunity to spend more time preparing for filming.
In fact, the first time Petrie met Danes was over Zoom. The designer had posted a corset to New York and asked a local contact to conduct a fitting while she watched online. She and Danes looked at it and talked through Cora’s costumes, before Danes made the trip to the UK for “one epic fitting.”
The extra prep time was “an incredible luxury in film because everything’s usually so quick,” Petrie says. “We had tons of time to start thinking about it and improve it, rather than just kind of firing on through your prep. There were pros and cons: it wasn’t easy, but I think my work benefited from it in the end. I just had more headspace, which was great.”
Having graduated in 1992, at a time when just a handful of films were produced in the UK each year, Petrie now finds it harder than ever to build crews and produce the quality of work now demanded by audiences, as the screen industry continues to boom. “I’m sure all departments feel that,” she says. “There’s a lot of work around and you want to get it right and get the good ones, but so much of it is for TV – and the TV schedules are like bullet trains.
“I came through films and even on the lowest-budget, tiniest indies I’ve done, there’s more time to shoot than there is on TV. It would be nice if that levelled out a bit.”
Once a decision is made, “you have to run with it,” Petrie adds. “We’re all aghast at how much work there is at a time when a lot of people are struggling, so we’re incredibly lucky. But you have to make sure you’re being picky and don’t end up on something that’s going to go too fast. I feel quite cautious of the speed of the scheduling. You don’t want to trip up because they’re fast. If I hadn’t been doing it for a long time, I’d be in a blind panic.”