John Dunn is an Emmy-nominated costume designer whose TV work includes Hunters, Castle Rock, Vinyl, Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. His film work includes Casino (1995), Basquiat (1996), Birth (2004), Factory Girl (2006), I’m Not There (2007) and Away We Go (2009).

We discussed the Apple TV show Dickinson, starring the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson. We discuss the similarities between the 1850s and 1960s, the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Prince on the character of Death and the mind-boggling level of colour and pattern in the men’s clothing of the day.

What kind of research into the time period and location did you do for Dickinson?

I did a great deal of research in museums, of course, because I really wanted to have a very accurate silhouette for the period. I did a lot of photo research but of course, the photography of the period (which was a new art-form) was black and white. So I really wanted to dig into the actual garments and fabrics of the time. So I spent time at museums in New York and other cities.

In Episode 2, there is a great sequence where Emily and Sue disguise themselves as men to attend a lecture. There is a montage of them trying on different outfits – can you tell me about this sequence and the costume choices for this part?

Well it was a complicated sequence to film because as you may know, in that period of the 1850s, the number of layers of clothing that women were required to wear were numerous to say the least. So we quickly edited down the clothing they were wearing as women to pieces they could get in and out of quickly, yet everything we used was still accurate – the bloomers, the corsets, all of the bits. Then we thought “where on earth would they be getting this men’s clothing?” So we thought that certainly there would have been trunks and things that were stored away, so what we assembled was what we imagined relatives’ castaway clothing that was being stored. So we were using pieces that were of a slightly earlier period than 1850, when our series is set. I laid out clothing for the actresses (Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Hunt) to try in the sequence and I pretty much let them assemble what they thought their characters would choose. There was a careful edit of what I put in the room with them, of course and I think they came out with really wonderful boy’s outfits.

In Episode 3, you have a big party scene – there’s the girlier girls like Emily’s sister Lavinia and Jane Humphreys in their frills and flowers and long gloves. Emily, on the other hand, has a deep blue silk dress – but it’s quite simple, it doesn’t have any patterns or frills although she does have fingerless lace gloves. Could you tell me about how Emily’s costume for the party is contrasted with the other women?

I think what we were going for with the various looks for the actresses in that scene is that it creates a contrast where Emily’s head is in a very different space to most of the other young people and certainly many of the other women of her time. We wanted to show a person who was cut from a different cloth and was in this environment in Amherst, Massachusetts that was really restrictive. In that society people get caught up in the latest fashions and there’s where we were going with most of the young women in the scene. They would have all the correct bits and laces and flowers, but for Emily, even though she’s still young at this point, we wanted to indicate that she really more a person of what was going on inside her head than what was out in the social world. She was very in-tune with nature and the world around her but she was really trying to sort out what she was looking for and finding kindred spirits. I think the clothing reflects that. She knows that she has to tow the line to a certain point, as far as wearing the corsets and wearing the bloomers but I think she liked to really refine and simplify her look. That was also sort of a nod towards her poetry as well, because her poetry is really quite different from anything that had happened before in the history of poetry in America. We wanted to demonstrate the simplicity that is in her poetry and in her physical presentation at that point.

My favourite outfit in the whole show is the one Emily wears when she visits Thoreau (John Mulaney), it’s a blue and white dress with a brown embroidered jacket. Why did you choose this outfit for that particular moment?

This was a period when pattern was huge. I really liked demonstrating in the series throughout that there’s a pre-conceived notion that the America of the 19th century was very dark and somber. We did go through a particularly horrendous war in the 1860s so that colours our contemporary feel for the 19th century. But in fact, in the 1850s in America, there was insane exuberance in the clothing, it was kindred to the 1960s I would say, where the love of pattern and the juxtaposition of paisleys and stripes and florals were all the rage –  and that’s just the men’s clothing!

Thank you for liking that outfit so much because I struggled with that one. I did feel that Emily felt like she was about to meet a kindred spirit and his writing and her poetry are so much about nature. So I felt like it was something that she put on to let Thoreau know that she’s a kindred spirit, even though he was a radical, she responded to that radicalism. It was a very difficult design in that the pattern was quite challenging, as far as the 1850s silhouette went. I found the fabric and we have to really manipulate fabrics to bring out their best. I remember the bodice of that was a major puzzle for us because there’s a lot of exuberant pattern going on but we actually wanted it to be quite beautiful.

We had to layer it with a jacket, it was only proper for a woman at that point to have a little travelling jacket and a bonnet of course. It felt right for somebody who wanted to be of nature and who thought she was going to the person who was her messiah, as far as that goes.

In Episode 5, Emily tries to put on a performance of Othello. There’s a montage of Emily and her friends dressing in costumes from different Shakespeare plays, such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What were the challenges involved in this sequence?

Of course, in the episode, it plays almost like a music video and you just get little pops of everybody. In fact, at that point home-based Shakespeare Clubs were very popular and we had some photo research of people doing the best they could to simulate Othello or The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream out of the bits and pieces they might be able to find in their home. So, again, much as we did when the girls dressed up as boys in Episode 2, we imagined what they might have had access to that would also read very quickly as each of the plays, in the quick little pops when they appeared on screen. So of course, as a designer, you don’t want to over-design things, you want to make it look as natural as possible and not get in the way of telling the story. So we assembled a lot of fun stuff and in fact, we let a lot of the actors choose their props, their decorations and augmentations.

We filmed it on a day when it was tacked onto the end of the day’s schedule and we had to do the whole sequence for all of the plays in about half an hour, with all of the actors changing into their different ensembles. So we set up a tent on the set that day and much as you would have fast changes in the theatre, going from one entrance to the next and doing those changes in the wings in the dark, that was what we were doing in order to put that sequence together.

The character of Betty (Amanda Warren), the dressmaker, is a really interesting character. How did you go about filling her shop – we see lots of fabric and textiles and also some full dresses? Also she, of course, designs Sue’s wedding dress, could you tell me about some of the research that went into the wedding dress?

Again, obviously there was a lot photography from the period (of people’s wedding days) and there was access to fashion magazines even in a place like Amherst. I imagined that Betty was one of the most fashionable and tasteful people in town, so I believe she had that gift, she had an eye. I wanted to make sure that the things in her shop were really beautiful. Here was a woman in humble circumstances but she was able to create these magical dresses, beautiful dresses for all of the women in the town.

I did spend a lot of time on the wedding dress. I wanted it to be accurate to the period, so we used vintage laces. Her veil was vintage, with a huge half a mile of lace trailing behind her. All of the flowers and accoutrements on it were accurate period pieces. Sue of course spent the entire season wearing black (in mourning) and we were all so excited, doing fittings for that dress was one of my favourite times because Ella Hunt was so thrilled to be getting out of her black togs and into white. I just wanted a super romantic feeling, because of course, it’s the season finale. Watching fashion shows, the wedding dresses are the climax of the event. I wanted to make sure it was a stellar dress.

In Episode 7, Austin (Adrian Enscoe) gets to wear some patterned brocade and silk waistcoats, so at times, the men’s costuming is quite flamboyant. Toshiaki (Kevin Yee) wears a bit more colour as well, there’s quite a lot of dark red you use for him…so can you tell me about the men’s costuming?

I think the real eye-opener when I was doing the research was when I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, they would show me pieces from the period and fabric that had been preserved and the colours were just insane. The combinations of colour and pattern that a gentleman would juxtapose in one ensemble were mind-boggling to me. So much art dating to that century is dark and gloomy. So I really wanted these young men, who were the peacocks of the town, to really stretch their wings and have fun with their clothing. A lot of times the emphasis is always on the women’s clothing, but we spent a lot of time building the men’s clothing. Certainly among the young crowd, we just really wanted to explore that exuberance and that excitement about clothes, even though they were in not exactly a boondock, but not a centre of fashion. They had access to that type of clothing and they would have put a lot of stock into presenting themselves as quite different from the older men. Mr Dickinson and his ilk definitely lean more towards the somber but even then, we wouldn’t have his whole outfit be plain. He’s always got a brocade waistcoat and striped trousers, it’s subtler, but that was the norm at the time. I was so shocked when I discovered that in my research that I thought THIS is what we’ve got to show.

The ultimate character in the show is Death played by Wiz Khalifa – he has a top hat, cane and little sunglasses – I was wondering if his design was influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)? Also in Episode 9, Emily rides in the Death Carriage in a gorgeous red dress and there’s a big contrast between her and him in that scene. So can you tell me a bit about creating the character of Death through costume?

For the character of Death I certainly had a person with a strong visual presentation that Wiz Khalifa, as a rap performer, has developed through the years. I thought we really should play on that, because he’s got such a wonderful style himself, but I also didn’t want to feel like we were just reproducing something that he would wear himself in any way. Actually I was deeply influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Prince for him because they both exhibited that peacock style and were very much into vintage clothing. They would find elements in thrift shops that they would incorporate into their wardrobes, so I really wanted to go over-the-top with him. But knowing that he’s never going to get out of his carriage and that he’s basically seen from the waist up, I really wanted his own presence to be at the forefront. So we used a lot of his own gold jewellery and he’s heavily tattooed from the chin down and I wanted to make sure that that was part of the look for him. It was meant to really have a sexy feeling to it but not in a blatant way, just something emanating from him.

Emily’s red dress – I thought she’s in this really uptight, restrictive environment, where’s she constantly hitting against this wall or that wall, which is stopping her from what she knows she has to offer. Her poetry really did move the ball down the field as it were, in an extraordinary way and although it wasn’t discovered until much later, this is where it was formulating. So I thought here is a person who, in the real world, is forced to tow the line and see the men in her life get all sorts of opportunities that she was restricted from partaking in. So, with Death, I wanted her to look as alive as possible, I wanted her to look sensual and alive. Hailee wears that colour so well. But I also didn’t want it to be a dress that you were spending too much time looking at, I wanted it to make the impact, but it’s what’s inside of Emily coming out. She’s more alive when she’s when with Death, which is just so interesting. I think it was an important dress to show this really unexpected and secret side of Emily.