They can be a lot to take in — the twists and turns, ordinary and otherwise, that creators Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan have planted in the Apple TV+ psychological horror show Servant, now in its second season and is focusing on Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) and her brother Julian (Rupert Grint) finding where the missing nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) has taken the fake-turned-real baby Jericho.
But if you notice the costumes that Caroline Duncan have designed, they tend to reveal more than what the characters actually say. States of mind, interpersonal fractures, supernatural footprints, so on and so forth. They can do that because they aren’t as influenced by the mysterious, Lesser Saints-approved forces converging onto the brownstone as the residents within.
*Contains spoilers for both seasons of Servant.
Do you find the opportunity to continue the established patterns of characters in Season 2 more or less challenging?
That’s a really good question. The season begins hyper-focused and intense, and a direct cut from Season 1 on Dorothy and Sean. It didn’t feel like there was an immediate change. It felt like we wanted to degrade them from where they were in Season 1 because they had these horrible few days of not being able to find Leanne and then the whole season of not having Jericho.
I wanted to, especially with Dorothy, bring her down and have her feel the most deflated. The closest to what she probably would look like, feel like or be like if she accepted that her child was dead — in an alternate universe where she had not been presented with this doll. So she is wearing the same clothing for days on end, putting on Sean’s hoodie and all these comfortable, unpolished pieces. We have this chart of her mania in Season 2, so when the mania starts to increase it was like budding — that’s when I brought the florals back in, and they would slowly bud. And by the time she gets Leanne back in the house they are in full bloom. Like manic, crazy, spring blossoms, and then a lot of these repeated, grid-like patterns on her. That was our map for her for this Season — very dark and drab, and then exploding into flowers in springtime.
With Leanne, we really only have her in one costume for the majority of the Season, which is her nightgown that I built in the pilot. The challenge was how do you keep this [interesting]. I love the trope of her living in this nightgown as a prisoner in the house, also as a horror genre [figure] because it feels almost ghostly.
Very Jane Eyre.
It’s very Jane Eyre, yes. It’s also very Samara-like from The Ring. A lot of references!
But then she’s buried alive in it. I sort of went to bat with the idea that she’d still wear it, other than the moment right after the burial when Sean gives her Dorothy’s pyjamas, the pink stripes, that once her dress is cleaned she’d want to put it back on immediately. It’s like an insane-asylum, prison uniform. And there’s the comfort — it’s the only possession of hers that is still in the house because everything from Season 1 has gone to the Marino estate, and then they will never come back since she’s kidnapped.
Once we’ve all agreed this would visually be a great story to tell, we then paint in and leave residue of the burial. I have this amazing ager — we sort of shadow her in her costume for a phase that she could live in it after it has been washed, after Episode 4, where you can still see the remnants of the dirt, or what Dorothy had done to her on her costume so there’s this constant reminder for the audience. And for Dorothy that is like, “You’ve buried me alive, you’ve tortured me, you’ve tried to kill me — I’m going to wear this dress and remind you that all the time!” It was a fun challenge.
Personally, the outstanding costume would be the dress Dorothy wears for the last two episodes. It’s gorgeous, it’s shiny, fitting for the Christmas dinner. But it also looks like it has scales, like armour. And if we want to factor in the fact that she’s hurting, it looks like it has scabs, even. Really pretty scabs!
Wow, you’re articulating everything that I wanted from the dress. Really nice that you’ve picked up on it!
Finding the fabric helped me tremendously because I had that idea of that silhouette of this very linear 1960s housewife cocktail dress, but then with the shine and popped sleeves like armour — as you’ve said. The flower print on the dress is a chrysanthemum, and that is the same flower in the gold blouse I had her in in the pilot — I want to mirror [the idea] that, “I’m in control, this is my domain again.”
The brocade is almost like a foil fabric, so at the table, in a beautiful setting, she feels very ornate and elevated. But then as the day goes on, and the baby doesn’t show up and she’s folding a new set of children’s clothing, it has this serpentine kind of decay, rusted feeling to it — like everything in the house. Everything in the house is perfect in certain lights and rotten in other lights. Yes, I did want it to feel really hard, really shiny and showy — so that she’s at her showiest.
And then the dress we built for Leanne is the opposite. It’s very supple, velvet, asymmetrical — it’s showing her losing a bit of herself toward the end of the season.
Was the chrysanthemum a purposeful choice? In my culture, some grownups can feel a bit icky toward it because of the flower’s close association to grief, to mourning…
Yep, it was fully intentional for that reason! There’s a lot of mirroring between what flowers I use where throughout the series. The chrysanthemum is an omen, or a relative of death and warning, but it’s also this huge and beautiful bloom, right? So the idea of her never ever mourning her child, but in this season finally somewhat having to approach it as she starts to believe he is not gonna come back. So at the end of season I wanted to bring that idea up — “Is she willing to finally mourn him? Is she going to face the fact that her child does not come back?” But then of course he does.
Or does he?
I guess someone should do an Easter egg-hunting game for the flowers you put on the sets.
That’s right. I think it should be you, Nguyen!
Well, I appreciate your faith in me!
I don’t know if anyone else has brought up the chrysanthemums — ever. I know nobody else has ever asked me simply about that flower. So you’re onto something.
We also have characters who don’t have any patterns on them. You’ve established in Season 1 that Sean has the most pared-down wardrobe, but now we have Aunt Josephine (Barbara Sukowa) — black from top to bottom, plus the first-ever appearance of a veil. It’s a very classy, but outsider look. How did you decide on that elegant, appropriately Gothic and horror-ish design?
You’re touching on all the right vocabulary. It was scripted that she had a veil on — later on when Leanne and she are scuffling in the basement, she burns her with the oil, the veil comes back and you’re supposed to notice that she has previous scarring.
I sent Night a lot of Gothic and Victorian mourning clothing. We also come back to Hitchcock a lot — Leanne’s wardrobe is very Tippi Hedren in North by Northwest-inspired — for images of women that just had a primness and otherworldliness. I feel that Leanne is a spectre in her nightgown, and we want the opposite, a shadow, in Aunt Josephine. Instead of being light or textured, we want her to feel like a dark shadow. When Aunt May came, she felt kind of earthy, commanding and very comfortable in her skin — for Aunt Josephine, we want to cover up all of her skin.
And she’s sort of like the boogeyman, right? You’d hear her through Uncle George — and Leanne with the nursery rhyme she’d sing to the little boy Sergio in the mansion she’s babysitting. “Aunt Josephine will come get you.” She’s sort of folkloric. It’s never clear if Leanne has ever actually met her — or if she’s some character called on to scare children, as a threat. So when we met her we wanted her to feel pretty threatening immediately, but also like if you saw her on the street she’s just a harmless little old lady.
She’s yet another sign the outside world is creeping into the home, and Servant is a show that is set exclusively inside this home, and also one that suggests a war is coming. If Season 3 does decide to step outside into the world, do you have any ideas yet on what the costumes might be like? Will Dorothy actually be in battle armour?
(laughs) I can’t tell you because we’re in the middle of filming it. I’ll be killed! But I will say that in Seasons 1 and 2 we already think a lot about what the outside world looks like, in case we have to introduce it. Because even though it’s a contemporary show it’s very stylized and some elements feel very natural and some feel very staged as we’ve all talked about, everybody in every interview, this feels like a play where people are trapped on a set — like an Ibsen play.
As one of the designers of the show I thought a lot about, “When elements belong outside of the four walls come in, what do they bring?” Even Julian is kind of an example of that, he brings in a lot of movements in his costumes — the scarves and a lot of business going on all the time. Jericho brings in a lot of noise. I have a very clear idea of what the outside world looks like and feels like, and how overwhelming it might feel or look to someone like Leanne, how drab it might look to someone like Dorothy who’s always central. We’ll see what that means. Should we ever leave.
Leanne teases that she’s changing, like she’s stepping out of her cocoon. All the possibilities bell are ringing. It’s exciting.
I’m glad you really like it.
Looping back a little bit, I like that formality seems to be a must-have ingredient in the world of Servant. Even when Uncle George (Boris McGiver) appears, he’s disheveled but he’s in a suit still. Was it there in the material? Or is it something you establish and then see where it’ll go from there?
There’s nothing in the script about what he was wearing except that his shoes were disgusting. When we panned onto his feet, his shoes were falling apart — remember in Season 1 he took Sean’s shoes when he left? The suit was my idea, and I was trying to again bring in a sense of where Leanne comes from and who’s raised her. We’ve settled upon this very prim, old-fashioned silhouette for her and why would a young woman gravitate toward these silhouettes and these fabrics. All natural fabrics on her, and very muted colours — especially in the universe of Dorothy’s home.
So Uncle George’s suit and silhouette are together a brushstroke to connect Leanne to the otherness of where she’s from. I like to think that his suit could be modern, it could from the 80s or could be from the 30s. It’s like a convertible three-button suit, which is a very old-fashioned style, but also still something you could find today if you’re looking for it. The fit is a little boxy in some parts on him, and over-fitted in the chest so when he buttons it it looks like he’s outgrown his suit. Obviously, we took it apart, destroyed it and made it look very moth-eaten and battered.
I think, with him, because when he comes back he’s always in the same suit, the questions that he brings in are “Is he alive?” “Is he homeless?” “Is he dead?” “Who is this cult?” “Where is their presence?” “What do they wear when they’re at their home base? Is it this or something different? Is this the costume he’d put on to come into the real world, to a neighborhood in Philadelphia?” So these are questions we’d open the doors to and never answer because we’re not done with the story. I know where we’re going, but these are all open questions — intentionally.
I appreciate that you’re also trying to weave the ghostliness onto Uncle George. I’m saying this because my mum and I often watch Asian horror films and ask, “Why are the ghosts always female?” or “If there’s a male ghost, what would he look like?”
Ah! You’re right!
Now, a recurring motif in Season 2 is “infection.” What aspect of it did you pick up and work into the costumes?
Most clearly, you can see it on Sean, the blistering on his hand. His wardrobe is straightforward — he’s sort of to me like an everyman. Sometimes he feels like the conscience of the show, like he’s really struggling, should he continue this, how to best help his wife and everyone around him. He’s the one who’s outwardly festering, right? And he’s in mostly solid, layered looks whereas Dorothy, who is, I would say, festering on the inside with guilt, repressed grief, repressed rage. She’s outwardly the least, the least, deteriorated.
And then you have Leanne in the middle. Julian is on a different level, but we have Leanne in the middle who, I think through her manipulation and choice, wants to wear clothing like we’ve talked about. She puts her nightgown back on — she could have stayed in something of Dorothy’s, or something from the attic that she puts on [the mannequin] Mrs. Barrington, but she doesn’t. It’s a very pointed choice to look decayed.
Julian — I’ve always felt like in most films or television shows the portrayal of an addict is very, very unkempt. With Julian, I felt this is not a new element in his life, he’s gluttonous and hedonistic and this is just elemental to who he is. Yes, his addiction is spinning out of control this season, but he’s always been an addict, addicted to something forever. It has almost no bearing on his appearance. In fact, up until the Christmas episode I always wanted him to look better than everyone else — as if his addiction is not something that is at all weighing on him.
For the episode in which he overdoses, that was where we pivoted from where he’s fantastic and then obviously to him sweating, eyes are shallow. Beat-by-beat, every time he goes to the bathroom, something comes off so by the time he does overdose he’s very disheveled and half-undressed. Other than that, I like the nature of him always feeling really well-put together and coiffed even though he’s spinning out because it connects him to his sister. There’s a theatricality to both of them repressing what’s going on — this performative dressing like everything’s great, everything’s fine.
Last question: Is there anything you feel like you want viewers to notice the next time they watch the show?
I’d take a look at some of the sleepwear. I always have a lot of fun with what Dorothy wears to bed and why, especially in Episode 4 when she’s torturing Leanne. The progression of what she wears through the Episode and by the last look, the look in which she does the burying alive, she looks like a piece of wallpaper in the house. She matches the attic wallpaper, very intentionally — like the house is sort of controlling her.
Those are little fun crumbs that Lauren [Ambrose] and I paint in for everyone. But you’re so observant, you’ve seen my tricks (laughs). You’ve picked up on my designs, so nothing else for you!
Caroline Duncan, thank you so, so much. Stay safe and stay phenomenal.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Servant are now available on Apple TV+