One of the world’s top film costume designers has spoken about swapping the futuristic alien styles of Star Wars for the elegant Victorian costumes of Netflix original series ‘The Alienist’. Michael Kaplan has worked on sci-fi greats such as Blade Runner and recent reboots of Star Trek as well as modern classic Fight Club, but the new Victorian psychological thriller set in 1896 New York required a rather different look.
In particular Kaplan noted the difficulty in dressing young boy prostitues with the actors themselves so young that it didn’t feel appropriate to explain the details of their role. “With Jakob, we wanted to dress them as kind of we saw them and as he cast them and also have them contrast to one another. We wanted them dressed as best for their physicality and their look,” he told Awards Daily.
“There were a couple boys that were tougher that wouldn’t look right in a dress, so we put them in boy’s or men’s long johns or a little worker’s cap or something like that. I tried to bring color into that. It was an interesting balance to strike.”
Balancing extensively thought-through costumes with making them look convincing was also a challenge. “Where did these clothes come from? These boys don’t have any money and it wasn’t like they were being dressed by the proprietors,” said Kaplan. “Maybe there was a chest of old things that they could go through and find things. There could be things in there that would attract youthful minds. There was a naïveté about them as well. They needed to make some money to support their families—or even themselves on the street. I also wanted it to be something that was visually interesting and creating a look in its entirety. There are accessories like strange bits of jewelry or bangles or beads around their neck. It was art directed but in a way that wouldn’t look like they were expensive.”
Somber and gritty
Asked about the subdued colour palette Kaplan said it was a case of matching the dark visuals as well as the heavy subject matter.
“There are so many scenes shot by candlelight and a lot of night scenes, and It’s such a dark subject that I didn’t see bright colors coming into it. It didn’t seem right for any of the men – it would feel inappropriate at that time. For Dakota, she was basically dressed in the same colors as the men wears. She wouldn’t want to go to work and call a lot of attention to herself and wear a lot of frilly, girly clothes. I kind of put her in feminine clothes but being a woman in a man’s world, she would want to fit in and not call attention to herself. Her palette was a bit more somber than it would be in a different kind of film,” he said.
“Everyone had a color palette. With Luke’s character, John Moore was a bit more colorful. It all has to do with the character and how I wanted to paint them as. Moore is a bit of a dandy and coming from a money background his clothes should reflect his social type and status. With Daniel, there’s a more conservative feeling about him being a doctor and his clothes reflect a more European feeling in his color palette. I tried to emotionally reflect who they were. With Roosevelt, I went with more earth tones because it seemed right with everything I’ve known and read about him and his time with the Rough Riders. It was right to put him in browns and olives and earthy colors.”
As for what item from the show Kaplan would most want to steal he shortlisted Kreizler’s coat. “That coat you’re talking about is right up there in top five list that I’d wear myself. I love the formalwear. I kind of long for that kind of period menswear. I wish there was a return to that. I did have coat made by the same tailor who made that coat. He actually has a shop in Budapest and he made lots of our principle’s suits and coats, and I had him make me a very heavy charcoal double-breasted wool coat without the fur collar. I did come away with something from that time period and that experience in Budapest.”