PBS’ original scripted Civil War drama “Mercy Street” returns for season two on Jan. 23 — which also means the reappearance of the show’s elaborate period costumes. Set in Alexandria, Va., during 1862, the second season branches out farther — to Washington, D.C., and to the battlefield — offering costume designer Amy Andrews Harrell new opportunities to sartorially explore the era. We spoke with Harrell ahead of the new season’s premiere about her approach to costuming the cast, and found out where the costumes live when the camera stops rolling.
WWD: Did your process, or approach to the costumes, change for season two?
Amy Andrews Harrell: It was such a delight getting to revisit these characters. Season one, we were under such pressure being PBS’ first upstart production that they produced in-house in more than a decade. And everything happened so fast, including the main producers, Lisa [Wolfinger] and David [Zabel], getting the green-light to go ahead into production. The whole thing was a whirlwind. We got our main principal characters at the very last minute. So just having our core characters, knowing who they were and their body types and even some of their core pieces — corsets, shoes, things that we needed going into season two — paved the way for us. Even though it was still a whirlwind, it just made things a little smoother. So then when we did get our exciting new characters, we were able to take it a little bit in stride.
WWD: Working on period costumes must be a dream for a costume designer.
A.A.H.: I’m just so lucky. I met our creator Lisa Wolfinger about two years before she got “Mercy Street” on its feet. We got to meet several times and talk over the era, what she loved, what I was interested in. She was really my champion in getting me the chance and helping me get the job, and then really supporting me all the way through.
WWD: Were you able to work more closely with the actors this season to get feedback from them?
A.A.H.: I have to say, we have the nicest group of actors. Each and every one of them are just lovely. They’re very good and collaborative with me. There’s not really a problem among them. It was great to already know their body types, and what works and what didn’t. Innately, people have different shapes, and so some people have longer waists, longer legs, and we have tall actors that when I have to rent my stock, we never had pants long enough. Collaborating with them, it was good to already know what colors looked good, or if we were trying to bring up the bad aspects [of their character], what colors look bad on them. The shapes that would work on different people.
We have a family who owns the hotel [on the show], so a lot of the things that we actually get to build are for these three women, the Green mother and two daughters. Between their body parts, Donna Murphy, Hannah James and AnnaSophia Robb, they are quite different. AnnaSophia Robb is petite — very, very perfectly proportioned, so she’s actually a dream to build things for, but we do have to adjust patterns; we can’t use any patterns that are too large. And then Hannah is rather statuesque. This year, we went with a bold grid pattern on one of her main nurse dresses. I was really excited by this dress. There’s a tic-tac-toe pattern, or as Hannah was calling it “the hashtag dress.” It’s a detail on the dress, and it was actually in a women’s magazine from the period. A lot of women picked up on that design detail and were drawn to it and used it in decorating their dresses.
WWD: Did you reference magazines from the period for research?
A.A.H.: I have always loved looking at old pictures, I think even before I became a costume designer. That’s a joyful part of my job, getting to do all of this research, where I get to immerse myself in all of these old photographs. I have a complete set of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which is the magazine from the 19th century. They would bind them in leather-bound sets — I have one complete set from 1860 to 1865. It’s a prized possession, and I love going back and looking at the patterns. They have complete patterns in there, and besides the actual dress patterns, they have motifs that a lady might consider working into her embroidery, that she might adorn her dress with.
WWD: How many of the costumes did you make from scratch versus source?
A.A.H.: Even for the background people, everything is so hand done. We have to pick the petticoat, make sure it’s the right length, make sure it has the right fullness to give it the right shape. What we do is when someone comes in, be it the main principal or an extra, we just get a sense of the person. Even the extras are cast to a part; to be a laundress [for example], we would get a sense of who she is. Even under the banner of being a laundress, there’s spunky people, there’s people that are disillusioned. We try to pick up on their personality, and then bring it out through what they wear. When someone is really drawn to being a costume designer, all of the wonderful people who work with me doing the background fittings, I think that has to be a big part of what we love: taking a person who walks through the door from modern day, and putting them back into history, who they would be back then.
We have to develop the silhouette with these petticoats and these skirts. Every piece might need just a little bit of tweaking, the petticoat might be too long and it might stick out below the skirt. And maybe the skirt is a little too short. It’s constantly working with variables, and it’s tough and it’s a challenge, but I think that’s the most fun for me.
I think we probably made in the range of 30 to 35 dresses for season two because maybe we just made a blouse, or we made a skirt. I shop my fabrics in New York. At the beginning of both season one and season two, I just right at the start had to do a massive combing of the New York fabric district for every fabric that I thought would be a useful thing to have in my toolbox. With a very, very financially cautious restraint. Something jumps out at me in a mid-19th-century pattern, I’ll get it. For instance in season one, there’s a ball scene, and there was this burgundy silk with a feather pattern that was almost the first thing I saw when I went shopping. It became Jane Green’s ballgown.
WWD: What do you do with the costumes when they’re not being used for filming?
A.A.H.: I was so excited to be able to be included within the FIDM Emmy exhibit this year. Every year before the Emmy nominations come out, and before the Oscar nominations come out, they have an exhibit of a lot of the shows that they think might get a nomination. We did not get a nomination, but we were able to be included with that exhibit. And then there’s a mansion museum in Petersberg, Va., called Centre Hill, and they have some of our costumes set up right now, and I think they have set dressing too. PBS allowed them when we wrapped season two.
It becomes so precious, and yet it’s not yours. Even if it is yours, what the heck am I going to do with these dresses? I think that’s what brings me joy and my friends who helped me make these costumes, it’s the making of them. It’s just like getting ready to go to a fancy party. I always loved getting ready sometimes just as much as getting to go to a fancy party.