When we think of period drama, the image we have in mind is always wrapped up in the scenery of a show. The setting is an interesting moment in historical or imaginary time, distinct from ours, but the setting is also the Things inside ; that’s how different everyone is. Sometimes those things mean swords, armor, and dragons, and the martial, fantasy nature of a “Game of Thrones” is what makes it visually distinct.
But even when there is no question of chainmail, it is the appearance of the costumes that brings us closer to the characters of the past or makes them all the more imposing and distant. It’s the one place where maximalism and extravagance are still acceptable – “Bridgerton” isn’t a costume show; the costumes in many ways make the show.
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The costumes also offer the most subtle and intuitive character distinctions – the cut of Hansu and Isak’s coats in “Pachinko” tell you everything you need to know about how they move through the world. So it’s more enjoyable when a show is able to do both.
“The Great” has costumes that suit its palace setting in gilding and detailing – this is Russia, after all. But they also convey the different approaches the characters take in an attempt to seize and retain Imperial power. Of course, it makes sense that this is a story of emperors and empresses, however comical, who get the question of who matters wrong; and “The Great” costume designer Sharon Long helps visually convey the show’s power structure between her imperial couple. For Catherine’s coronation dress, in addition to the gilding Elle Fanning all gold in a deliberate nod to Russian icons, “We ended up buying her some really high heels, you know, [so that we could] raise it, make it taller so Peter becomes less impressive,” Long told IndieWire.
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Catherine’s attempts to broadcast her values at court, and her relative standing within it, is something show costumes are always sure to curtail. “She’s still a purist and an idealist, and she’s still pretty sharp [in her look] compared to court women who are kind of over the top and overdressed,” Long said. “She wasn’t wearing one, which was a really good device actually, in Season 1, to keep her very young. So we just did a little [more in Season 2]. It’s really kind of a gradual increase.
It’s always traceable to “The Great” who is more or less sure of his stance by how well the environment meshes with his individual choice of style. While the show is never too ostentatious about its fashion, there are times when the costumes take the initiative to visually show how a character is on a whole new level and can bend the world to their will, such as the says Gillian Anderson when Catherine’s mother, Johanna, appears. at court and briefly circles him around her.
“Her skirt size was an interesting tool to use,” Long said of the character’s costume choices. “We kept her as small and tight at the top as possible and her skirts as tall as possible, and she moves around the set and takes up space.”
For Peter, on the back heel (and he wears at least a bit of heel in more formal situations) all season, the happily fallen Emperor wears less clothes the more undocked he is. He stumbles quite a bit in nightgowns and the Russian equivalent of a bathrobe, reckon with the ghosts of his mother and father, and his moments of genuine connection with Catherine throughout the season he tends to be very simply dressed. That’s impressive for a man who wears skirts to his own wife’s baby shower.
“He’s so masculine that he doesn’t care if he wears pink or a full shirt or if he wears lace,” Long said. “I feel like I pushed him a bit, and tried to separate him a bit from Grigor [played by Gwilym Lee], sometimes just in color. Grigor goes a bit more into the blues and animal print isn’t as prevalent, you know. So even though they were best friends and somehow imitated each other, [Grigor and Peter] started to develop [different styles].”
Courtesy of Hulu
This ability to slowly trace character development through costumes, even if they remain at a lavishly complex base, has a long story in stories about Catherine the Great. That’s important for a show like “The Great,” which blithely mixes comedy and absolute power politics. It inspires the audience to see the characters as they are by their heart, to judge them on the characters they present, how well those ideas are expressed in their own way, and to see the way they present, maybe too. In doing so, Long and his team pull off the greatest coup that historical fiction has in its arsenal: showing us how we’re not so different.
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