From Refreshed Period In “Underground” To Timeless Contemporary In “Preacher”: Costume Designer Karyn Wagner

Costume designer Karyn Wagner creates strong silhouettes in “Preacher.” Photo of Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer in “Preacher” courtesy of AMC Networks.

By: Marjorie Galas

Karyn Wagner is a self-described “fact-hoarder.”  A costume designer with a curious mind, she’s closely examined textiles and garment construction in the fabric room at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  She’s traveled the globe experiencing different cultures and environments.  A trained art historian thirsty for knowledge, she’s amassed a substantial reference library she turns to frequently during projects.  Working on a series exploring individuals impacted by the Underground Railroad would seem a natural fit for the research addict.  However, it was the script and character development that initially attracted Wagner to WGN’s drama, “Underground.”

“These characters knew the circumstances were not on their side but they were taking their destiny in their own hands,” said Wagner.  “It was a wonderful script.  I felt compelled by the writing.”

To win over the producers Wagner dug into the period, researching every demographic from north to south.  She presented a three inch thick notebook containing ideas and photos.  Cognizant of the limitations a television budget and schedule place on obsessive accuracy, Wagner suggested infusing some modern twists within the costumes.

“You’re working on sixty minutes of content every eight days in a confined schedule.  You don’t want to kill your crew, your budget or yourself,” said Wagner.  “I decided to filter the designs and take liberties.  Not be off topic, but have a little fun.”

Prime examples can be seen in outfits worn by the most well-off Southerners.  For a rich, red ball gown worn by socialite Suzanna Macon  (Andrea Frankle), Wagner designed the garment to retain the shape of the period while styling the bodice after 1950s Dior gowns. For pregnancy outfits worn by Suzanna, Wagner used an authentic pregnancy corset coupled with a 80s Florida- based style sensibility – that is – extreme wealth that led to a disposable wardrobe (women in the mid-1800s would have worn pajamas midway through pregnancy and would not have had frequently custom made outfits.)  Wagner minimized the high neck colors women worn, showing much more skin around the neck, and men’s suits featured cropped coats that have a touch of trendy, contemporary tailoring.

To save time and money, Wagner and her team used modern fabrics that were dyed to match period colors and then printed with authentic patterns.  Interestingly, fabric featuring the heavy roller printing seen in the field slaves’ outfits during the Civil War have made a comeback – Wagner found lots of reproductions available.

Wagner also proposed a suggestion that was coordinated with the production designer and show runner: dressing Suzanna’s house slaves in identical uniforms.  Using the same fabric featured in the interior’s curtains and upholstery, she created gowns for each female staff member.  This gave the impression that the slaves working inside the house not only lack individuality, but were regarded as furniture.  Wagner equated this demeaning method of dress as Elizabeth’s retribution for her own suppression.

“Women during that era had no rights at all,” said Wagner.  “The people under her supervision get the wrath of her feelings.”

Although Wagner enjoyed experimenting with pieces on “Underground”, she was extremely happy to switch gears AMC’s contemporary series “Preacher.”  “Preacher” is based on a Vertigo comic created by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon that follows priest Jesse Custer who experiences a supernatural event forcing him, with unlikely team including ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare and Cassidy, a hard-living Irish vampire, on a quest to find supposedly earth-bound God.  A fan of the comic upon discovered it in 2004, Wagner spent years pitching “Preacher” to producer friends, hoping someone would share her enthusiasm for the comic’s “dark and tarry” production values.  Once she learned a series was in the works, she sent flowers and notes to the producers until she landed a meeting.

“I walked in with my look book and I was so excited,” said Wagner.  “(After I got the job) they said ‘We wouldn’t say we chose you, as you chose us.’”

While the series takes story inspiration from the comics, aesthetically the style shifted from the graphics created in the late 80s to early 90s.  Set in a small Texas town, Wagner wanted to stray away from stereotypical Southern outfits, preferring to look for clothing with a more timeless feel.

“We reference that it is Texas, but I wanted to give them an ‘everyman’ feel,” said Wagner.  “This would allow the viewer to feel like it could be happening anywhere, including down the street.”

Wagner particularly enjoyed reinventing Tulip (Ruth Negga).  Street smart and more worldly than the small town Texas folk, Tulip has a sense of fashion and color, a sharp contrast of the lower-class, thrift shop chic worn by the townspeople.  Often forced into action sequences such as jumping over fences, Wagner had ensure the costumes allowed the actress to perform physical stunts.   For Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) – a 115 year old vampire – Wagner’s concept for the style was inspired by imagining him finding whatever items would fit him from the church’s clothing collection box.

There were also some costume choices that were directly inspired by the comics.  These include two angels who are tracking Jesse (Dominic Cooper).  Not of this world, they fashioned their wardrobe off cowboys they saw in movies.  Jesse’s wardrobe is also derived directly from the comic.  He wears a priest’s traditional frock with ornate silver tips that adorn his collar.  Whether defined from the ground up or depicted in the comic, Wagner paid particular care to the silhouette the clothing made on the actors.  This included featuring sharp angles in shoulders and slim fits to bodies.

“In features you can really pay attention to the details, but in television you have to be more focused to the style and shape, and have those aspects linger,” said Wagner.