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INTERVIEW: Award-Winning Designer Discusses the Unique Costumes of ‘Carnival Row’

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Carnival Row Philo and Vignette

In fantasy or historical shows, It’s especially important for audiences to buy into the reality of the fictional world. One essential part of the world-building, of recreating an actual place or time in history, is the detailed costumes of the characters. Well-done costumes tell us stories about the characters without uttering a single word. Cuts and silhouettes establish who the person is. The amount of wear and tear or the number of pockets on the outfit tells us about the lives of those wearing them.

Nina Ayres is no stranger to this kind of costuming. She has worked on historical dramas like The Last Kingdom and Outlander. Her costume work on fantasy-juggernaut Game of Thrones won her an Emmy. Ayres’ latest project takes us back to the historical fantasy world of Carnival Row, where Victorian-era clothes mix with faery vibes. Sitting down with The Mary Sue, Ayres discussed the nuance and uniqueness that it took to bring Carnival Row to life in season 2.

Creating the world of the Row

Since childhood, Ayres loved making clothes. “My nan taught me to sew on her little, you know, hand sort of. So I think from the age of about seven, I was making really bad clothing and wearing it,” she says. Studying theater design in London opened up the world to her. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve, I’ve always loved acting arts and anything about textiles, sewing. I actually love history as well and I love anthropology and so all of that sort of combined just meant I couldn’t really work in another field or do anything else. So, yeah, it’s been my lifelong passion.”

Starting the designs for an established show could be daunting. When Nina Ayres became the costume designer for Carnival Row, fans had already become immersed in the fantasy world with season one. For Ayres, the task was to take what was already established and expand on it as the story opened up new parts of the world and introduced new characters. Keeping the silhouettes (down to the underwear) as historically accurate as possible, Ayres used non-historical fabrics to create an edge or personality for each character. But with several factions of the fae, humans, and different regions, there can be a lot of things to consider when dressing a character.

“With the fae, it comes from their love of nature in Tirnanoc. So you are always looking at their homelands and bringing their histories with them. They’re maintaining their roots and they know where they come from and to remind the audience at all times how beautiful their homelands were. And so they often have nature symbolism or flowers … The pucks are very earthy tones and they have their leather symbols on them. And then the fae were more brightly colored and quite jewel-like.”

Newer factions of The Pact and The New Dawn added to the mostly London-inspired world. The militaristic and powerful Pact stood out right away on the screen. “What we knew about The Pact was destruction and war and so obviously bloodshed and everything that comes with it. So red just seemed a good choice for The Pact… And they’re about showing their wealth and, you know, maintaining that deep red takes wealth.” Visually and ideologically, the communist-inspired New Dawn stood on the other end of the spectrum from The Pact. Non-descriptive clothing made them indistinguishable among crowds of other factions, and nothing signified ranks in their own group. “A lot of that came down to nobody’s desire within the New Dawn to stand out. So using grays and those muted colors and green you are almost invisible. It’s almost like a camouflage.”

The clothes make the character.

Each character has their own unique look in Carnival Row and were special for different reasons. With aristocrat Sophia Longerbane (Caroline Ford), Ayres explored pretty, more traditionally Victorian dresses. Thespian turned politician, Runyan Millworthy (Simon McBurney) stayed true to himself through his clothing. “We were doing a thing with his waistcoat where he always had like either a bird or a flower or a bird or a feather, which gave obviously that hint to his love of Aisling and his allegiance to the fae.”

With two specific characters, we could clearly watch their characters develop by how their dresses changed. Tourmaline Larou (Karla Crome) comes into a whole new level of power in season two. “She has this power and she’s gonna have to use it. And she never really changes. She just adds layers, additions to her to the basic costume that we started the season with. So that was lovely that almost like shamanistic elements coming in the texture and little trinkets.” Tourmaline also wore a distinct outfit inspired by a real-life south Asian tribe that used fish skin jackets to tell stories and bless their marriages. “Any information or conversation is had through the symbolism on the backs of their coats. That was a lovely thing to research and a lovely thing to actually execute and, and make.”

Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and her beloved Argeus Astrayon (David Gyasi) go from fancy aristocrats to tattered factory workers. “Her dress had so many elements to it. It was just so over the top,” Ayres says. “In the factory, the bottom rung of her skirt’s gone and it’s on her head as a hair wrap.”

As her outfit changed, so did Imogen. “A really important thing was she lost her corset pretty quickly as well. You know what a corset does to a woman. She can’t, she can’t take a deep breath, she can’t move properly. All those things. And it, it was so impractical there and I mean, for her she would’ve worn a corset forever. It’s definitely a symbolic shift in her perception in her thinking, which was, which was lovely to do.”

Carnival Row is now streaming all episodes on Amazon Prime.

(featured image: Amazon Studios)

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D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a freelance pop culture writer. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer. She fangirls over the X-Men, folklore podcasts, and historical fantasy. When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse and offspring.