Maybe you caught "The Honourable Woman" this summer when the eight-episode British series aired on Sundance — or more likely you just missed the show, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, altogether. If you're in the latter camp, you're in luck because Netflix will start streaming it on December 18. Plus, this just in: Gyllenhaal — and her flawless posh British accent — scored Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for her excellent performance in the mini-series.
"The Honourable Woman" is a binge-worthy show, not just because of Hugo Blick's brilliant storyline that deftly mixes international intrigue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not-what-they-seem family dynamics and a study in female empowerment, but also because of Gyllenhaal's character Nessa Stein's sublime wardrobe. Stein is an idealistic Israeli-British heiress continuing her deceased father's business legacy while trying to further Israeli-Palestine peace — and her thoughtful, subtly powerful clothing choices help to tell her story as well as support the greater plot line. (Think: a plush Mulberry camel maxi-coat, lots of Stella McCartney, vintage Chanel, upstanding Armani blouses and a strapless blue velvet Acne cocktail dress.)
Gifted with this second chance to finally hear the stories behind Stein's dream wardrobe, I tracked down the show's costume designer, Edward K. Gibbon, who also counts the original "Skins" and "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" as bullet points on his resume. (And no spoilers, I promise. Just some good old fashioned costume teasers to convince you to watch the series.) "I think it’s been really interesting [that despite the] serious subject matter [of the show], we’ve been allowed to have discussions about the clothes as well," Gibbon told me over the phone from London.
Gibbon's work is definitely discussion-worthy, considering how he skillfully created looks in the vein of that restrained, intuitive power player similar to "House of Cards," but with a fashion nerd's touch of glamour — which might also be due to a close collaboration with Gyllenhaal herself. The actress and Gibbon actually spent two weeks of quality time together before filming began to really flesh out Stein's character and determine how her clothes would fit on her as well as into the storyline. This cram session involved some marathon shopping trips around London and loads of costume house visits.
"The original concept [for Stein] was this incredible woman with many different lives and secrets," Gibbon explained. "The clothes that she wore were a layer of her personality and a lot of the time she was hiding behind the clothes to a degree. She wanted to present this image to the world that wasn’t particularly where her head was at. In a way it was a protection layer, like an armor or shield, a shell to cover her."
Gyllenhaal played Stein with a very specific posture — like an alluring, almost casual slouch when she'd address a crowd at a podium — and a slinky, languid walk. Her clothes' shapes and silhouettes seamlessly moved in sync with her, almost like an extension of herself. "Maggie is so intuitive with clothes," Gibbon explained. "She would know how she was going to stand in something — certain clothes make you stand in a certain way — and she wanted to use pockets on things and just the way she stands in that initial dress is incredible."
The paneled leopard print Roland Mouret dress that Stein wears in the opening scenes really is incredible and noteworthy — especially because the occasion involves accepting a Baroness title in front of upper crusty (and mostly male) government types.
"We wanted to set her apart from the establishment she was entering into to show, although she was now becoming a peer to the realm and supposedly very British, she wasn’t that person," Gibbon said. The untraditional dress choice was also a way to turn the idea of power dressing on its head. "[Stein] wasn’t using power dressing in a cliche way of women who want to be on par with men," he explained. "She was above these men already."
Although, that's not to say she didn't literally wear men's clothing during the show. During one of Gyllenhaal and Gibbon's costume house recon missions, they came across a beautiful men's Turnbull & Asser coat from the '80s. All Gibbon's team did was replace the buttons with more feminine pearls, because otherwise the longline coat fit like a dream. Gibbon also created custom pieces to accommodate, let's just say, more action-packed, pivotal scenes — by the way, Gyllenhaal does her own stunts — including a simple black silk evening gown with a low-back (perfect for frantic running scenes), a plethora of high-neck vintage Yves Saint Laurent-inspired blouses and a chic white pantsuit that was copied from a similar set found at a high street favorite.
"We were just running out of time; we had to do something and basically it came to me and Maggie running around Topshop in Oxford Circus. We were just picking at things thinking, 'this could work,' 'this could work' and 'this could work' — and that was the one that did work," he remembered. "I loved it [because it was] like a rock star and [had] a bit of Mick Jagger in it, but it was almost angelic in the whiteness." Due to the activity required for the action-packed scene, Gibbons' team had to make hundreds of copies for Gyllenhaal to wear.
Gibbons practiced the high-low aesthetic for all of Stein's wardrobe, including her exquisite undergarments worn in some pretty critical scenes, too. "Those are probably the most expensive things we bought. They’re ridiculously expensive," laughed Gibbons about Stein's Carine Gilson-designed long slip nightgown and delicate cami and shorts sets. Again, painstaking thought went into the elegantly minimalist aesthetic of the delicates, both to convey Stein's innate vulnerability and her untraditional take on power dressing.
The nightie Stein wears to sleep in her futuristic panic room (yes, panic room) ends up being perfect for the quietly revealing scenes. Originally, Gibbon was thinking of a Sigourney Weaver in "Alien"-esque tank and boy shorts set, but concluded that it looked too science fiction-y. Then, Gyllenhaal, who had worn Gilson's designs before in a photo shoot, suggested the Belgian label to Gibbon. "There was something sort of comforting about being covered, but uncovered and once we put it in that environment [of the panic room] it felt perfectly right," he said.
With such a close working relationship, Gibbon and Gyllenhaal did manage to sneak in some lighter moments, like when they spent a little too much time in the costume rental houses. "Maggie would just run around the house just grabbing the craziest things," Gibbons laughed. "Mad '70s leather dresses and I once took an image of her in a hideous '70s vinyl, tobacco-colored dress with a zipped up front." And, yes, Gyllenhaal also bought some pieces right out of Stein's closet after shooting concluded. "She kept the blue [Acne] cocktail dress, one of the evening dresses that we made and a couple of the [custom] blouses as well," he said. "She had a few."
Gibbon's top-notch work on "The Honourable Woman" was also recognized by the British Royal Television Society, which nominated him for a costume design honor at the Craft & Design awards this year. "It’s especially good to be nominated for a contemporary show," he said. "It’s quite unusual." Although the period drama "Peaky Blinders" took the trophy home last week.
Next up: Gibbon is currently working on a period drama of his own — the BBC-Weinstein Company production of "War and Peace," in which Lily James ("Downton Abbey"'s Cousin Rose and the new Cinderella) is rumored to co-star. I can't wait to see more from Gibbon and, in the meantime, re-watch "The Honourable Woman" with new knowledge behind the exceptional costumes on the show.