How could someone use clothing to retell the story of slaves who resisted? Karyn Wagner, costume designer for the WGN TV series "Underground," faced this very challenge: reconstructing the experience of enslaved men and women who resisted their condition as chattel by escaping on the Underground Railroad.
Wagner is a third-generation film industry veteran: Her grandfather was a cinematographer — best known for his work on the Hitchcock classic "Rebecca" — and her grandmother was an actress; her father, Richard Wagner, worked for Paramount as a sound mixer. Wagner, a native Angeleno, spent her childhood playing in the back lots of Hollywood. Her résumé boasts a number of blockbuster films, including "The Green Mile," "The Notebook" and "The Majestic."
Her first big break was "Eve's Bayou," a coming-of-age drama of young girl from a prominent Creole family in 1960s southern Louisiana. (Coincidentally, the film starred a 10-year-old Jurnee Smollett-Bell, with whom Wagner would work again on "Underground" almost two decades later.) There were no major white characters in "Eve's Bayou"; Wagner's task was to use costuming to tell the story of a family in a town "free of black subjugation."
On "Underground," she has a very different task, though both projects are set in the South and grapple with the consequences of racial inequity. The first season of "Underground" tells the story of a group of slaves who escape from a plantation in Georgia and embark on a 600-mile journey to freedom. Along the way, they have to avoid ruthless slave catchers while finding a way to connect with the sympathetic whites and free blacks in the Underground Railroad who can help shepherd them to the North.
The second season has focused the repercussions of the escape of the "Macon Seven," as the runaways are known, and includes a number of new historical figures: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass (played by John Legend), John Brown and the illegal slave catcher Patty Cannon. Tubman is especially central to the storyline this season. "Costuming Aisha Hinds [who plays Harriet Tubman] was especially hard as there are only a handful of extant photographs of Tubman," Wagner says. In last week's episode, the show's producers defied conventions with an hour-long monologue by Tubman, for which Hinds was outfitted in a simple long gray dress inspired by one Tubman wore in the classic portrait of her from the 1870s.
Wagner explains that the show's costuming revolves around distinct palettes and silhouettes. The field slaves' palette is often more neutral; to create their wear-and-tear look, Wagner has a staffer whose sole job is distressing. It takes a lot of work to "make fabric give up," as Wagner puts it, and it involves repeated washing, bleaching, staining and sanding the most used parts of clothing.
This season, Ernestine ends up on a rice plantation on the South Carolina coast, a region known for its Gullah/Geechee culture. Due to isolation, slaves here maintained a society that was an amalgam of several West African cultures, which survives today on the South Carolina coast and Georgia Sea Islands. Wagner combed through archives and published collections of historical photos to learn more about the dress of the Gullah people, but found next to nothing. She decided to work backwards, drawing inspiration from current West African fashion. She chose to express Gullah culture with a colorful palette of saturated pinks, yellows, blues and purples and the occasional use of Dutch wax prints.
In the first season, the domestic slaves' palette matched the interior of the big house. "It's not always about being 100 percent historically accurate," says Wagner. "As a costume designer, there are times that I take licenses." She worked with the set designer and had the domestic slaves' liveries made from the same silk as the big house's wallpaper. The idea was that Suzanna, the mistress of the Macon Plantation, would want the domestic slaves to blend into the house's decor as an arrogant display of her power and wealth. "In my research for the show, I never encountered anyone doing this, though it is certainly plausible. It was an intervention on my part," she explains.
Last season, we saw Jurnee Smollett-Bell's character Rosalee as a house slave in the form-fitting bodice and feminine silhouette of her livery. This season, she undergoes a radical transformation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, wearing looser, more masculine clothing. Her transformation reflects a recurring theme this season: hiding in plain sight. For the first few episodes, Karyn and her team had to hide Smollett-Bell's actual pregnancy. Once her pregnancy is revealed to us on the show, Rosalee continues hide her pregnancy from the other characters on the show.
Georgia (played by Jasika Nicole, pictured at the top of this page) is another character who hides in plain sight. A formerly enslaved woman of color who passes as a white abolitionist, she and her multiracial cohort of gun-toting abolitionists masquerade as a sewing circle. Wagner was tasked with making Georgia and her ilk, a rather unusual group, look both inconspicuous and readily identifiable. "You should know everything you need to about a character before they open their mouth and say a word, and you should know it from the costume, the hair and the makeup," says Wagner.