In order to create beautiful costumes, you have to have beautiful fabrics. For Hulu’s The Great costume designer Emma Fryer had an immense job of tracking the upward climb of Russia’s Catherine the Great from innocent romantic to cunning leader of a country she wasn’t born to. The costumes are stunning, but Fryer rooted her designs in the outrageous characterizations found in Tony McNamara’s writing.
When we first meet Catherine, she looks like a young girl out of a storybook. She’s wearing a flowing yellow dress and she arrives in Russia ready become the perfect bride. After she realizes that her marriage is not going to be as pretty as a picture, she sets her sights on the throne herself. Catherine is forced to grow up quickly, and her wardrobe does as well–her clothing matures as her ambitions form and harden. Peter III is a rowdy manboy who luxuriates in the splendor of his own surroundings. His costumes, unlike a lot of men in period pieces, are fashionable in their own right.
Just like Catherine herself, the costumes are gorgeous but intelligently rendered. If we just look at the clothes worn by these sparring royals, we can make out the story without a word being uttered.
Awards Daily: How many pieces did you end up making for this?
Emma Fryer: I was trying to go back and figure that out. Certainly for all our leading cast, from Catherine to Leo to the Archbishop to Grigor, we made three or four costumes made each.
AD: That’s still so many.
EF: We were running such a pace so that was the job really. We were shooting four weeks for two episodes, so depending on how the schedule sat, we’d be potentially still be making costumes for one block. But when you got done with one block, you’d jump to the next two episodes. It really was a busy, busy job. I had the most amazing time on it!
AD: I read that you were inspired by Dior for some of the designs, and Catherine has these really fashionable moments. But then we have these really funny moments. Do take that into account at all?
EF: Tony [McNamara] is such a great writer, but I don’t think the comedy came into my world. It’s fictionalized fun and incorporates historical facts occasionally. We jump into the 18th century world and take away the essence of it. Obviously everyone needs to have the correct underpinnings and we have to corset everyone and you need to create the shape of the period. Once you start thinking about that and building the dresses, there’s a lot of freedom and we can jump into the contemporary world. That was at the forefront at the beginning. I went to an exhibition last year, and there was just some amazing dresses. Certainly, looking at those, and the 18th century, there are some big dresses with a lot of fabric. Sometimes the beauty of them, for sure, is either you use the ones with all the embellishments and trimmings or you can take away completely and think of the lines. So I mixed them so it was all character driven. I had to find who the characters are.
AD: I love that vibrant, pink dress that Elle wears in the finale. It’s almost like a bubblegum rallying cry of femininity. Why did you pick that color and that dress?
EF: Very early on, we actually talked about Peter wearing a lot of pink (laughs).
AD: Oh yeah?
EF: The men did wear quite a lot of pink in the 18th century. She definitely goes on a journey and she arrives in the palace and she’s a young woman not from Russia. She is romantic and whimsical and looking for love. That was the starting point for her with those soft colors. When Leo is introduced to her as a gift, I changed it slightly. He’s so playful and I incorporated a lot of green, and I wanted to bring them together. There’s a point when suddenly becomes ill and Catherine brings in art and science into the court. That’s the only point when Catherine and Peter are one with their colors.
AD: Oh wow.
EF: His palette completely changes—he’s not in his dark tones and she’s in the yellows again. But it doesn’t last for very long, does it?
AD: It definitely does not…
EF: By the end of that, he’s gone back to his crazy Peter ways. He’s back to his old world, and that point the coup is gathering strength. She’s slowly gathering determination and I went darker again, certainly when they meet the Swedish queen and king.
AD: With all the furs.
EF: Yes, the furs and the dark blue and brown fabric that we see under her coat that we only see a little bit. It’s her birthday at the end, so we wondered where we were going to go at the end. We gave her a real birthday dress and she’s ready for the coup now. We thought a huge punch of color—that pink—at the end was very appropriate. It’s just a great place to leave it in terms of her journey. At the end, there is a sense that she will achieve greatness. It’s optimism and determination. We are going to see a great leader, but we don’t know quite at the end. Using a color like that gives you a greater sense of who this person can become.
AD: There are a few shots from farther away in the finale and that dress just pops right off the screen. I love that dress so much.
EF: Thank you.
AD: I wanted to go back to Peter because he struts around like a peacock.
AD: He’s a great example of a man who loves how he looks and dressing up. Some of his coats and jackets are things I want in my closet. In episode 8, he wears this long, gold coat that I wanted to rip out of my television.
EF: (laughs) I had so much fun with Peter, Joey. There was a real sense of contemporary fashion with him in a way. I felt I could mix fabrics together and I thought they wouldn’t be considered mismatched. He had a lovely wardrobe of leather britches and there was a lot of animal prints. I couldn’t have had more fun finding fun fabric that I could use for him. Some of the linings of his coats, which you sometimes don’t see, were so important. It made such a difference. His fabrics were delicious.
AD: With a lot of his clothes, you could see the textures, and I wanted to touch a lot of them to see what they felt like. He’s just this horrible frat boy.
EF: For me, it was just about finding the right elements for him. We looked everywhere here and we got fabrics in Italy and France quite a lot. Equally, it was so important to get the right materials and fabrics for him. I had an amazing opportunity to use a lot of materials for this character. We were looking in wide directions to get fabrics even furnishing fabrics.
AD: Another wonderful character that we get is Aunt Elizabeth. She doesn’t look like anyone else.
EF: This is the beauty of being a part of a show like this—I had a lot of great characters to costume. Louise Coles did the makeup and the hair and Elizabeth has this sort of weird insect world going on. We had these beautiful headdresses for her, and she’s got some cross dressing going on. It’s a real eclectic mix of clothes, but then she jumps back into thinking of who she is and knowing she’s royalty. There’s a sense of regality with her but then, suddenly, there’s the wonderful scene of the cross dressing party and she’s in britches. Her world was a lot more about pattern and brocade, so I was able to think of a whole new world of fabrics for her.
AD: What would you take from the set to keep in your own closet?
EF: For myself?
AD: Yes. I know there’s a lot to choose from.
EF: I would probably take Catherine’s coat from the Dacha. I loved that coat, but then I would also take one of Peter’s as well (laughs).
The Great is streaming now on Hulu.