'Vikings' costume designer on dressing pillagers and plunderers for the History Channel series
In the nine-part mini-series Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his band of horn-helmeted brutes pillage and plunder wearing togs by Emmy award-winning costume designer Joan Bergin (The Tudors and Camelot).
“I started researching mainly at Scandinavian museums, which are exemplary in the way they show all the great findings, and although a lot of the fabrics have rotted, there are a lot of artifacts and jewelry,” said Bergin, who also took a little creative license on the costumes. “I built up a very general picture of how they looked, but I discovered that perhaps there wasn’t enough there to sustain visual interest for nine episodes. I had to take a leap of faith. Overall, I think you just try to be as true and as original as you can and take some liberties to make it interesting.”
With a reported budget of $40 million, Vikings, is the biggest production ever commissioned by the History channel, which meant Bergin had the resources she needed to create luxe period costumes with intricate details.
Click on to see the stories behind the characters’ fierce looks.
Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and Ragner (Travis Fimmell)
“Ragner was very different, with those wolf blue eyes of his,” Bergin says of the Viking commander. “Charlemagne once said he dressed the way he did so people would recognize him and the power he held, and I’m always aware of that. The audience shouldn’t sit there and go ‘Oh my god look what Joan Bergin has sewn.”
The costume designer says the warriors’ wives also have a style that’s all their own. “Katheryn [Winnick], who plays Ragner’s wife Lagertha, and the actress who plays Earl Haraldson’s [Gabriel Byrne] wife, Siggy [Jessalyn Gilsig], I think they grew into their stature. “[As the] series continues, they get better and better.”
Male or female, the clothes say a lot about the Viking. “If you were a Viking, you murdered people who were your enemies for the greater good of something else. Paganism… is a culture, it’s a different way of looking at the world, and I think that even in a little way I managed to convey that through the clothes. That would be my slogan for the T-shirt: These people were different. That’s the excitement of the series, through the acting and the writing and production design, which I think is very strong, and the set dressing, all those details.”
Next: Siggy and Thyri
Siggy (Jessalyn Gilsig) and Thyri (Elinor Crawley)
Characters like Siggy and her daughter, Thyri, spend much of their screen time wrapped in heavy furs and colorful cloaks.
“I took everything that I thought they would [have been able to] get their hands on, the linens, the wools, the weaving, because they were remarkably sophisticated,” said Bergin. “Paganism has this beautiful imagery and great craftsmanship. They took great pride in [what they made], much like American Indians. I could justify elements like pink fur, because they could have dyed it using berries. As it went on, I got braver.”
After having designed plenty of cleavage-baring, corseted gowns on The Tudors, Bergin said it was nice to create costumes that gave the actors plenty of breathing room.
“One of the thing about the Vikings is that they were totally secure with nudity. Even in that cold climate, you were naked, and you just covered yourself up with furs,” she said. “[The actors said] their costumes were surprisingly comfortable. There weren’t any plunging necklines or cinched waists, that was nice after The Tudors.There were no heaving bosoms, but the women had to be sexy in another way. Elegance and minimalism is often very attractive.”
Next: The Viking men
The Viking Men
With enough armor and fur to clothe an army, Bergin constructed the Vikings’ weighty looks. “The costumes are very heavy, and one of the tricks of the trade you learn is to how make them as light as they can be, because modern actors aren’t used to carrying half a ton on their back, and they complain,” the costume designer said. “Fur is actually a lovely fabric to use, and I know it has gotten bad press, but [back then], they used it. Nothing keeps you as warm, and rare breeds of fur helped to define what your stature was.
Even though they were a ruthless bunch, Bergin says she managed to sneak a few soft touches into the warriors’ ensembles. “The fur and wool and flax and linen, they are so beautiful, very tactile. I used softer fabrics and details so my costumes wouldn’t be smothered by all the testosterone, I suppose,” the designer admitted.
Next: Designing with a twist
Designing with a twist
Although Bergin did plenty of historical research, she gave the costumes — made using materials sourced from such far-flung places as L.A. and India — her own spin.
“I always take liberties. If you start clearly, you show that you’ve done the research, and you know where the basics have come from, then you can kind of fly and you can take on extra imagery,” she explained. “[Costume designers] like Colleen Atwood (Snow White and the Huntsman, Memoirs of a Geisha) or Sandy Powell (Gangs of New York, The Young Victoria), often do this. That’s why you hire people with imagination who will do the research and then think, ‘Well, maybe…'”
Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård)
Bergin said Daniel Day-Lewis — she’s worked with the actor on In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, and calls him “one of my all-time favorite actors” — inspires her with the way he brings costumes to life with his through method acting. For that same reason, the costume designer enjoyed working with Gustaf Skarsgård, who plays Vikings shipbuilder Floki.
“I’m originally trained as an actor and I think, with someone like Daniel, the costumes are a total extension of what he does. He is, for all the finesse of his work, one of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with in terms of appreciating what you bring to it,” the costume designer said. “Gustaf Skarsgård, also has that kind of thing, and I believe he wouldn’t mind me saying that Day-Lewis is one of his great icons. Perhaps method [acting] is a little more complex than the way that many people work, which puts a little extra pressure on a costume designer. But with a good method actor, it’s worth it.”
Vikings airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m. on The History Channel.