New year, new wardrobe. It’s now 1924 on Boardwalk Empire, which means there’s been a slight shift in the show’s look. And while those silk dresses, three-piece suits, and trench coats may look effortlessly gangster chic, they involve a lot of hard work courtesy of Emmy nominated costume designers John A. Dunn and Lisa Padovani.
According to the design duo — who custom make most of the show’s wardrobe — fashion history is only one element of the aesthetic. “When we get the scripts, we’re inspired by the stories, the characters,” said Padovani of the Prohibition-era show. “We do a lot of research and then we take whatever that reality was and tweak it [to suit] our story.”
What’s new this season? “We’re heading into the mid 20’s, so there are new silhouettes and new fabrics,” said Dunn. “The silhouette is very slim, the waist is dropping, the women’s dresses are still long, but they’re going to start to shoot up. The patterns are just beginning to show the influence of art deco.” Though, Padovani added, “I’m inspired by contemporary stuff too and I’ll think, ‘That could translate into 1920’s….’ We try to incorporate old pieces with new pieces and old trimmings and accessories with the new things we manufacture to give it a seamless quality.”
The addition of new characters like Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), and Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) means the costume designers have more actors to dress, and Livingston has been especially excited about the process. “He’s very much into the clothing,” said Padovani. “He wants to know the motivation behind what we’re thinking. He likes to discuss it.” The show’s other leading players are equally motivated by the 1920’s fashion, particularly Michael K. Williams, who plays Chalky White. “He’s so cute. He [recently] said, ‘I think Chalky White has a shoe fetish,’ so he wanted special shoe inserts to keep his shoes pristine,” said Padovani, who happily granted the actor’s wish. “John and I are very detail oriented. [When they’re filming, the cast] can’t wear their sneakers, even though we usually don’t see their feet. Once you’re on set, you really should wear the costume. It helps the actor.”
Click through the gallery to find out how Nucky and Gillian’s wardrobes have changed this season, and what inspired the look of new characters like the Onyx Girls, Daughter Maitland, Dr. Valentin Narcisse, and Roy Phillips.
Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)
“This season, Nucky is not quite the public figure that he’s been in the past,” explained Dunn. “He’s not in public on the boardwalk living at the hotel anymore. He’s gone a little bit underground and we’ve reflected that in his wardrobe. He’s presenting a respectable businessman this season while he continues his activities.” The duo decided a muted color palette would better suit Nucky’s lower profile. “Color palette wise, we toned down the color on him,” said Padovani. “He definitely looks much more like a conservative business man, like a banker in a way… just to keep that profile a little lower. His personality and the story lines got a little darker for him, so we reflected that in his clothing.”
Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham)
“She represents a new type of character, a new type of entertainer that became popular in the 20’s and that would be the black female singer,” said Dunn, who noted that real-life singer Bessie Smith was an inspiration for the character. “Daughter Maitland represents this crossover of the female singer bringing black music to white society. It was a combination of jazz — which the nation became crazy about — and soulful singers. It represents that.” The duo relied heavily on research of the styles of the era. “We looked at what was going on in Harlem [at venues] like The Cotton Club and all the singers of the jazz age at the time,” added Padovani. “There’s a theatricality to it because they’re performing in these different clubs they have thematic things going. This season, she’s part of the Onyx Girls. At one point she has a costume that looks similar to theirs, but mostly she’s the main attraction. We wanted to go a theatrical, beautiful way with her. We made headpieces that went with the dress. The actress herself is a very beauty, sexy woman… so we wanted to make sure she looked like a million dollars.”
Dr. Valetin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright)
“He’s impeccably dressed, but because it’s Jeffrey [Wright]… he’s also wearing it with amazing style. He takes it to a new place,” said Dunn, while Padovani added, “Jeffrey is portraying a man who isn’t based on a real person, but he’s based on an amalgamation of people — Marcus Garvey being one of those people. He’s old world meets the new world. We wanted to make him old world in the way he looked and he was very much on board with that. However, he’s definitely a modern man in the way he’s dealing with his crookedness, being a gangster. He knows what’s going on out there, but he hides behind this pretense of being a preacher, a priest, a doctor… the modern voice of the modern negro. We wanted to make him look like an [educated] man. His costume and persona reflect that. The way he speaks is very precise and he’s always quoting scripture. His character thinks he’s above it all and that he’s superior to everybody around him, so his [wardrobe] also has a superior look to it. He looks more powerful and richer than anybody around him.”
Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) & Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol)
“I don’t want to give too much away about the story, but we have to dress [Roy Phillips] as a particular part. He’s supposed to be a rich business man, so his clothing reflects that,” said Padovani. As for Gillian Darmody, her life has changed in terms of both story and wardrobe. “When we first come into this season, Gillian is at a low point,” explained Dunn. “She’s lost everything except for the house. She’s doing her best to keep up appearances, but as you’ll see she’s reaching the end of her rope. The wardrobe has gotten a little more subdued because she’s in more desperate straits as the season begins.” Added Padovani, “When she was running her brothel, she always had much more of an evening look with longer dresses, velvets, and silks with more opulent jewelry. But John and I figured she’s probably had to sell a lot of her stuff by now, including her clothes. So she still has nice fabrics, like velvets and silk, but it’s much more of a daytime, paired down look than season.”
The Onyx Girls
“The Onyx Girls represent the new look for showgirls, which became very much about shaking and shimmying and bare skin,” explained Dunn. “Prior to this, showgirls tended to be a little more stately or a little silly. We wanted to sex them up a little bit because it reflected what was happening in the music and in the culture. The costumes are a little more bare and a little sexier. By today’s standards, they’re still quite modest, but in 1924 these costumes were close to shocking.”
Boardwalk Empire airs Sunday’s on HBO at 9 pm/ET.