Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): Breaking down The Great's stunning costumes
Huzzah! The Great, Hulu's historical comedy about Russia's Catherine the Great, was one of the great (sorry!) surprises of 2020. In addition to phenomenal performances from the cast — which includes Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sebastian de Souza, Belinda Bromilow, and many more — the show features lush production design and stunning costumes. Here, costume designer Emma Fryer breaks down how she put all of the looks together (she estimates her team created as many as 200 costumes!), from Catherine's coup dress to Emperor Peter's rock-inspired wardrobe.
When she first began working on the project, Fryer says she looked to 18th-century paintings and read books on fashion from the time for inspiration. Even still, she felt that the costumes needed to be both period-appropriate and modern, so she set out on some field trips. "The scripts are so brilliant, and there's such a modern world also within the script, I did very much want to look at contemporary stuff," she says. "Looking at catwalk, high-end fashion was another route that I went down, even to the extent of going into some of the big department stores and looking at dresses and different labels." Fryer also went to local markets in London and to museum exhibitions. "I didn't really feel I could play with the silhouette, I wanted to stay true to that, but then I wanted to actually add elements of modern couture fashion into the world that we were in," she admits.
Catherine (Elle Fanning)
Catherine's journey from a naive girl looking for love to a married ruler looking to overthrow her husband is of the utmost importance, not just for the narrative of the show but for the costumes as well. Fryer says when Catherine first arrives in Russia at the beginning of the series, her outfits needed to embody how "she's very sort of romantic and whimsical." To do that, the designer says she kept the palette lighter, and chose fabrics that were fairly delicate (as seen in the image above). "I'm quite a texture costume designer, so there's not a lot of flat fabrics, there's always something in it," Fryer says. "So we did have quite a lot of lovely sort of Jacquard and Brocade fabrics and they just had little patterned details on them."
Things change when Catherine's husband, Peter, brings in a lover, Leo (de Souza), for her. "He gave her Leo as a sort of present, so her palette actually became more greens. There was a sense of her palette matching Leo's," Fryer says.
It stays that way until Catherine grows into her own more, and her plan for a coup really starts to take shape. "Catherine's whole wardrobe then became stronger and bolder and the actual fabric was a lot darker," the costumer says. Flash forward to the end of the show, and the bright magenta dress that adorned all of the show's posters comes into play. "It's a huge splash of color. I think it's a kind of window into who this amazing, trailblazing, feminist woman is," Fryer explains, adding, "She is a strong force to be reckoned with, and I think that at the end that huge splash of color was a sense of what's to come really. So it's a very different feel from the very beginning."
Peter (Nicholas Hoult)
Peter's journey, much like the man himself, is less profound. But there wasn't any less detail and thought put into his outfits. "Everything about Peter was kind of punk rock and black and dark and animal print fabric and gold and leathers and bronze and anarchic, and he jumped away from that world for one episode," Fryer says. When Peter and Catherine travel to meet with the Swedish king and queen in the season's eighth episode "Meatballs at the Dacha," Fryer put the two in complementary costumes to represent their more "united front." "He's been caught using the lighter color and that's when Catherine's in the yellow. We wanted to bring them together," she says. Peter was actually one of Fryer's favorite characters to design for. She says, "I loved Peter as a character and I loved costuming him. I just had such fun kind of mismatching, but matching his world and choosing all those crazy sort of animal prints and then mixing leather riches with animal print coats with crazy linings."
Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow)
Another character she loved costuming was Elizabeth, Peter's eccentric aunt. Elizabeth's obsession with training butterflies and her wild personality allowed Fryer to play around with fun details she might not have used on other more regal characters. "She was just bonkers. She sort of had this whole world of butterflies and animals and riches and dressing slightly in a male way. I was very open to the fabrics being a lot bolder and the patterns being stronger," Fryer says. Elizabeth, more than any other character, allowed her to play with what she calls "embellishments." "We had a lot of fun with that, with insects and birds — some of her jewelry and broaches were all these kind of weird and wonderful little insects," she says. Nothing was too out there for Elizabeth's outfits and accessories, which Fryer sourced largely from vintage markets in London. And if she wound up with too many little knickknacks, no bother. "It was just a lot of fun finding things, and then they would get made into a little headpiece because she had this huge wig on or something. There was always a place to put something on her."
Ultimately, The Great and all of its varied and distinct characters made for a challenge for Fryer as a costume designer, but one that she will forever look back on fondly. Of her time on the show, she says, "I was very lucky because I could go down lots of different routes, because of all the wonderful characterizations for each of the characters. I loved that job."