Marvel’s Agent Carter pops off the television screen. When you’re not being impressed by Peggy Carter’s smarts or being charmed by Edwin Jarvis’s manners, you’re probably being distracted by the 1946 setting. The period of this period drama is a character in its own right. Details such as lighting, set design and decoration, cinematography, and the costumes are given incredible attention and add layers of striking visuals to an already appealing series. You’re immersed.
As mentioned, costumes worn by the primary cast and extras contribute immensely to the period packaging. The best costumes have that effect, and in this new monthly column, we’ll be focusing on costumes designed for television and film. The memorable styles seen on Agent Carter are a wonderful place to start. Outfits on the dramatic series complement the personalities and purposes of those wearing them, and Agent Carter’s costume designer Giovanna “Gigi” Ottobre-Melton has given each character a distinctive look.
Peggy’s ensembles have been a showstopper since this scene in the first episode:
The scene presents a strong visual cue to launch us into Peggy’s world. She’s wearing bold colors and stands out from the crowds of men on the street. A woman alone. Alone in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), alone in working for Howard Stark, and alone in that she lost Steve Rogers. Speaking of Captain America, note the color theme of this outfit – red, white, and blue. It’s a nice nod that manages to be subtle and overt at the same time. The presence of the bold Stetson Stratoliner hat also marks her as an equal to all the fedora-wearing men around her. I can’t get over the amount of information this single outfit communicates.
Since the beginning of the series we’ve seen Peggy in an elegant evening gown, smart skirts and jackets for office work, prim and proper casual dresses, and even pants. Like most working women in the ’40s, Peggy doesn’t have an endless wardrobe so we occasionally see her mix and match. That’s a small touch, but it adds to the realism. And heavy emphasis is put on realism. Ottobre-Melton has done her due diligence and takes care to hunt down vintage shoes, ties, suits, dresses, and patterns. She enjoys the time period and told me she actively pursued the job on Agent Carter: “It’s interesting because it was starting in New York and then I heard word through the underground was that it was moving back here [Los Angeles], so I was like, ‘Call my agent. I’ve got to get an interview.’ I was really excited about the idea of this female lead, this empowerment thing. I had done Mob City prior to this so I really felt entrenched in the era already, so I felt very comfortable going out for it. I finally got an interview and put together a presentation and got the job.”
Ottobre-Melton’s enthusiasm for the ’40s shines through in the exquisite costumes in the show and also on social media. Forums such as Twitter and blogs allow us to get behind the scenes of television and film in ways we couldn’t in the past, and Ottobre-Melton leverages those communication tools. She shares images, inspiration, and links to vintage patterns and products on Twitter. She interacts with fans and does things like provide assistance in finding the right size vintage shoes. Beyond 140 characters, Ottobre-Melton provides insight about each episode’s fashion at the Agent Carter website.
As the lead and as someone leading a double life, Peggy’s costumes often steal the scene. She has to be versatile but also proper. If she tried to leave The Griffith Hotel in anything less than demure and appropriate attire, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miriam Fry drag Peggy back to her room and wait for her to change. Ottobre-Melton touched on the challenges of designing Peggy’s wardrobe: “The thing that’s interesting is that during that era, pants weren’t really acceptable for women. They were considered ‘mannish’ and for sure not allowed in the workplace. So when you’re watching the show, you’ll see that she’s always wearing them at night or when she’s not going to work. That’s why she’s in skirts for a lot of her missions. She hasn’t had time to change and she’ll go right out in whatever she has on. It’s actually very cool to be able to do some of these stunts in skirts. That was a fun challenge.”
Speaking of those stunts, she does have to work around them. Remember when Hayley Atwell tweeted this photo?
The elegant ensembles need to have room for microphone packs and sometimes safety apparel for stunts. Ottobre-Melton explains, “There are different harnesses depending on what the stunt is. There’s the thinner harness which is always the desirable one, and then there’s the thicker harness. We design over it and fortunately for the era, A-line skirts – hers are all gored skirts, which means there’s several seams in them – allows room for the harnesses, thank goodness.”
While about ninety percent of Peggy’s outfits are made rather than sourced, many of the suits seen on the men of the SSR are vintage. At least, it started that way. The necessity of having duplicate suits on hand for stunts meant they had to make several suits as well. And they’re not really interchangeable between characters. Besides the obvious hurdle of different sizes, each of Peggy’s co-workers has his own individual sense of style. Ottobre-Melton explains, “I started with research of government detective looks, but I didn’t want it to be stodgy so I also looked into Wall Street. Wall Street was a little too one look so I went through all these pictures of New York, streets of New York and got looks that were right for the characters to fit what was going on in their lives or where their character direction is going. For Dooley, the double-breasted suit was perfect. It’s an obvious iconic look for the ’40s but also a powerful suit for him to be the chief.
Thompson is the up and comer with his eyes on the prize – eventually he’d want to move up into that position [Dooley’s position] – so he was always dressed nicely. And then Sousa with his war injury, I wanted him to be comfortable in the office. He is also a more approachable character, so that’s where I came about with the vests for him. And now they’ve been trending, the vests.”
Even though Dooley, Sousa, and Thompson wear somewhat similar colors, all the touches Ottobre-Melton mentioned set them apart from each other. Sweater vests do make someone seem more welcoming. The buttoned-up look does add to Dooley’s in-charge nature. We didn’t discuss Jarvis, but it’s clear he has money to afford custom 3-piece suits, and his polished suits match his polished behavior. The character defines the clothing, but the clothing helps make the character.
As she mentioned, Ottobre-Melton looked to historical images for research and inspiration but she also turned to films of the period, “First, I did look at historical photos but also I love noir. I try to at least watch one film a week. It’s a fantastic way to really see what was going on during those eras. It really helps with coming up with looks. I found things that I couldn’t find in historical photos; I found them in noir films. It’s pretty authentic, the looks that you’re seeing from research.”
When I think of noir style and scenes, I think of clean lines and crisp silhouettes. Many of the outfits we see Peggy, Jarvis, the girls at The Griffith (note how none of them go to meals wearing nightgowns), and the men at the SSR wear fit into that tidy box. One of the few working characters we’ve seen appear a touch rough around the edges was Ray Krzeminski, and he was only a little sloppy. Even the villains Peggy chases in her sensible pumps have a certain pizzazz about them. It was a more elegant time in terms of apparel and the re-creation of the fashion lends so much richness to the show.
Pulling costumes together for the primary cast and extras each episode follows a tighter timeline than you might think. Ottobre-Melton says she and her team of 15-20 people had eight days per episode turn around costumes: “It’s kind of scary. We had some outlines and I would do a lot of prep research and find fabrics and things that I thought I would most likely be able to use. I would be ready when we actually got the script, we could hit the ground running. I knew where things were and we could start putting it together, quickly. Eight days isn’t a lot of time. There’s really no time to make a mistake. I mean you have to make a decision immediately and go forth.”
The first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter has already wrapped production. It’s still airing though, with four episodes remaining. I look forward to seeing what Ottobre-Melton has in store for us.