If we are to believe Hamlet when he said, “the clothes maketh the man,” in Shakespeare’s play, then one television show that was practically defined by its costumes is Station Eleven. Set 20 years after a pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, the story follows a troupe of actors who travel around the Great Lakes performing for disparate communities.
Awards Radar interviewed Helen Huang, the costume designer for Station Eleven about how she was able to craft an entirely unique approach to a world steeped in tradition.
One of the main reasons Station Eleven is so effective is that the world felt so organic and real. It’s post apocalyptic, but there’s so much beauty and hope. And I feel like the costumes were a huge part of that, especially the elaborate designs you did for the Shakespeare performances. Can tell us how you you approached bringing that kind of handcrafted look to the screen?
Helen Huang: Very early on, we knew that we were going to focus on the sort of more human aspect of how people could cope with going through something like that, which is why we took a lot of care to make it more organic, bring a lot more color into it. And sort of design with those guidelines. When we were doing a play costumes, i didn’t want to do sort of like Eurocentric Shakespearean customs, because it’s been done. We wanted to differentiate more between the after, the post pandemic, and the pre pandemic. We wanted to get as far away from it as possible.
So I was just thinking, like, What would people do, if they didn’t have sort of those references. If they could do whatever they wanted, you know, and so we looked at a lot of art, we looked at a lot of handcrafted things. The people in this theater group, they’re not experts at anything, and sort of their scavenging sort of their resources, and what that would look like in terms of bringing different types of textiles, different types of materials. We use a lot of plastic and lots of sort of cardboard, and just like things that appear a lot like trash. I had an excellent dyer and a tailoring crew that just really took the assignment to heart and built these really beautiful things out of just trash.
It’s crazy to me that Station Eleven is about a global pandemic and it was produced right as Covid-19 hit, shutting down production mid shoot and forcing you to relocate to Canada. It was life imitating art, which just happens to be the theme of the show.
Helen Huang: When we were shooting that up in Canada, it was very interesting, because we actually didn’t have a lot of resources. Canada was so closed during COVID. We didn’t have access to any stores. And so what we did have access to was like, these warehouses, where they had barrels and barrels of sort of vintage clothing. And we utilize a lot of that. So it led us down a path of like, you know, what are people using to put together a costume, you know, idea.
And then sort of the idea of what can something like, like, for example, like with Hamlet, what can royalty look like? What are the elements of it that you could make without going back to sort of like a European reference have, you know, a prince a king? You know, with Gertrude, what are some things that we could play with? Like if some someone has to be really female and a play? Like, you know, the ideas that then we should fill them with bows and, and just kind of like, really amp up sort of like the components that make something female instead of creating a holistic, like costume.
People think costume designers, like ideas just fly into our heads, and then when we make something, it’s gonna work 100%. I think it’s from people looking at a sketch. And they see the final product, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s so easy, you know?’ But it’s not. Because the creative process is never that easy. And so it was constantly the challenge of a lot of research, coming up with ideas for those costumes, even the day to day costumes. And then going through the process of taking that idea and building it and seeing if it works. If it looks too alien or isn’t organic, then we have to step back and readdress.
A big part of it is Patrick [Sommerville], our showrunner, he really wanted it to be that art doesn’t disappear when people go through something traumatic. People still want to build things, create things that’s very innate, and part of a being a person. And, you know, we’re in pandemic, you could see that people went back to craft and they went back to learning things and making things, but it was a challenge to design that fast. In that sort of, timeframe. The other sort of challenge was also designing the Doctor 11 sort of costume in the timeframe that we had, because that was like an extremely hard costume to get right and make.
You can see Helen’s work in Station Eleven streaming exclusively on HBO Max and listen to the full interview here.