Opulent maternity wear and a ‘war dress’ play into ‘The Great’

Hulu’s hit series The Great is showrunner Tony McNamara’s comedic fictional version of Russia’s Catherine the Great. It’s bawdy, full of sex, sassy language, courtly intrigue and machinations, and sumptuous, lavish costumes, and that’s where London-based designer Sharon Long comes in. She has been commissioned to create the fashion world where Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) fight in a hilarious but dangerous world. “We’ve been trying to improve the visual stakes,” says Long, who is filming Season 3 in London during the recent heatwave.

Is it fair to say This Catherine the Great has the most fabulous wardrobe of all the Catherines in the movie?

(Laughs) Well, certainly the most unhistorical.…

How many costumes have you designed just for Elle Fanning? There seemed to be points upon points.

I didn’t count, but probably around 40. It could be less because sometimes when you’re making costumes you try to reuse different parts so you don’t make skirts and things like that repeatedly. Not because of the budget, but only because of time constraints.

A sketch of a historical dress.

Sketch of Catherine’s coronation gown for The Great.

(hulu)

The costumes for this season were sourced, created and filmed during the pandemic lockdown in the UK. With a costume-heavy show like this, that must have been difficult.

Yes, it was filmed during full lockdown. We were allowed to continue filming, which was surprising but great. And it’s interesting because now we’re filming Season 3 without the protection of lockdown but still with COVID and it’s more difficult because more people are getting sick. In terms of work, it is much more difficult.

Your Russian royal court has very modern fabrics, cuts and sensibilities that are not necessarily contemporary.

For people who do historical movies and TV shows of a certain era, you can’t use original fabrics because they don’t exist. So if you’re going to do the 18th century, you have no choice but to use modern fabrics. There is only a very small selection of fabrics that could fit in this slot and especially when you are in lockdown it is too hard to come by. I asked someone who worked on Dangerous Liaisons about some of these beautiful fabrics in these costumes and he said they were original fabrics and that they no longer exist, that was it. They got original fabrics from the period and then they’re gone.

There was also nowhere to travel or shop.

No, we had a major disadvantage as we couldn’t reach the antiques market in London. We’ve had some really fantastic merchants sending things to us, so the Royal Mail did a great job. Otherwise we felt like we were on an island.

Catherine was pregnant for most of the season, but Elle was not. Did you enjoy creating her maternity wardrobe? It was wonderful.

Yes, I’m glad you thought so; I really loved her maternity clothes. There were some historical references for this period regarding maternity outfits, but not many, so this gave us freedom to interpret. There were maternity corsets that we all had custom made that are quite expensive and tedious to make. There were certain garments from that period and these were my favourites. As she grew it gave us a nice kind of volume that I really liked.

Actors in Victorian dresses

Velementov (Douglas Hodge), Catherine (Elle Fanning), Sunduk (Raphael Acloque) and Peter (Nicholas Hoult) in a scene from Season 2.

(Gareth Gatrell / Hulu)

Catherine the Great’s real coronation dress is in Moscow’s Kremlin Museum and looks nothing like the show’s coronation costume at all. How did you decide on your look?

It was Tony’s choice as he wrote the scene a certain way and wanted Catherine to be Russian. It was actually quite a complicated costume. The skirt has three layers: gold brocade, then a layer of gold lace and a sequin net on top. It was built from shimmering layers, giving it that Russian aura. The magnificent gold kokoshnik traditional Russian headgear was made in-house.

Someone should send it to Rhianna; can’t you see her or Beyoncé wearing it to a Met Ball?

It could start a fun trend!

Peter had that kind of Jim Morrison rock star vibe, with the glamorous skinny pants and loose, ruffled, open shirts and necklaces. I assume that was on purpose?

I wanted Peter to look decadent because he’s utterly charming but quite amoral. He must be very attractive even though he does terrible things. One of his jackets resembles the one I saw at Cat Stevens back then, a velvet piece with a fur collar that we loved.

My favorite costume is the oyster and oxblood “war dress” as you call it that Catherine wears towards the end of the series. In this dress she has to do a lot. There’s a lot of stabbing and killing in that dress.

(Laughs) I thought the blood had to be shown because it’s awful. So to me it was kind of a pale color. The real Catherine often wore uniforms in situations like this, but I wanted to keep them softer to make her look more like a horseman. And I wanted to use the juxtaposition of the deep red and oyster colors to show how devastating it is when she kills someone. She now participates in the things she complains about and loathes.

Gillian Anderson (as Joanna, Catherine’s mother) stormed onto the stage in bold, saturated colors with huge skirts and great hats and is very much “Trouble’s here!”

I have to say Gillian is no shrinking violet; She always has a very strong screen presence. So she has this unique “wow” feeling as soon as we see her – she’s bad news. Also, Russia wasn’t the pinnacle of the fashion world back then and Joanna was a German princess, so I wanted her to look pretty modern. So she’s got the biggest panniers, the bigger hats, the strong bold colors, and you definitely know she’s there and you can’t escape her. They were a lot of fun, their costumes.

Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning in a dress for The Great.

(Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-08-02/the-great-costumes-sharon-long Opulent maternity wear and a ‘war dress’ play into ‘The Great’

Sarah Ridley

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