A conversation with the costume designer of WGN America’s ‘Underground.’
The period piece is dangerous territory. Historical narratives, battlegrounds in school board skirmishes, wade alongside our own idea of what our shared history looks like. And the limits of that shared idea is sometimes surprising. In the past few months, we’ve learned that our President is unsure about the identity of Frederick Douglas and that our Housing and Urban Development Secretary remembers enslaved Africans as immigrants like any other in the proverbial melting pot.
A worldview that is probably unshared by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the creators of Underground, a period drama that airs on WGN America and centers on the world of the Macon 7, a group of slaves who, by the show’s second season, have run away along the mythic underground railroad. It’s a subject that’s been particularly high on the public imagination, lately, with Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad making a grand sweep last year of all the prizes books generally try to win. But while Whitehead and his literary ilk have gone the way of fantasy and magical realism (Whitehead imagines the railroad to be the literal thing of rails slipping under the ground of slavery), Underground is interested in the allegorical potential of the real struggles of real slaves, trapped in a system that pits them against each other in a cripplingly dehumanizing system. A multifarious drama with the kind of all-encompassing cast that most hero/anti-hero prestige programs shy away from. Rich with the pulpy stuff of human drama, every episode of the last season brought with it newfound betrayals and changing loyalties that informed the construction of a simple dichotomy: what side are you on? Are you a citizen or are you a soldier?
It’s a question that appealed to Karyn Wagner, who has designed costumes for the entirely of Underground‘s two seasons, a feat that involved crafting sixty to seventy percent of the casts’ clothing herself. Experienced in crafting past eras for the filmed screen, Wagner’s work has appeared in everything from Frank Darabont’s nostalgic fantasia The Green Mile to the more conventional fare of something like Rob Epstein’s Lovelace. When I chatted with her, she was busy helping to outfit a miniseries on the siege of Waco that Harvey Weinstein is financing and that she promised would be a “much more realistic retelling of what happened…It’s dark and tarry, which I like.”
When she first saw the scripts for Underground, Wagner told me she fell in love immediately. “What I find horrifying is when the white man comes to the enslaved person’s rescue,” she said, referring to a popular motif in many contemporary slave dramas that have hit the big screen lately, from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The slave escape story is known to carry these risks; Kathryn Schulz, writing in the New Yorker, observes that “in the entire history of slavery, the Railroad offers one of the few narratives in which white Americans can plausibly appear as heroes.” Underground, however, refuses this temptation. The abolitionist movement is, somewhat, represented in the show by John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), a lawyer who campaigns on behalf the enslaved. His campaigns, however, prove impotent and he is killed by an angry slave owner as the beginning of the last season. Also introduced in that episode? Harriet Tubman, played by Aisha Hinds.
If she didn’t look to blaxploitation cinema or Roots for inspiration, Wagner dove instead into the historical archive: turning to the daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of the era. “People’s faces will tell you an awful lot about them if you just stop to look,” she told me, aiming her gaze primarily at the facial expressions of the antebellum South, ”You can infer a lot about what they’re wearing based on what you know they’re feeling inside.”
I wondered how she approached historical figures, like Tubman and Frederick Douglas, played by John Legend, who appeared briefly in the fifth episode of the last season. Both are the kind historical figures long-fossilized by representation in high school textbook but in Underground, feel like real and breathing characters.
“For Harriet, I took some of the daguerreotypes that show her as she was: very angry eyes, resolute mouth,” Wagner told me. Something that felt especially important to Wagner was locating her personality in Tubman’s devout and austere faith: “Very practical dresses. No petticoats, no corsets. Nothing that would contain her movement at all…she had to appear womanly in god’s eyes but not, but never advertise it so.”
Legend’s Douglass, however, was a different matter: applying colorful modern fabrics to the image of a leader who persists in our memories as permanently grave and black-and-white. She compared her approach to that of the series’ soundtrack, which is known to find the power in indie pop bands like Phantogram and the force in Kanye’s “New Slaves.” “It evokes the period, yet at the same time feels accessible to a contemporary audience. I wanted to do the same thing with the fabrics and the shapes,” she told me and her Douglass is something like a star-studded rocker, far from the frontlines but deep inside the separate battle of political legitimacy. The historical constraints of the show’s setting remain important to her, however, and she views maintaining their boundaries as essential to her art: “If somebody is going to pull a gun out of their pocket, I have to know that, well, pockets weren’t invented back then.”
Where many of today’s popular period pieces, from Hamilton to Drunk History, revel in playfully winking at the tastes of their contemporary viewers, the strict historical boundaries set up in Underground have not prevented the show from acquiring a massive following; last year’s season finale was watched by over a million viewers. And many of these fans find the show to be perfectly timely in an age where #RESISTANCE trends throughout online waters. The fraught alliance between a socialite with abolitionist ideals, played by Jessica De Gouw, and the slaves she is trying to assist brought, for TV critic Danette Chavez, “a timely discussion” questioning “the motives and efficacy of demonstrations like the real-life Women’s March from January of this year.” The show’s large cast allows Underground to portray slavery as a system ruled despotically by its own particularities and not as an isolated case standing for all.
But Underground, like any television show, has its heroes and few stand higher than Noah (Aldis Hodge), who is the first try to organize the Macon 7 and remains its solemn leader. Wagner dresses him in denim, wanting to evoke both “our cowboys and our presidents.” Conversely, she likes to code many of the show’s villains with green fabrics, reflecting the then- contemporary obsession with “Paris Green,” a toxic pigment that was used in fabrics to signify wealth and sometimes causing its wearers to slowly go mad.
But not all of Wagner’s influences stick as strictly to the 19th century. She attributes her interests in the details of slave narratives to the work of Kara Walker, a contemporary painter famous for her expressive cut-paper silhouettes of slaves in the antebellum south. Ditto the work of Yinka Shonibare and Wangechi Mutu, the latter’s “A Fantastic Journey.” Walker had caught at the Brooklyn Museum. Many of these artists were interested in creating their own reinterpretation of the historical record, creating a version of the antebellum that is loaded with menace.
The studious details that Wagner attaches to each element of a faraway past betray, somewhat, the very need to invent them. The lives of the vast majority of America’s slaves went undocumented and lost to the chasm of history, the faces of millions were never put before a daguerreotype. The greatest accomplishment of Underground may just be its ability to do just that.