Showtime’s freshman drama “Penny Dreadful,” which will be wrapping up its first season this Sunday, is more than just a period piece. Blending the fantastic with reality, “Penny Dreadful” contemplates Victorian sexual philosophy, cultural appropriation and mankind’s relationship to authority.
Although the writers provide the framework for worldbuilding a genre-bending show like “Penny Dreadful,” it is the artisans working on the production side; namely the production designer, the make-up artist and on “Penny Dreadful” in particular it is costume designer Gabriella Pescucci who carries out the meticulous execution that breathes life into a world originally conceived in the corners of the imagination and put rather hastily to paper.
Throughout her career, Pescucci has worked with some of cinema’s most legendary auteurs, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. After more than 40 years designing costumes for film, Pescucci made the leap into television with Neil Jordan’s 2011 Showtime series, “Borgias.”
For Pescucci, however, the transition from film to television hasn’t really been much of a transition at all. “For me, there is no difference. I never think that is TV,” she told Indiewire via email. “Also, because of High Definition, there is the possibility to see all the details of my work.”
In designing for “Penny Dreadful,” Pescucci says she looked at the oeuvre of French Impressionists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and James Tissot. The aesthetic principles of Impressionism, which focus on the illustration of movement and contours, complement the brooding romanticism that characterized most Victorian Era culture. Throughout “Penny Dreadful,” Pescucci expounds upon the Impressionist fascination with movement and shape through a wide array of form-fitting designs that seemingly speak to the decadence of the era.
Outside of the French Impressionists, Pescucci says that she also looked closely at Gustave Doré’s illustrations of 19th century London. At that time, London was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and the streets of London, as seen in Doré’s illustration from 1872 entitled “Over the city by the railway,” possess a certain mechanical quality about them. It’s as if they were part of a giant dystopic machine. Pescucci manages to incorporate this complex industrial quality through her liberal use of lace — particularly when it appears on one of Vanessa Ives’ many high-collared day dresses.
“I took elements and details from all,” she said, “so there is not something that is totally inspired by a certain picture.”
While Pescucci did not cite specific works of art in her interview with Indiewire, we did some digging on our own and came up with some visual comparisons between Pescucci’s “Penny Dreadful” designs and the works of art that may have served as their inspiration.
Pierre Auguste-Renoir, “La Loge,” 1874
In English, the title “La Loge” translates to “The Theatre Box.” According to the Courtault Gallery in London, which is where the painting now lives resides as part of a larger collection of Impressionist works of art, “In turning away from the performance, Renoir focused instead upon the theatre as a social stage where status and relationships were on public display.” Indeed, the Courtault’s observation about the role that spectacle plays in this painting by Renoir, can also be extended to “Penny Dreadful” as well — not just within the apparel, but also among the relationships between the male and female characters.
Thutmose, Nefertiti Bust, 1345 B.C.
On display in Berlin at the famous Neues Museum, the Nefertiti bust is more than 3,000 years old. Although Nefertiti’s bust was not discovered by archeologists until 1912, Europe’s fascination with Ancient Egyptian culture and mysticism began long before, in the early part of the 19th century — probably even before the events in “Penny Dreadful” take place. The Neues was constructed in Berlin between 1843 and 1855 to house overflow from the Altes Museum, including a sizable collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The designs for portions of the original Neues, such as the Egyptian Courtyard, were heavily inspired by Ancient Egyptian architectural aesthetics, some of which can still be seen today, despite the damage caused by bombings during the World Wars. The Neues Museum’s appropriation of Ancient Egyptian aesthetics speaks to a fascination that captivated elite members of society such as Ferdinand Lyle or Sir Malcolm Murray.
James Tissot, “The Japanese Vase,” 1870
Although a contemporary of the Impressionists, Tissot’s style of painting is not Impressionist per-se. While he does employ certain Impressionist techniques — a preference for landscape settings and a warm color palette that infuses a dream-like quality into much of his work — Tissot’s attention to detail, on apparel in particular, borders on photorealistic, setting him apart from Impressionists like Renoir, Monet and Morisot, who preferred the magnificence of broad brush strokes that are visible to the naked eye. It is no surprise, then, that Pescucci may have referred to Tissot’s paintings like “The Japanese Vase” as reference for pattern making and fabric selection.
Berthe Morisot, “Woman at Her Toilette,” 1875/80
Morisot’s “Woman at Her Toilette” upends normal expectations of a portrait by its refusal to show the woman’s face, despite the presence of a mirror in the scene. While the pastel color palette is rather unassuming, the view of the woman from the back seems to be a recognition, at least on Morisot’s part, that style and image can function as powerful currency. It seems that Pescucci also recognized this quality about Vanessa Ives, who, throughout the first season, adjusts her appearance, ever so subtly, to meet circumstances and get what she wants.
Pierre Auguste-Renoir, “Woman in a Lace Blouse,” 1869
Despite the oppressive quality of Renoir’s “Woman in a Lace Blouse,” the meticulously painted lace stands out from the rest of the canvas. Despite covering the woman’s chest and her arms, the pattern of the dark lace contrasted against the woman’s pale skin suggests a certain sensuality about her that hides in plain sight. Pescucci seems to recognize this same quality in Vanessa Ives and expounds upon it on multiple occasions.