For Michael Kaplan, the chance to step away from costume designing “Star Wars” (“The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi,” and the upcoming “Episode IX”) and work on his first period piece was a long time coming.
In fact, he’d been eyeing Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” ever since the crime drama was published in 1994 and unsuccessfully developed as a feature by Curtis Hanson. So when Kaplan finally landed the 10-part TNT series set in 1896 New York (with the help of producer friend and J.J. Abrams collaborator Bryan Burke), it was both a welcome and fortuitous fit.
“Conveying class differences was a big part of my attraction to the project,” Kaplan said. “There are so many different strata in 1896 New York society. But it was like doing 10 movies at once. We were doing dozens of fittings a day, every day, like five days a week, sometimes seven. It was crazy. But I wanted to take the time and the care with each performer. It just meant longer hours and longer weeks.”
“The Alienist” joins together three very distinctive investigators in search of a serial killer stalking boy prostitutes: criminal psychologist (“alienist”) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), newspaper illustrator, John Moore (Luke Evans), and secretary to the police commissioner, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).
Getting Into the Period Vibe
In meeting with Belgian director Jakob Verbruggen (“Black Mirror,” “House of Cards”),who helmed the first three episodes, Kaplan figured out that they should be less stylized than other recent period dramas; namely, “Peaky Blinders,” and “Penny Dreadful.” “But it was great doing a [show] with opera clothes and ball gowns, as well as people in rags,” he said. “From the ultra rich to so much squalor, it was an attraction to have it all in one project.”
“And another facet was the young boy prostitutes. Finding a way to portray them was challenging and interesting. Of course, there’s not a lot of research and I created what the scenes required in an artistic way.”
The women’s clothes were particularly challenging and time consuming. Kaplan and his team utilized clothing houses in L.A., London, Paris, Rome, and Vienna, Of particular concern were the leg o’ mutton sleeves, which were only in fashion for about a decade.
Fitting the Three Stars
The three principal characters had all of their clothes tailor-made and their wardrobes provided a great study in contrast. “I didn’t have to struggle to dress the actors because they were so well cast for their parts,” Kaplan said. “Luke, I thought, was perfect as the bon vivant. And he has an artistic side. All the men wore beautiful brocade vests, but his were a little bit more over the top. And there were more detailed and more interesting combinations of fabrics. For instance, flowery print waist coats.”
“For him, there were grays, blues, lavenders, pink, and peach. There’s a realistic sense about what he’s wearing. I joked with Luke about his sittings taking longer than anyone else. He would just love putting on the hats and the waist coats and coats, and layering them, and changing the layers. He said many times how his wardrobe helped him with his character.”
Bruhl’s Kreizler is a much darker character and more European, so Kaplan chose dark greens and blacker colors. He wanted to also reflect his youth and sobriety, which reflected a sad backstory with his father. “He also wore beautiful textures and fabrics,” Kaplan said. “When you’re doing something so dark, it’s always good to have texture so the camera can see something instead of just black holes. I put him in wools, silks, moires, and taffetas for his ties. He also wore beautiful coats with Persian lamb collars and faux fur, so I didn’t have to kill animals.”
Fanning’s Howard provided the greatest range of possibilities for the costume designer. After all, she’s more progressive and more complex. “Dakota had such a period face that it was a joy making costumes for her,” said Kaplan. He insisted on her wearing a corset, not because she needed it, of course, but because it helped with her silhouette and posture.
“Her character comes from money, but I didn’t want that to be an excuse for doing beautiful clothes,” Kaplan added. “More important was that she was working in a man’s world and didn’t want to stand out. We put a lot of suits together for her and women wearing ties was popular in that period. So I used that as a look for her work outfit.”
Kaplan additionally provided her with a few upscale looks, in dark burgundies, reds, and teals. “When we see her at Delmonico’s, she wears a jade green, silk dress with black velvet trim. And she puts on a black cape when she goes out. The one she wears at the end is a mauve-colored summer gown. She also wears a black-and-white stripped suit. The jacket is white with black stripes and the skirt is the reverse.” Added Kaplan: “But you never see her in anything over the top. She’s pretty sedate and muted.”