Opium, Rotting Silk, and ‘Grey Gardens’: This Is What Miss Havisham Is Made of in FX’s ‘Great Expectations’

Costume designer Verity Hawkes breaks down what makes Olivia Coleman's version of the iconic Dickens character distinct.
“GREAT EXPECTATIONS” -- Episode 2 --   Pictured (L-R): Olivia Colman as “Miss Havisham,” Fionn Whitehead as “Pip.”  CR: Miya Mizuno/FX
"Great Expectations"
Miya Mizuno/FX

Filmmakers have been adapting Charles Dickens for decades — his “Great Expectations” alone has had almost 20 screen adaptations since 1917. That’s a new Miss Havisham hoarding dusty wedding gifts and inflicting emotional trauma on children every six years for over a century. That poses a fresh challenge for each new iteration of the story: How do you make your version of “Great Expectations” visually distinct, particularly given that Dickens’ prose never turns more purple than when describing the jilted bride that time forgot?

The solution that the BBC and FX’s new limited series’ costume designer Verity Hawkes found was to zag where most adaptations zig. “I wanted to push it slightly and not do museum pieces,” Hawkes told IndieWire of the show’s costumes, particularly Olivia Colman’s Miss Havisham. While the rest of the cast wears (relatively) more modern Georgian styles, but Miss Havisham wanders the dusty, empty rooms clad in the Regency styles of the original novel’s setting, holding her that much further back in the past.

“I wanted [Estella and Miss Havisham] to have a ‘Grey Gardens‘ feel about them,” Hawkes said. Wearing older gowns with Empire lines, Hawkes’s implied that Havisham shares her older clothes with Estella, all part of an effort to both recreate her maiden self and wreck vengeance on men. “They’re these isolated women with their own worldview. Her and Estella share the clothes, and all sorts of things.”

“GREAT EXPECTATIONS” -- Episode 3 -- Pictured (L-R): Olivia Colman as “Miss Havisham,” Shalom Brune-Franklin as “Estella.” CR: Miya Mizuno/FX
“Great Expectations”Miya Mizuno/FX

The overall design of Miss Havisham’s house also hews to a Grey Gardens aesthetic, with a tree intruding past broken windows and a sense of rewilding taking place as moss creeps along the corners. That sense of encroaching rot also influenced Havisham’s look, as opposed to the cobwebbed, dusty look that most adaptations have gone for. More than genteel horror, Hawkes and her team wanted to highlight all the layers of the character, the woman she was and what time has done to her, by creating pieces that look both beautiful and wrong.

“I knew that I didn’t want to have a dusty wedding dress,” Hawkes said. “And there’s this artist, Kathleen Ryan, who recreates mold with semi-precious stones and makes these sculptures of fruit and things. And I’ve always been slightly fascinated by them, how she made mold beautiful. So [the process of dressing Havisham] was researching mold and the beauty of mold.”

“Great Expectations” isn’t the only recent series to have found an eerie, tragic beauty in the bruise-colored patterns of mold, of course. But for Hawkes and her team to have the canvas to play with how the wedding dress degrades, they needed to start by creating a lavish statement piece, one that alludes to the casual harm with which the character grew up.

“GREAT EXPECTATIONS” -- Episode 2 -- Pictured (L-R): Olivia Colman as “Miss Havisham,” Tom Sweet as "Young Pip" CR: Miya Mizuno/FX
“Great Expectations”Miya Mizuno/FX

“I knew I wanted to have all of the Chinese symbols because her family made their money from the opium trade. So her headdress is a Chinese wedding headdress,” Hawkes said. “The veil and the train have Chinese motifs of birds and flowers. Down the front of her dress is a copy of a Chinese silk panel that we had fabulous craftspeople making all the embroidery. It’s all different weights of silk and the netting is very fine silk – although it looks very different by the time it had gone through all the breakdown processes.”

The slightly more decayed, rotting version of the dress fit Colman’s interpretation of the character, too. “You wanted to make it damp and moldy and rotten because she’s rotten,” Hawkes said. “She’s a rotten person. That sort of damp, decrepit nature has crept into the house, and it’s crept into her as well.”

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