Bold, colorful, often playful strokes, grounded in character, culture, and period detail, wrapped in an effortless elegance and sense of taste — costume designer John Dunn is one of the most distinctive visual storytellers working in television today.
Having come up in the New York film world, working with directors like Martin Scorsese (“Casino”), Jim Jarmusch (“Ghost Dog”), John Sayles (“City of Hope”), Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat”), Jonathan Glazer (“Birth”), and Todd Solondz (“Storytelling”), and after doing the pilot of “Mad Men” for Matthew Weiner, Dunn followed Scorsese into the world of peak TV with the HBO series “Vinyl” and “Boardwalk Empire” — demonstrating his knack for elegant period style and, like he did in “Casino,” capturing, celebrating, and commenting on the excessive of characters at the center of acute cultural moments.
Prestige TV has all too often become synonymous with historical recreation, yet no artisan has used their craft to open the storytelling range of what is possible in period garb quite like Dunn. Take, for example, Amazon Prime Video’s “Hunters” and Apple TV+’s “Dickinson,” the two series Dunn designed this year. Each show swings between period and fantasy, and each relies on Dunn to ground them in a way that makes the oscillations organic.
“Dickinson” showrunner Alena Smith wanted her keyhole view into the myth of Emily Dickinson to be grounded in the time the famous writer lived, but mixed with anachronistic story elements that mirrored a modern teen love story. When pilot director David Gordon Green, who had worked with Dunn on “Pineapple Express,” introduced Smith to Dunn, she watched her story come to vivid life.
“He really got the playful, theatrical spirit of the show,” Smith said. “Our mantra became [that] we were always looking for this balance between elegance and attitude, and for me it was important that we were staying as faithful to the true details of the period as possible, but we were looking for the unexpected true fact about the period that became uncannily fresh, and relevant with the way that we exist in the world today.”
Dunn, an obsessive researcher, found in the fabrics of the 1850s the bright prints, crazy patterns, and saturated colors that gave the show its period accuracy, but with a Technicolor pop and bold style that makes the viewer long for an English cotton floral print — and made the show look like something from the pages of Vogue. Dunn gave the young leads a real sense of sophistication, but simultaneously allowed Smith to veer off into the zany. Actress Hailee Steinfeld could look remarkably like Emily in her white dress (replicating the one known photograph of Dickinson) in the pilot, but disappear into her fantasy world by donning a sexy red dress in her carriage ride with Death (Wiz Khalifa donning a top hat, of course).
The tension between Emily’s reality and fantasy worlds — and between the societal constraints and rebellious teens — were each believable pieces of story told through costume design.
Striking that balance between a story’s artifice and period world-building can often come down to character, and for the actors who must embody this complexity, the role of wardrobe becomes vital. Take, for example, Tiffany Boone’s character, Roxy, in “Hunters.” Roxy is a young Black mother living in the economic reality of 1977 Harlem, where she’s an activist in the mold of Angela Davis. But there also is a comic book aspect of “Hunters” that requires Boone to transform into a blaxploitation fighter like Foxy Brown.
“I was really intrigued by how we were going to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy,” Boone said. “In the comic book fantasy scenes, John would take the same silhouettes and ideas that were signature to Roxy and elevate them. He would incorporate more color and show more skin. This helped me to feel that I was still grounded in the truth of the character but free to be more playful and bold.”
Boone told IndieWire that Dunn’s vision for Roxy was something she instantly trusted, and that helped her expand her understanding of the character — but it was the time she spent with Dunn and their collaboration that helped her actually get into the role. In the countless hours trying on a wide array of bodysuits, bell bottoms, and chunky boots, Boone found Dunn open to her opinion of what felt right for the character and comfortable for her to wear.
“Her clothes are sexy and body-conscious, but are comfortable enough for her to do the many things she has to get accomplished,” Boone said. “The costumes always made me feel like a badass. The moment I put on the costumes I felt confident and strong. The clothes were tailored to perfection and felt like my superhero armor — in particular, I wore four to six rings everyday which felt like weapons for battle.”
And with all due respect for Dunn’s costuming of historically-based characters of Steinfeld’s Dickinson and Boone’s Angela Davis-meets-Coffy character, it is his ability to bring his male characters to life with equal eloquence that has set his career apart.
From the debonair transformation of Jon Hamm in the “Mad Men” pilot, to Steve Buscemi’s fashion conscious gangster in “Boardwalk Empire,” to the wealthy ease of Al Pacino in “Hunters,” to the open shirt sexiness of Bobby Cannavale in “Vinyl,” to the intricate, delicate patterns of the men’s vests in “Dickinson,” Dunn’s period storytelling has often been defined by the beauty and characterization he’s unearthed in his male leads.
“John brought this incredible body of knowledge about how to dress men of the period,” Smith said, “and just how much style and grace is involved in dressing men, which is not what we think about as much.” –Chris O’Falt
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