Netflix’s upcoming Regency drama Bridgerton (from executive producer Shonda Rhimes!) promises plenty of sumptuous, tastefully designed gowns—and a few not-so-tastefully-designed ones. The series, which premieres Dec. 25, is based on Julia Quinn’s megapopular historical romance novels about the Bridgerton family as its eight siblings find love in 19th century England.
Playing second fiddle to the Bridgertons are the nouveau-riche family the Featheringtons, whose lack of social graces are communicated through their fashion faux pas, with outfits described in the books at various times as a “gown of lemon yellow that left a sour taste in one’s mouth,” making the character look like “nothing more than an overripe citrus fruit” and like “the poor girl appeared to have drowned amidst the ruffles of her dress.” And when the principal photography for Bridgerton was released, it looked as if costume designer Ellen Mirojnick took Quinn’s descriptions to heart.
Slate spoke to Mirojnick to find out how she approached the task of creating intentionally gaudy dresses and how much historical accuracy played into her design process. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: In the Bridgerton books, the Featheringtons’ outfits are described as, well, hideous. How much did the source material play into how you designed their costumes?
Ellen Mirojnick: Well, I have to be honest with you, first and foremost, in that I did not read the book. My bible was [showrunner] Chris Van Dusen’s beautiful text. It was clear in the text what [the Featheringtons] were about. They were new money, and they were quite a contradiction and juxtaposition to the Bridgertons. They didn’t really have the education that or the place in society that the Bridgertons do.
Whenever you put something on screen, you don’t want it to be perfectly ugly. It could be off, but I think that you want to look at something that is interesting to the eye in some way. What happens with people and characters of that nature is that they’re bold, brazen, and want to be seen. The need to be seen and exhibit their wares, if you will, that in a sense is far more grotesque in this world as opposed to wearing something ugly. The Bridgertons might think it looked ugly, but I’d like the audience to hopefully think it is a contrast. And not ugly. We’ve made them overdecorated and overzealous and over the top.
I’m curious as to how you walk the line between something that’s gaudy or overbearing and something—
Gaudy and ugly, you know, I think that’s a subjective answer, to be honest with you. Because it’s definitely gaudy. Definitely, definitely gaudy. I think it looks like fun. But if you think it looks ugly, that’s OK. It’s in the same ballpark.
I did not, at any moment in time, take a moment and say, “Is this ugly?” I might say, “Is this too much?” But I wouldn’t say, “Is this ugly?” It’s just a matter of language, I think, and semantics, when it comes to that. For them, nothing was too much. That gaudiness, that boldness, those colorations, the overlayering. If it was good with just a little, it would be good with even more. … More is best.
Is it more fun to design the Featherington over-the-top costumes or the Bridgerton society-ish ones?
Well, I have to say, the Featheringtons are a gas to do. They’re fabulous to do. However, the Bridgertons were equally wonderful to do. They’re all like my babies. Every single piece of it is as much fun as the next piece.
What kind of patterns and textures did you draw on for the Featherington costumes?
They were separate motifs. They were separate kinds of textures with feathers, with patterns, with embellishments. Whether it be bows or diamantés, anything that actually appears to be as if it didn’t belong, as if it did not belong in a quiet palette. If it just was a bit outlandish. If it was a combination that didn’t quite look sophisticated—and it looked maybe even experimental. But when you mix different kinds of feathers with this overlay of patterns, with this overlay of enamel, with an overlay of patterning and some bows, and some ball fringe, you can only imagine what you get. It’s a lot.
How did you draw the line between what was appropriately too much and what would have been visually too much for a TV screen?
The only thing that tells me if it’s too much is when the actor is in the last sitting for that particular costume, and we’re looking at it and we add one more layer, or other decoration, and you just don’t know where to look. I think that’s the best way to put it. Usually, you know in the fitting room if it will be too much. You just have to keep in mind, continually, the focal point of the actor’s face, even though they’re highly decorated.
Do you have a favorite Featherington dress that you designed?
I love every single dress that Philippa wears. Every single dress. If she wasn’t a Featherington, frankly, you could strip her bare and with a couple of touches she will look like she is walking out of Vogue. She just has that vibe about her. But then you put her accessories on, and you tweak a little something here and there, and you make her Philippa. She is a rock star.
You mentioned during the press junket that when you were designing the dresses, you thought about what was “the real,” what was high fashion, and then what was “Shonda.” Could you tell me a little bit more about the differences there?
The “real” would be what was the fashion of 1813. And basically, those silhouettes were the same. The fabrications were muslin, which is kind of a beige, white fabric. Sometimes it could be thin; sometimes it could be a little bit thicker. There were brocades, but they were all very soft, pale, and beige. They wore bonnets. They wore shawls in a different way. There was not as much intricacy as we layered on. Just read Jane Austen, truthfully, is the best way to describe it. And the men were dandy, but not as colorful. Jane Austen was the reality of 1813.
The fashion that I’d use, we’d look at many different decades from the 20th century and actually settle upon more or less the couture of the ’50s and the early ’60s with modern elements of couture of 2018, 2019. For example, there was a way in which embellishments were used in a Chanel runway show of spring of—I think it was 2017 or 2018, I can’t remember right now—but I fell in love with those embellishments. There was a cut of a Dior dress from the late ’40s that I saw at the [Victoria and Albert Museum] that was sublime. I had to use some element of it.
And then there’s Shonda. And what that means is that Shonda has a particular aesthetic. And if you think of all of Shonda’s shows, it’s evident, whether they are period or they are present-day, they’re very fashionable in their own right. The basic aesthetic is to be aspirational, that everything should look beautiful, luxurious, in its own way. The aspirational word cannot be emphasized enough. She loves beautiful sets, beautiful clothing, costumes, beautiful people. And whether they’re good or bad characters, scandalous or saucy, doesn’t matter. But everything should look kind of luscious and mouthwatering. There [needs to be] an element that people that are watching it today can really dive into and not be taken back to a time in history that they can’t relate to—that there’s something about this that gets them swept up immediately in the story.
Have you seen any of the fashion historian reactions to the costumes?
No, but I’m sure they’re going to kill me. They could. We could get ripped from pillar to post. But you know, that’s what it is. If you’re able to go into a romantic love story as if you were reading it, are you going to be a historian? Or are you going to use your imagination? So, that’s the point of view that we basically take, that we’re not historians. And we’re telling a luscious story, and we’re hoping that you use your imagination as we tell it, and you get sucked in, and you love the story that you’re watching. The historians—and I would say it’s not only the costume historians, I would say my peers who are costume designers—are going to look at me and go, “What did you do now?”
But you know what? I serve the director and the creative vision. And that’s what’s most important to me. Being 100 percent historically correct was not on our agenda at all. I’m ready to get ripped over the coals if somebody wants to do it. But that’s what it is. You birth it, then you let it out in the air and somebody will either not like it or they’ll like it.