How the Costumes on ‘Dickinson’ Emphasize the Sartorial Fire Burning Within

Fitness

In the second season of Dickinson, the titular young poet (Hailee Steinfeld) stands on the precipice of stardom, fueled by new media (the printing press!) and a charismatic editor. The Apple TV+ series reimagines history through a distinctly 21st-century lens (see also The Great and Bridgerton), mixing contemporary music and language with real events and famous figures who crossed paths with the legendary writer. In season 2, particularly, Emily’s world opens up beyond her heretofore quiet life in Amherst, and with the Civil War still a few years off, literary salons hosted in her honor and a night at the opera draw the writer from her desk.

By design, Dickinson is not afraid to blur the lines between fantasy and reality—Emily spends an entire episode in her nightwear, invisible to all but her brother—but remains rooted to its foundation: the thousands of poems the real Dickinson left behind. Show creator Alena Smith taps into the essence of this poetry through set design and plot structure, but perhaps one of the most interesting challenges she offered was one for the costume team: Follow Emily’s lead. Break convention.

“I do always start with what’s real—I research and look at real clothes—but this show gives you a lot of license to take liberties with period,” season 2 costume designer Jennifer Moeller tells ELLE.com. “I’m not trying to create a museum piece. I’m trying to have some fun.” After more than a decade designing costumes for theater, Moeller answered Smith’s call to assist Emmy-nominated John Dunn on Dickinson’s first season.

As Emmys season approaches, ELLE.com is taking a look back at how the costuming, in particular, affirms Dickinson‘s place in awards consideration. Below, Moeller discusses how the show’s romantic roller coaster, spiritual fads, and decadent parties take mid-1800s styles to new sartorial heights.

Poetry in Motion

Dickinson’s poems are a steady hum vibrating throughout the series, and Moeller takes their specific imagery into consideration for every outfit. In the season 2 premiere, for instance, Emily’s black-and-gray traveling suit evokes the sun and moon.

“There’s chain stitching detail around the jacket that felt a lot like ink or writing; this being a moment where the poems are bursting out of her and she’s writing all the time,” Moeller explains.

The finale also follows this inspirational path with Emily’s second published poem, which centers around a snake: “There is a snake-y quality to her dress: it’s ruched and a beautiful green,” Moeller explains. Keeping with the nature theme, “Sue [Gilbert, Emily’s friend and lover] is wearing this brownish silk suit that has this floral pattern, almost like a garden, and when the two of them get together, it is [natural].”

ella hunt and hailee steinfeld in dickinson

Apple TV+

The pair end up in the conservatory, and the trail of clothes left in their wake underlines their unbridled passion. The rumpled outfits are meant to look haphazard, but Moeller explains the set-up was a huge undertaking: She and director Silas Howard considered every angle. “There was a big discussion about,What would you take off first?’” she says. “‘Where would you fling it?’ Trying to make it look effortless, but also look gorgeous.” A tossed stocking in the heat of the moment was actually “very carefully placed.”

Some of Moeller’s hand-selected costumes are also meant to indicate the overall mood of Emily’s poetry or a specific scene. Take the off-kilter matching blue garments worn before the third episode séance. “I tried to establish that things are a little wonky, things are feeling a little off,” Moeller says. “[The characters are] all wearing blue tones, which I think feels a little weird. I want it to be subtle. Then you wipe that all away and go to the white for the séance.”

In the case of tricksy love interest Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), Victorian drawings of devils helped tap into his dark side. “He’s wearing this vest we jokingly called the ‘flames of hell’ vest. It’s got red paisley that looks like flames and we wanted him to be at his most devilish [as he] sat there eating grapes, taking her poem.”

Glittering in Gold

The styles worn by Emily and her peers shift during season 2, in part because the characters are maturing, but also as a reflection of silhouette changes during the time period. But no one’s closet upgrade is more dramatic than that of Sue (Ella Hunt), Emily’s sister-in-law and sometimes lover. Her journey from mourning orphan to shining intellectual hostess earns her “influencer” status from Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and one of her proudest moments is when she dons a statement-making dress in the library.

In the show, Austin Dickinson (Adrian Blake Enscoe) purchased the Viennese style in New York, but in reality, Moeller and her team brought Smith’s lamé vision to life themselves. The designer scoured New York and London to find a fabric that was “glittering and luminescent, but also felt grounded in the period.” Landing on something that felt special enough was a challenge, and with a deadline fast approaching, they still hadn’t identified the one. Finally, Moeller’s assistant found a beautiful French lamé with glittering luminescence that wouldn’t take the viewer out of the setting. “We paired it with some real antique French metallic lace and it all came together,” she says. The real test came when Hunt put it on and went to set. “Even I didn’t know that it was going to reflect and glow in that scene in the library with the dim light. That was a real moment.”

The knockout dress makes a comeback, first during the opera (when Emily “sees” Sue on stage), followed by an exuberant barn dance. Sue tells her maid, Hattie (Ayo Edebiri), that she can’t possibly wear the same look twice, so the latter borrows the frock for a spontaneous celebration in Austin and Sue’s barn. It’s one of Moeller’s favorite episodes of the season. It’s such a fun dress to put together and such a labor of love, [so] it’s exciting that it gets to come back again and again and have different lives,” she says.

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A duplicate was made for Edebiri, and unlike in Sue’s salon, this impromptu party in the season’s eighth episode required more freedom of movement. “I do think we gave her a little more room across the shoulders to make sure she could do what she needed to do. Those off-the-shoulder dresses, it’s hard to lift your arms, it’s restrictive.” Steinfeld’s regular tour choreographer Nick DeMoura created the frenetic sequence to Cake da Killa’s “Gon Blow” and most of the women dancing “are doing all that in full courses and petticoats,” Moeller says. “They’re wearing these dresses from the period where movement is restricted. They’re really amazing ”

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A Night at the Opera

Midway through the second season, the entire Dickinson clan hits the big city for a night at the opera, and the costume team pulls out the style stops. Emily’s stunning deep midnight blue velvet is a nod to David Lynch (“That came 100 percent from Alena,” Moeller says). Every costume worn by the principal cast is a custom build (background actors typically wear rentals from London and Rome), and for this grand affair, Moeller went “super ruffly” for Lavinia, while a beautiful green silk was the jumping-off point for Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski). Steinfeld posted a photo of Krakowski lying on a table while shooting on location at the gilded Loew’s Jersey City theater. “It was a long day of shooting in this very amazing location that was very dingy,” remembers Moeller. “I think she needed to take a break, but didn’t want to get her gown dirty—it had this beautiful train on it—so she hopped up on it.”

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Meanwhile, Sue’s champagne silk number is a nod to her bridal gown from the season 1 finale. “I also wanted it to feel not too far from the gold dress,” Moeller says of the color and silver lace detail. Austin suggests the La Traviata production resembles Sue’s parties, and references are littered across the stage, including a widow in black to match Jane Humphrey.

Scarlet Letter and the Spider Dance

Costumes also emphasize the series’ more comedic moments, including Lavinia’s “novels and chill” night with Ship (Pico Alexander) role-playing The Scarlet Letter, followed by the amazing (and hilarious) Lola Montez spider dance interpretation in the penultimate episode. Contemplating what the 19th-century equivalent of a cheesy costume purveyor like Party City would look like, Moeller “went with this idea that there’s a trunk somewhere in the house” that had dress-up items.

“It’s trying to find ways to be ridiculous with it but not trying to take you out of the period,” she explains. A similar approach was taken with Lavinia’s dance: “I found that shawl which had that sort of spidery, many-legs, web-like feel to it.” Using real petticoats with custom red tulle, the latter is not indicative of the mid-1800s, “but we played around so she could have some flash of color.” Moeller laughed a lot with Baryshnikov while conceiving this look, and adding a corset upped the sensuality.

Steinfeld, for her part, spends the majority of episode 8 in a plaid robe and nightwear, which Moeller refers to as her “Big Lebowski moment.” Along with the blue velvet and green silk opera gowns, Emily’s final look, and Sue’s gold showstopper, Moeller says this robe is one of her favorite season 2 costumes. It highlights the collaborative process, as Steinfeld picked the specific plaid robe that made it to screen. “I really take [the cast’s] opinions and ideas to heart,” she says.

Underneath It All

At the start of the year, global fashion shopping platform Lyst reported a 123 percent increase in corset searches inspired by the Regencycore trend (thanks, Bridgerton!). One undergarment that Baryshnikov has discussed her newfound love of—thanks to her role on Dickinson— are vintage corset covers. To a contemporary audience, vintage undergarments might conjure images of tightly bound women, but looser pieces provided inspiration for the spa trip in episode 7. “I made up this idea that they could be wearing undergarments and robes,” Moeller says.

a still from dickinson in which the main cast visits the spa

Apple TV+

These looser items were so popular with the cast, Moeller turned them into a wrap gift, since many multiples were made for the various wet (and dry) spa treatments. “We gave each actor a little package of a onesie, a robe, and a chemise from the spa,” she says. Season 2 was completed at the start of the pandemic, and Moeller had no idea the garments would prove an ideal stay-at-home bundle. The séance’s “bohemian, pre-Raphelite” aesthetic also resembles the pandemic “cottagecore” trend (and the divisive nap dress), while tapping into the white frock image associated with the famous poet. Sue might be the influencer of 1859, but the entire Dickinson clan continues to be a relatable sartorial force more than 150 years later. For capturing that influence with such playful creativity, Dickinson—and its costume team—deserves to be draped in gold come awards season.

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