[WATCH] ‘Underground’ costume designer Karyn Wagner dishes ‘mass building project’

During our recent webcam chat (watch above), “Underground” costume designer Karyn Wagner reveals, “We had to recreate almost everything from the era.” Set during the Antebellum period, the hit WGN America series dramatizes the origins of the underground railroad. “We started this sort of mass building project,” she explains, “which was actually so much fun. I think it’s every costume designer’s dream to be able to control every detail of the world that they’re creating.”

Wagner’s research began long before production began. “I was very lucky to have visited the Victoria and Albert Museum a number of years ago,” she says, “and they have a room upstairs that’s just got thousands of swatches available for you to actually view.” She adds, “I remembered the kind of heaviness of the fabrics, the sort of density. I have done some other projects that are sort of in and around this time period, so I already knew something about the printing processes of the time, and which people in what monetary circumstances would have access to which fabrics.”

She also found herself looking at the faces of people in daguerreotypes, an early photographic process where images were printed on silvered copper plates. “The looks on their faces,” she says, “the look in their eyes, really informed a lot of character choices that I made, which of course, informed fabric choices.”

Wagner and her team were tasked with recreating thousands of outfits for the show’s large ensemble cast. “In creating all these clothes,” she admits, “the practicalities are often not practical at all. The labor pool of people that can make costumes in Baton Rouge is quite small, and there are a lot of other productions going on at the same time. So I had work spread out pretty much all over the country.”

“We are making feature films every week,” she continues. “Television is very exciting that way right now. ‘Underground’ was a ten-hour feature. It didn’t feel to me like episodic. It felt to me as if this big, long story was unspooling.”

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