“We are depicting a truth; we’re taking a huge part of American history and showing it to you in another way,” underlines Caroline Eselin, the costume designer on “The Underground Railroad.” Based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the 10-episode limited series is directed by Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins and marks the third collaboration between Jenkins and Eselin, who also served as a costume designer on the former’s past two feature films, “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). In our exclusive video interview (watch the chat above), Eselin discusses tackling the grand scope of the series, reflecting protagonist Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey in her clothes, and marinating periods in the show’s designs.
The story is centered on Cora, an enslaved girl who makes a bid for freedom from slave-holding Georgia in 19th-century southeastern United States and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. Even though the story is set in the 1850s, it isn’t specific to this period in American history in the exploration of its themes, which implicitly highlight the horrific and unfortunate timelessness of racism in the US. In this regard, Eselin divulges that there are “clues within the story [the source material]” that point to a marinating of periods, such as the existence of elevators and skyscrapers in the “South Carolina” chapter. She explains how she and her creative team infused this characteristic feature of the novel into the costume design, revealing that they, for instance, put the Black community in the future and kept the White people in the 1850s in the Indiana-centric installments.
Despite the fact that the show explores a number of different locations and thus designs, Eselin accentuates that they “stayed away from a lot of shiny fabrics” in order to avoid distracting from Cora’s story and journey. With respect to said journey, the costume designer expounds that Cora is “forced to adapt to her environments” and is therefore thoroughly a “product” of them. This manifests, for instance, when Cora arrives in Indiana and is initially “hesitant to give into” the freedom of which the Valentine farm is emblematic. While her distrust never fully wanes, the colors of her clothes are “soft” and “blend into the environment,” Eselin elucidates. She also sheds light on how she and her team wanted to create a “through line” with Cora and her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who, to her daughter’s knowledge, abandoned her at a young age. Hence, when Cora is given a new dress in Tennessee, it “echoes” the blue one that Mabel is last seen in, Eselin explains.
Finally, Eselin illuminates her decision to submit the show’s second episode, titled “South Caroline,” for Emmy consideration in the Best Period Costumes category. It had “the most variety of costumes,” she says about their most “conceptual” installment, the setting of which, Griffin, isn’t a “straightforward place.” Indeed, below the veneer of paradisiacal progress and racial harmony lie hidden dark secrets, with which Cora and her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierre) are confronted in this harrowing but ambitious episode.
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