'Camelot' costume designer Joan Bergin discusses the Starz series
In the course of researching an article about great costume design on TV, I had the opportunity to chat with Joan Bergin, costume designer for "Camelot," the new Starz series based on the Arthurian legend.
The Irish costume designer picked up her third Emmy last year for her work on Showtime's "The Tudors." And the costumes in "Camelot" are equally awe-inspiring, especially because Bergin manages to weave in enough contemporary touches to really keep viewers engaged (gold gladiator sandals, surfer dude necklaces and more).
Here she answers a few questions about her latest TV project:
Have TV's historical fantasy shows opened up new opportunities for costume designers?
JB: They have, in the same way that feature films do. What surprises me with episodic work, too, is that you get a lot of time to develop an idea and you can be quite brave.
What was your brief on the project?
JB: The normal brief you get with networks — for the costumes to be sexy, young, fresh and believable. It was quite a difficult project to do, because despite the fact that Arthur lived in the 6th century, most people’s view of the story is highly romantic. I had many sleepless nights working out how to honor that sensibility. It’s the Dark Ages, but we couldn’t just put them in boiled wool. So we used a lot of textured fabrics, to look like they could be clothes that they made.
JB: I went to India to buy fabric. We all know India for silks and saris, but they also have the most stunningly textured fabrics with spun thread of silver or bronze metal woven through. We discovered if you washed the fabric, it started to look wrinkled in the same way that fashion designer Issey Miyake's signature fabrics do. We came out with these wonderful textures, and just ran with it. In terms of the details, I went with the idea that in Merlin’s past he was an Etruscan, and tried to bring Etruscan-like metal and leather work to the garment. He had to look very powerful, almost like an avenging angel. That was the idea behind the coat. Because we didn’t have historical background like we did on “The Tudors,” we had to quite arrogantly weave a back story.
JB: Yes, because it’s Irish mythology, I imagined that she could shape-shift, maybe even shape-shift and steal a bolt of fabric from someone traveling the Silk Road!
The jewelry in the series is also spectacular. Did you make it?
JB: Yes. I got so fascinated by what medieval workshops could do, like making horse blankets and shoes and jewelry. For the headdresses, we went a bit Celtic warrior, a bit Anglo-Saxon -- a mixing of metaphors.
And Arthur, is that a surfer-dude string necklace he wears?
JB: Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) is a bit rock ’n’ roll, and I’ve always loved the way rock ’n’ rollers wear all those various bits and pieces. We kept his clothes simple, because he is still growing into manhood.
JB: Yes, I have never supplied so many illustrations. I went down a lot of avenues before I decided on post-Roman Celtic for the overarching theme. I was surprised how much tougher fantasy work is. You’re used to grasping a character with a whole background and history.
How was your budget, and how many costumes did you make?
JB: Our budget was smaller than the costume budgets for “Game of Thrones” and “The Borgias,” but it was generous. Chris Chibnall (the series co-creator) was very anxious that the show have a style to it. We made an average of about 15 costumes per episode, and modified a lot of existing garments.
JB: Quite a bit, I am a Balenciaga babe, so I’m always trawling through what he’s done. There is a bronze gown that Eva Green (Morgana) wears that was inspired by Alexander McQueen. It has all this great shoulder work. I looked at Stella McCartney, the way she nips in the waist of a coat, for one of Arthur’s leather jackets. It’s astonishing how much fashion designers draw on the past. I can be flipping through a magazine and say “Eureka.”
Years ago, people used to be very touchy about any crossover between fashion and costume design, always emphasizing how different they are. They aren't really. But now, the costume designers' time has arrived. People’s eyes are getting educated by the emphasis on fashion in our everyday worlds, and they are noticing costumes more.
-- Booth Moore
"Camelot," the new Starz series based on the Arthurian legend, with Eva Green, top and middle, as the malevolent Morgan. And Joseph Fiennes (Merlin), Claire Forlani (Igraine), Jamie Campbell Bower (King Arthur). Credit: Ka Productions Ltd. Bottom photo: Costume designer Joan Bergin. Credit: Jonathan Hession.