Emily Dickinson isn’t just a famous poet whose works you read and dissected in high school English classes. She’s come to life in Apple TV’s hit series, Dickinson. The show premiered in 2019 and recently dropped its second season back in January 2021.
We had the pleasure of interviewing costume designer Jennifer Moeller from Dickinson.
About the show, Dickinson
Dickinson is a half-hour comedy series starring Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld. Created by Alena Smith, Dickinson audaciously explores the constraints of society, gender and family from the perspective of rebellious young poet Emily Dickinson.
About Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller
Jennifer Moeller received her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and her MFA in Design from Yale School of Drama. She is an STC affiliated artist and has worked on stage productions such as Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and Vanity Fair. Some of her work includes costuming productions of M’Lima’s Tale at the Public Theatre and Antigone at the Geffen theatre. Jennifer has an extensive history of costume design on and off Broadway, as well as many regional productions. Working most recently on the Apple TV+ series, Dickinson.
Read our interview with Dickinson costume designer Jennifer Moeller
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for costume designing on Dickinson?
Jennifer Moeller (JM): The first thing I do is immerse myself in the period – in this case it is the late 1850s. I always like to start with primary research. Luckily this is a time when photography really took off and became much more accessible so there are tons of great portraits to refer to. I carefully study real clothes in order to understand how they are made, what fabrics were used, etc. I read up on what’s happening in the world at that time and how that affects the clothes – i.e. how are new trade routes or conflicts affecting what materials are available? How is the advent of the printing press affecting what information people have access to and how does that inform their clothing?
Understanding the context you are designing for is also super important so I made several trips up to the Emily Dickinson museum in Amherst, Massachusetts.. There I learned a lot about the whole Dickinson family and especially Emily herself. I loved being able to walk through Emily’s gardens and to study her herbarium – a book in which she collected pressed flowers. I thought about her love of flowers a lot when designing her looks for season 2.
And of course, I explored Emily’s poems!
How important was it for you and your team to achieve period accuracy for the show’s costumes? Were there any liberties taken, and if so, what went into those decisions?
JM: It is my hope that when the viewer watches at the show, they think they are looking at an accurate representation of the period. But purists will know that I have indeed taken liberties to appeal to the modern eye. For example, the trimmings of this period can get a little heavy. So I’m looking at trims and buttons that have a more delicate scale and feel so they don’t weigh down the clothes.
What were some of the biggest challenges you came across in costume designing for Dickinson?
JM: Sourcing materials is always the biggest challenge. Finding contemporary fabrics, trims, buttons, lace etc. that work for the period can be really difficult.
One of the most difficult was finding just he right fabric for Sue’s gold dress. It is the first time that we meet the new Sue so I really wanted to nail it. With shooting fast approaching, my team was getting a bit nervous as time was running out and I still hadn’t found just the right thing. Then one day a beautiful French lame came in! We paired it with an antique lace and a bit of beading and it all came together. The first scene we shot in this look was Emily and Sue alone in the library and when I saw how the dress was picking up the light I gasped. It was a great feeling.
What decisions went into transitioning Sue’s costume designing from season 1 to season 2?
JM: Sue definitely had the biggest change from season 1. She goes from the poor orphan with a handful of black dresses to a glamorous socialite who “never wears the same dress twice.” For these new looks, I turned to the fashion plates of the period like those in Godey’s Lady’s Book – an American women’s magazine that featured fashion designs coming out of Europe. Sue would have definitely subscribed to this!
One of the most important things to achieving Sue’s new look was updating her undergarments. All the women are corseted and wear layers of petticoats. But to make Sue more fashion forward, we added a hoop skirt – which is needed to achieve the oversized bell shape of her skirt.
There were so many parties that took place in Season 2. What were some of your favorite dresses that you designed?
JM: The parties were all very fun, but the clothes from the opera episode were some of my favorites this year – Emily’s luscious midnight blue velvet dress, Sue’s champagne and silver lace dress and Lavinia’s explosion of raspberry ruffles! I also loved working on the opera singer’s dress – trying to find a way to reference Sue’s gold dress but also giving it a heightened theatricality for the stage. I began my career in opera so this was a very special episode for me.
One of my favorite characters is Death played by Wiz Khalifa. What kind of designs influenced you for his look?
JM: Both Death and Emily’s looks in the carriage were looks that I inherited as they were established in Season 1.
What advice do you have for aspiring women costume designers wanting to break into the TV and film industry?
JM: Keep the people with whom you share a kindred artistic spirit close! Don’t let them go… you never know where these relationships will take you. Alena Smith, the creator of Dickinson, is one of those people. We connected years ago in graduate school and today we are working on Dickinson together!
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Featured image credit: Apple TV