Costume Design for an Alternative History: The Man in the High Castle

By Joe Kucharski - April 13, 2016

The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon Original Series, shows us an alternative history where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II and now rule over the former United States. Based on the novel by acclaimed science fiction author Philip K. Dick, the story is as exciting as it is chilling, full of psychological twists and turns. The series owes much of its success, in addition to excellent writing and casting, to the level of detail and believability in the production and costume design.

Set in 1962, costume designer Audrey Fisher weaves together the iconic and the mundane to create three distinct worlds that feel incredibly real, and completely unsettling. Every detail is perfectly suited to the character and their surroundings, with not a single unnecessary element. We recently had the opportunity to find out more about Audrey’s process, and she graciously gives us a window into her absolutely brilliant work.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

 

Tyranny of Style: Can you talk to us about the conversation, inspiration, and process in starting to create the world of this series?

Audrey Fisher: “As always, it’s just a fact: my guiding force was our scripts, plus the warp of Philip K. Dick’s eponymous novel, then the weft of world history. The conversation about specifics started with Frank Spotnitz, series creator, and David Semel, the director of our pilot. And then the discussion got even more richly intense as we continued with producing director Dan Percival when prepping Season 1. I dove into research before my interview for the pilot, realizing how much I had yet to learn in order to be a part of building this world. 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

The copious research that I brought to that first meeting became the sounding board for many conversations about the look and feel of the costumes. And from all the various character and historical research, I created a MITHC “mood board” PDF that became the source material for many discussions with actors, writers, directors, production designer, cast and crew, and it was a living document that kept growing and changing from the pilot through the series, with new imagery being added as the story grew and changed. We are currently working on the Season 2 Mood Board!” 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

 

T/S: Can you talk to us about how you created the individual identities of the Japanese Pacific States, the Greater Nazi Reich, and the Neutral Zone?

AF: “There were several strong simple design elements that helped to differentiate between our three words: color, silhouette and texture. Color was first and foremost: San Francisco embraced the blue-green tones of the ocean and the earth, set off by some brighter tones of cacophonous street life, anchored by the dark suits worn by the detectives of the Kempetai secret police. New York had a more sharply sophisticated palette: jewel tones, with smart red as a highlight, against navy, charcoal, and the iconic black of the SS uniform. And finally the Neutral Zone featured saturated warm tones, dusty and well-worn. But all three color ways lean into the richly baked palette of 1950s kodacrohome photography.

As far as silhouette and texture: the Japanese domain of San Francisco wields less power than the Nazi Reich, therefore the silhouettes are softer, slightly less imposing, and we see the class hierarchy in the wear-and-tear of the clothes.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Elite, Nazi New York shows off the more structured, monied silhouette, with the least presence of texture in the form of wear and tear.  

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

In the Neutral Zone, silhouette dissembles, becoming a mash-up of styles and shapes, and all the clothes are very distressed to demonstrate how that population is struggling to survive.” 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

 

T/S: Can you talk to us about your inspiration and process for designing the costumes for Juliana Crain?

AF: “Designing Juliana’s costumes was a delightful challenge. I imagined Juliana as a strong young woman who has always preferred order and simplicity, and now those preferences help her manage her colonized existence. I tried to create simple uniforms for her daily life, modest and matter-of-fact, without superfluous details or anything overtly feminine. I really enjoyed that the traditional Aikido uniform is the perfect synthesis of all these elements.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

For her debut costume, which she wore for several episodes, we decided on a humble grey short sleeve sweater, almost uniform-like plaid skirt, straight but with enough movement, and flats, topped with her favorite, only, every-day jacket: a teal woven wool with a patterned cream lining. I gave all those pieces a lot of thoughtful everyday wear, as in this world, the whites are one of the lowest classes within an oppressed society, so their small closets consist of recycled, repaired and re-worn clothing, and pieces are worn for years, very much like real people wear clothes but in this case it’s more extreme. 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

When Juliana lands a job in Tagomi’s office, she of course wants to dress and play the part perfectly within the strict codes of office culture. But, of course, she has a modest closet, and not many workaday dresses. I imagined she pulled out the most appropriate dresses she could find in the back of her closet, creating for example a back story in my own mind of a former attempts to get work as a stenographer, or attend secretarial school, and the handful of 'business' dresses that her mother gave her, now stashed far in the back of the closet. She pulls them out, and puts them to work, starting first with the most girlish on her first day: a charcoal polished cotton frock with chartreuse details. Then, as the days go on, and Juliana has fully slipped into her role as ornamental tea server and greeter, she chooses from her closet more form-fitting sheath dresses in forrest green, and grey, and then a burgundy two piece suit with a flattering peplum."

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

T/S: Can you talk to us about your inspiration and process for designing the costumes for Joe Blake?

AF: “Joe Blake was playing a duplicitous game from the very beginning, which the viewer only learns in the final moments of the pilot. My goal was to continue to have him be a regular ‘Joe,’ wearing simple, masculine clothes that both signal that normality and offset his double-agent reality. His brown leather bomber jacket was an especially strong choice for a double agent; in MITHC reality, wearing such a clear symbol of defeated WWII America would certainly be considered inflammatory, but in his case it worked as symbol of rebellion, and he used that jacket to sell himself to the underground in the start of the show.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

For colors and shapes, I maintained a manly palette of classic mid-50s, very American pieces: white T-shirt, henley, chambray shirts, grey sweatshirt, brown pants. Joe is from a New York working class background, and I wanted to both embrace that history, and to create a starting place for any transformation into either a Resistance rebel or a Nazi sympathizer.”

 Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

T/S: Can you talk to us about the inspiration and process for designing the costumes for Paul and Betty Kasoura, as well as the other fashionable, wealthy Japanese?

AF: “Paul and Betty were supposed to be the Japanese version of JFK and Jackie: elegant, refined, and totally captivating especially within the San Francisco we’ve gotten to know so far, saturated with militaristic brutality and fear. They are like bright, beautiful flowers growing in a muddy field. Paul’s obsessed with vintage American culture, so for him I maintained a sleek, sporty, dashing look, inspired by Kennedy, with a side of sexy Rat Pack.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

With Betty I was given free rein: she's a chic fashionista who collects looks from all the colonies of Japan as well as the latest couture from Japan and Berlin, hence she debuts in a very Jackie cream silk suit and pillbox, mesmerizing Childan.  Later at home we see her in a hot pink embroidered Moroccan vest, a luxe dupioni dinner gown in cerulean blue, and then both a silver and then a midnight silk Cheongsam. She delights in her youth, beauty and nobility.”

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

T/S: Can you talk to us a little further about your inspiration and process behind designing for the Japanese Crown Prince and Princess, as well as the Japanese military uniforms?

AF: "For the Japanese Crown Prince and Princess, I did exhaustive research on the historical couple, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan, who were Japan’s equivalent of JFK and Jackie in the early 1960s. My goal was to use them as my strongest inspiration, and follow their style cues: the young Prince’s dapper, bespoke Westernized suits, and the demure Princess’ striking but feminine kimono. In order to really emphasis the dominance of Japanese culture in the world of MITHC San Francisco, we chose to keep the Princess only in kimono for her state visit, instead of showing her in sophisticated Western dress, which she immaculately wore regularly in real life. I relied heavily on photographs of their many state visits, during which the Princess often did wear kimono, and tried to respectfully emulate small but charming details of their presentation: for instance, the scale and feel of the patterns the Princess favored, the pearl and diamond brooch the Princess wore discreetly on her Obi tie, and the Prince’s penchant for a luxe 1940 silhouette and silk hankies. 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

The Japanese uniforms were largely based on historical uniforms of the end of World War II, and also it so happens that the simplicity of the Japanese military style balanced beautifully with the swagger of Nazi uniforms. Japanese uniform silhouettes, ribbons, and medals are more restrained and streamlined, and there is less adornment in general. Also the color world is much tighter: the Japanese are all in shades of very cool, green-toned khaki, wheres the Nazi uniforms are deep black, the famous Nazi grey, and nutty tan. The Japanese rank system of red, black and gold has a simpler vocabulary than the multi-tiered system of Nazi rank; Japanese medals are sparsely worn, and based on classic historical symbols, like the Chrysanthemum."

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

T/S: Can you talk to us about costuming Obergruppenführer John Smith and the huge cast of characters in various Nazi uniforms?

AF: “Learning about the history of the Nazi uniform, and all the insignia, was a sobering and intense journey. During the pilot I had the help of several experts from costumes houses Western, Eastern and Motion Picture, and then for the series we gained a dedicated military historian, Peter Czink. It was during the series that we had the support to fully explore and create dedicated symbology for our alternate MITHC world, spring-boarding from a MITHC alternate history constructed by Frank, Dan and the writers, in the form of insignia, medals and ribbons.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

For the uniforms themselves, we sourced and rented from multiple companies for the background, and built for the principals. In terms of design, I found that after researching uniforms, if felt that it served our alternate history most to utilize the most iconic uniform silhouettes for MITHC’s 1962, so that the audience had a deep sense of familiarity alongside growing unease as our dark story unfolds. Also it’s true that uniforms gain their strength from the longevity of their design, as uniform styles vary only slightly through the decades. For example, images of soldiers in East German uniforms of the 1980s look almost identical to those of uniformed Nazis of the mid-1940s.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

 Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

For the highest Nazi Command in the GNR, Obergruppenführer Smith, we chose the imposing black of the SS in luxe black cashmere for tunic and jodhpurs. The black uniform springs from the Nazi uniforms of the mid-1930s, and was not in use during the end of WWII as Hitler and his cronies were eager to distance from anything too reminiscent of brutal Fascism (aka the black shirts of Mussolini); however the power of the black uniform felt right for our complicated Nazi leader, Obergruppenführer Smith, so we imported it into 1962 for use on the SS officers who rule the States.”

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

 

T/S: Can you talk to us about the terrifying juxtaposition of Obergruppenführer John Smith’s uniform look and the very “All-American” feel of his family and his off-duty clothes?

AF: “John Smith’s civilian clothes were a strong choice, and both fun and creepy to create with Rufus Sewell. Rufus had very strong feelings about Smith reading as ‘normal’ as possible when he was off duty, and that of course brilliantly supports the uncomfortable and compelling juxtaposition of Nazi Monster with All-American Family Man.

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

We were inspired by the mid-1950s Sears catalog, period men’s advertisements and street photography to create a “Father Knows Best” Smith at home in Long Island with the wife and kids. The friendly cardigans and slacks did the trick, but I did purposefully inject a Germanic flair into his off-duty palette and style to make sure we didn’t lose site of his Nazi allegiance even at his most approachable.” 

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

Amazon Original Series - The Man in the High Castle - Costume Designer Audrey Fisher

A huge thanks to Audrey for sharing her wonderful insights and imagery with us!

Make sure to check out Season 1 of The Man In The High Castle on Amazon now!