High-Fashion Historic Hybrid - The Costume Design of Reign

By Joe Kucharski - January 28, 2015

The CW’s Reign, based loosely on the life of Mary Queen of Scots, has taken a decidedly modern approach to the retelling of this historic drama. And the costumes have played a huge part in this adaptation. Maddening to period purists, the show has purposely created a high-fashion hybrid, weaving in current fashion with historic styles. As a costume historian, I initially found it hard to settle into, as referenced by my first review after only one episode. However, I am thankful I took the time to revisit the show, plunging further into the storyline and costume journey. The show has proven an excellent fantasy hybrid, fascinatingly mixing period costumes for the background and older characters, but letting loose in reimagining the main and younger characters.

I recently had the chance to talk with costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack about her process in desconstructing this period, and reimagining it for a new audience. She shares with us great insight, and is even forgiving of my initial judgments!

Reign “Banished” (Episode #212) - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack 

Tyranny Of Style: Can you talk to us about the early conversations with the creators of the series about this hybrid of historic and contemporary costumes?

Meredith Markworth Pollack: “I first spoke to the show's creator Laurie McCarthy and the director of the pilot Brad Silberling as I was wrapping out the second season of Hart Of Dixie. I had a phone interview with them as they were already in Ireland prepping and I pretty much jumped on a plane two days later. They explained to me that Mary and her ladies should feel "of the times" but with modern elements like fabrics, accessories and hairstyles. They kept saying, "think Free People" and I admit I was scratching my head. But as we spoke more and exchanged references and tears I started to understand what they wanted. It wasn't the constricting, neck-ruff wearing Elizabethan fashion we would associate with the period. It was a romantic approach, still with impressive gowns and textiles but with a more relaxed feel. Being very familiar with the CW network and their strong relationship with fashion and fans- it was presented from our first conversation that there would be contemporary elements- elements that the fans could emulate on their own. They wanted the fashion of Reign to be a movement. I showed up in Ireland with Tiger Curren my assistant and we had two weeks prep before we started shooting. I basically didn't sleep the entire time. I just kept thinking, "Holy shit what have I gotten myself into." When you aren't limited to only portraying the historical version- the door is wide open, and that took a moment to define. In a way it's more fantasy than anything else. We created a look and defined the rules ourselves.”

Reign “Banished” (Episode #212) - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

T/S: How did you first set about creating the visual costume language of the world of Reign in those early episodes?

MMP: “I realized very quickly the way to blend the historical and contemporary was all in the palette and textures. I figured if the costume looked like it belonged, then most people wouldn't question it. I didn't want anything too bold or new looking that it would take you of the element. It was important to me in my process to start with the history. Still today when I am creating a new design, I like to start with a historical image and then tweak it to make it Reign. Once the pilot got picked up and I knew I was moving to Toronto, I spent the next couple of weeks researching and collecting tears. I made a board for everything. There was a Romantics board with the bohemian, Free People vibe. There was a Couture board with basically all Alexander McQueen. There were all of the real historical figures- Mary, Catherine de Medici, Diane de Portiers, King Henry, Francis, etc. I pulled costumes first in Los Angeles at Warner Bros, Western and Palace. The women’s rentals were easy to come by, but I soon realized I had nothing for the men. I then jumped on a plane to Rome and went to Tirelli. I knew that was the best house for men’s costumes of the period. That was a dream. I was blown away, and as I walked in to the atelier they said "Oh you just missed Sophia Loren!" It couldn't have been more Italian. I didn't have time to go to Angels but we ended up renting quite a bit from there as well. We are so lucky in Toronto to have the Stratford Shakespeare Festival close by, and rent costumes from there. Toronto also has a thriving vintage scene and I loaded up on gowns, jewelry and shoes. I have shoppers in New York and Los Angeles sourcing fabrics for us as well. We constantly need new fabrics and I often order from Europe and India too.”

Research and Inspiration Board - Reign  - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


T/S: A large portion of the show is historically accurate- especially the older characters and the background players that ground us in the time period, and then you’ve gone wild with the leads, especially the younger characters. Can you tell us what rules/parameters you have set for yourself and your team in creating the broad visual world of Reign, and how has that early vision evolved with the show?

MMP: “After the pilot it became apparent that keeping the background in a more historical correct look just helped define the tone of the show. There are definitely liberties taken with said accuracies but since the volume of BG is so high (at least 200 per episode), it's actually easier and more efficient to dress them in a historical manner. In general we use rentals on our BG and the rentals are re-creations from the period. It actually takes more money, time, and effort to create a blend with contemporary elements than strictly historical. We've kept the same standards for our nobles and elders, including Queen Catherine and King Henry. The idea to push the boundaries with Mary and her ladies worked story wise as well since they had come from Scotland to France; with them they brought their avant garde fashion sense. I worked with the showrunner Laurie McCarthy to define the general rules of the dressing- no neck ruffs, no hip rolls, and no pumpkin shorts!”

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack  

T/S: Can you talk specifically about how you go about designing for Mary from episode to episode and scene to scene? Her costumes always tell a wonderful color and texture story, but they also move wildly in silhouette from what looks very historic- corseted bodice, long sleeves, and full skirt, to very body conscious dresses that fit the bust, waist, and hips very closely, to un-corseted almost peasant style bohemian looks. Can you speak to what the motivation is between the varying silhouettes and how you use them for different moments?

MMP: “For me, Mary is the ideal woman to design for- there is dichotomy innately in her of a lover and a warrior. The lace and the leather as I like to put it. This may be an age-old duel, but I find it very current. I know of so many strong women who have this pull- one day you're feeling romantic and soft and want to wear something feminine and delicate. The next day you may have an important meeting and want to come across as strong and confident, so you wear your favorite black blazer. That's Mary. So when we see her in vulnerable moments with Francis or her ladies I like to play around with peasant blouses, lace dresses, embroidered corsets, etc. And when she is dressed to intimidate or stand her ground I like the structured gowns with lots of black leather and metallics. I like to treat Mary's layers and heavy textures as her armor. She has to protect herself, especially after her rape, and she would do so through her wardrobe. I'm most attracted to heavily beaded fabrics. I've been fortunate to find great Indian fabrics that do the trick. We make these into bodices and corsets for her. They're heavy and annoying to wear but Adelaide Kane (who plays Mary) is such a great sport. She's game for anything.”


Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


T/S: Queen Catherine often feels like the most historically costumed of the lead characters- beautifully tailored, rich fabrics, and always gorgeously framing her face and neck. What was the inspiration and motivation behind how you costume her, and how has that evolved over the series?

MMP: “Yes Catherine de Medici is the most historically accurate from our principle characters. She's also the strongest and I really feel this is represented in her wardrobe. I love using strong necklines and cinched waists, which emulate the shape of what we would see in the 16th Century. I am so fortunate designing for Queen Catherine because of Megan Follows. I find you really can't keep your eyes off Megan- her performance is engaging. She's not afraid to sometimes "take one for the team" as I like to say and wear shapes that may not be the most flattering, but work so well for Catherine. We especially saw this in Season 1 as she was in an un-happy marriage and had it out for Mary. She was a bitch. She required a wardrobe that was strong, formal, and conservative at times. Now that Henry is dead and she is re-discovering her sexuality as well as her role at French court, we've been able to play with her silhouettes and fabrics. We keep her a bit more casual and in more body-con shapes. It feels a bit more medieval.  I love anytime the writers give Catherine a love interest or sex scene. Middle-aged woman are sexy! It seems the networks are afraid of that, but Megan and I are not.”

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


T/S: Can you talk about the motivation between the various silhouettes and styles behind Mary’s ladies? What was your initial vision for each girl, and how have their costumes changed with their characters through the season?

MMP: “I wanted Mary's ladies to each have their own unique style and incorporate elements of contemporary trends, but in no way overpower Mary. Lady Kenna read as a social climber with a desperate approach for wealth and a title. But once they cast Caitlin Stacey who has a very natural, hippie vibe I decided to play her in a more relaxed, bohemian wardrobe. I love it because you're not always expecting Kenna do say and act as she does, especially when she's wearing chiffon layers and flower crowns. But hippie chicks can want fame and stature too. Lola was always the romantic. She was my heroine and I wanted her in a warm, feminine palette- lot's of burgundies, purples and floral prints. Anna Popplewell has this remarkable period face and body. I always tell her she needs to do a 1940s film after Reign, and there is definitely a ‘40s influence in her wardrobe- structured bodices with strong shoulders, tiny waists, and dramatic skirts. Greer has perhaps had the biggest transformation from all of the ladies. She started out as a young woman constantly trying to keep up her stature. I showed this through her impressive gowns and jewels. She was always done up and very formal. I love the gem tones on her, especially the deep blues and emerald greens. Now, however, she's lost everything and exiled from the castle. I've been keeping her in her most subdued pieces from her closet and playing lots of natural colors to work with the earth tones we see in the village.”

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


T/S: The menswear is spectacular! You’ve stepped into a fairly common costume trend of taking men out of ill-fitting historic hose and using a fitted trouser instead. You’ve then cranked up the volume! For Francis the combination of rock star style leather pants and studded belts with wonderfully gentle poet shirts is fantastic. And King Henry wears a lot of elaborate leatherwork doublets and jackets, mixed with gorgeous thick knit turtlenecks. Can you talk to us about your inspiration behind the menswear of the series and how it has evolved over the series? 

MMP: “We have a lot of fun with the menswear, especially with all of the leathers. There is an incredible store here in Toronto called Fauk Leather, and they just have the most delicious leathers and suedes. The leather pants have pretty much become a staple for our men. They all have 5 or 6 pairs because they tend to split them open when horseback riding. Toby Regbo (who plays Francis) has a natural rock 'n' roll vibe, so he can wear the leather doublets and pants incredibly well. We started him very simple at the beginning of Season 1 to give ourselves room to grow as he takes on the role of King. He tried so hard not to be the kind of King his father was, so I purposely kept his wardrobe very different from Henry's. Where Henry was flamboyant and typically regal in rich reds and gold, I kept Francis in black and metallics. This also was done intentionally to keep him and Mary in complementing palettes. But now as Francis has matured and inevitably become a dictating King, I am incorporating more elements of Henry's past wardrobe. Many more furs and velvets and rich colors. We also stretched from just the doublet for Francis. I wanted him to become more and more imposing, but he's still so young, so this was a challenge. I decided to build him longer frock coats to be worn open over vests. This helped build him up so to speak. Obviously the frock coat wasn't introduced yet, but this was liberty I decided to take.”

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack 


T/S: TV production schedules are tight! Can you give us an idea of your timeline from receiving script to when the costumes go before the camera? How are you sourcing fashion, finding rentals, and creating such beautiful custom pieces in that timeline?

MMP: “I was a bit naive in thinking Reign would be shot on a different model than other network shows because it's a period show- but no, we shoot an episode in 8 days, and 22 episodes a season! We shoot two tandem days an episode to get inserts and such. It's borderline insanity. There are very few (if any) period shows that shoot as many episodes as we do a season. When you take that combined with our ten principle characters who have on average about 3 changes an episode, it's quite a few costumes. We currently have 2 cutters and 7 seamstresses to keep up with the volume, but it's still not enough. By the time we get a script, have a meeting with the director and ADs, and start designing our builds, we have about four of five days to turn pieces over in the shop.

Costume shop and talented construction team - Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Our shop is so strong there's no way we could do what we do without them. I do repeat costumes but try not to do so too often because I know our viewers like their eye-candy. Since my busy schedule rarely allows me to leave the studio, I often shop on-line. Canadians think I'm crazy; it's just not a thing here. But coming from the states and loving sites like Net-A-Porter, Outnet, and Shopbop, I am constantly scouring the web for gowns, jewels, and shoes. Designer and couture gowns work so well on our leading ladies, especially Marchesa, McQueen, Valentino, D&G, but obviously we're on a budget- so I have to pick and choose carefully. There really is a vibrant, creative energy in our costume shop. There are 24 of us all together, plus specialty dailies that will help with breakdown, background, or sewing. It's a well oiled machine at this point!”

Fabric and built costume - Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack

Beaded fabric for new Mary cape (left). Vintage wedding dress ombre dyed for Princess Claude (right) 

Reign - Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


T/S: I love the work you are doing, even though I was extremely skeptical at first. And I think there are many people married to historical accuracy that this show is simply not for. What do you say to people that disagree with the show’s approach or who don’t quite understand the purpose behind this type of hybrid? What do you think this style of costuming adds to a storyline that a ridged adherence to a specific time period would have missed? And what has creating this new language of storytelling been like for you as an artist?

MMP: “What I found interesting in the first reviews of Reign were some critics saying that we doubted the intelligence of our viewers, but that's not the case at all. It's actually the opposite. I like to think our viewers understand what we are creating- that we are not confined to the exact historical dress but find innovative ways to replicate the shapes and fabrics. It's very postmodern. There will always be haters, and I understand, like I said- it’s not for everyone. But it's also incredibly creative and innovative. Creating an Instagram for the costume shop has been so fulfilling. Fans are constantly reaching out and sharing their inspirations and personal takes on the costumes. That's what it's really about. Knowing that the look we have created inspires women and men alike to think outside the box and try new styles on themselves is truly rewarding.”

Costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack


A huge thanks to Meredith and the team at The CW for their insight and images. I am truly impressed by the work they are producing, especially on such a challenging timetable. Season 1 of the series is currently available on Netflix, if you're brave enough to put your doubts aside and be taken a brave new journey.