'Salem' Costume Designer Gets Creepy With Bizarre Bugs, Human Hair-Knitted Dress

Joseph A. Porro doesn't hold anything back when it comes to making grotesque pieces for WGN's first scripted drama. A moss-covered bird mask and coat made of human skin and teeth? You bet.
WGN

Witches — and their wardrobes — have cast a powerful spell on primetime TV.

First, Ryan Murphy's FX show American Horror Story: Coven dipped a trembling toe into the bubbling cauldron of witches, led by the frighteningly formidable Oscar-nominated actress Kathy Bates. The show's costume designer, Lou Eyrich, was rewarded with an Emmy nod for her magical designs.

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Sleepy Hollow then resurrected Washington Irving's hapless hero Ichabod Crane (played by British actor Tom Mison), who, according to the Fox update, was previously married to a sexy witch and came back to life in modern time to team up with a lady cop and save the world from evil. Hollow's costume designer, Kristin M. Burke, got a raised Emmy profile when Hollow's second season was previewed in early June to members of the TV Academy, WGA and DGA at — wait for it — the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

And because three's a charm, WGN's first scripted drama, Salem, (produced by Fox 21, the folks who brought us Homeland and Sons of Anarchy) whisks viewers back to 17th century Massachusetts during the feverish outbreak of pubescent possession, witch-hunting, dunking and burning.

But this new Salem — airing Sunday nights at 10 p.m. PT/ET on WGN — is not your grandfather's witch trials. Forget all those dour and dowdy puritanical costumes. Joseph A. Porro, the show's costume designer, who initially sought the job because he's a serious aficionado of Salem's witch hunt period, was given carte blanche to spice up the show with deliciously macabre, skin-crawling (literally), perverse costumes that include accessories such as teeth, bones, human hair and creepy-crawly insects.

"I told my agent, 'Oh please get me in there for an interview.' But they hired me not based on my ability to be historically accurate but because of my high-fashion background," Porro tells Pret-a-Reporter. "They wanted me to bring an edgy look to the show."

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Their edict? No Pilgrim hats or white collars. Instead, Salem's enchantingly evil witch Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) dons a giant maroon plumed hat and sexy low-cut dress with sterling silver bugs and a spider's web sewn on it. "She wears tons of silver jewelry, vintage pieces from the '30s and '40s," says the costume designer, who was Emmy-nominated for The Music Man in 2003. "She's dripping with jewelry. Not even Game of Thrones has this level of jewelry." In past episodes, Sibley has also been draped in in semiprecious stones ("She had on about a thousand carats of amethysts," says Porro) and smothered with long Victorian silver chains.

Porro says he can get away with the crazy accessories and modern reflective fabrics such as black patent leather and vinyl — as long as he keeps the period silhouette: full skirts, nipped high waists and puffy shoulders. But he went all-classic action hero for John Alden's look.

"The actor [Shane West] wears leather that looks naturally aged. The coat has hand stitching all through it. There's a great leather guy out of L.A. who does primitive-looking skin. It's aged and goes through dying that takes days just to get it to look like it's really beat up and has been worn for two years," he notes. "It's a labor-intensive [read: expensive] process." We bet.

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Another nameless character wears a bird's head mask and lurks in the woods covered in moss to blend in. "They created these strange bird masks at that time. I just took that and incorporated the mask into the moss, twigs and netting so he disappears into the forest. I think I bought every piece of moss in Los Angeles," says Porro.

Among Porro's upcoming oddities are a crocodile cape and a human-hair dress, which he says of the latter: "I have a friend who does amazing necklaces out of human hair and I've been collecting Victorian mourning jewelry, all made out of human hair. We're going to do a bonnet out of it. And I have the jewelry all set. We're actually knitting the whole dress of hair and black pearls. It'll look very gothic and very creepy."

He's even got a dung beetle dress coming up too. He sourced the shiny turquoise beetle wings from Thailand, where they're used as a protein source. So far, Porro's piece de resistance is a coat worn by a character who scavenges skin and bones from a nearby outcast paupers' cemetery.

"There's a ghoul character who comes in and skins them all and wears a coat made out of human skin, with ears and human teeth all stitched together. It's really disgusting. It's the creepiest thing I've ever made in my life. It's just like creepy, creepy, and creepy. But it's fun."

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Despite the show's extravagant production values, Salem's costume department budget is not in the red. Porro is actually doing it all on a shoestring.

"I have less money on this than I had on Ghost Whisperer 10 years ago," he admits. No one is telling Porro to ease up on the ick factor, either. "I keep expecting a call from the producers telling me to tone it down. But they just want more and more."

And so far, so do the viewers, it seems.

What do you think?

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