Costume designer Joan Bergin has three Emmys (and one nomination) neatly tucked in her belt for her pitch perfect period costumes on Michael Hirst’s hit Showtime series, The Tudors, (2008-2011) which focused on the life, times -- and wives -- of King Henry XIII. And now she’s (hopefully) poised for another Emmy nod for her work on Hirst’s latest project, Vikings, History Channel’s first scripted series, currently in its second season. The series spins the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok as he rises to rule all the Viking tribes.
The show stars Australian actor Travis Fimmel as Lothbrok, Katheryn Winnick as his first wife, Lagertha, along with Alyssa Sutherland as this season's Princess Aslaug, the wealthy daughter of Brunhilda who maneuvers her way into Lothbrok’s bed. The new season also features new faces: Norwegian actor Thorbjorn Harr as Jarl Borg, Donal Logue as King Horik, and Linus Roache as King Ecbert. Lothbrok is based on a real man, who, along with Horik, was one of the first Vikings to emerge from misty Norse legends and secure their spots in European history.
Bergin was thrilled to set sail once again on the Viking ship, calling the new season – which now includes interaction with Anglo Saxons -- a dream job. "In many ways, this is one of the most interesting things I have ever done," Bergin tells Pret-a-Reporter. "This season you will really begin to see the complexity of Viking society, from weddings to ceremonies. And although there are differences between Anglo Saxons and the Norse, it also exposes many similarities between the Christian and Pagan societies."
This character complexity is telegraphed through costumes made with intricate knitting, weaving, braiding and embroidery, as well as the elaborate jewelry and adornments, all envisioned by Bergin.
In Viking times, as today, societies used clothing to display their social status. "While people didn’t have wealth as we know it today, they still dressed to show off their position, in the same ways we do today, like 'Oh, I bet the coat cost a fortune.' I tried to bring that kind of refinement to this season."
To that end, King Horik’s larger-than-life costumes – including one that is bright red -- scream wealth and power. As does Anglo Saxon King Ecbert, who struts about in richly colored vestments with elaborate embroidery and gilt adornment. But despite becoming an Earl this season, Lothbrok continues to dress like a cool, laidback star, a la Viking Johnny Depp.
"I like to imagine that Ragnar would still be wearing his T-shirts, leather jacket and torn jeans, in modern parlance," says Bergin. But she did sneak in some touches that signaled the elevated status of his character, including elaborate raven insignias on his armor and leather jackets. "Ravens are the symbol of the God Odin."
Another notable but brief costume change for Lothbrok is the otherworldly priest's robes he dons in order to distance himself from executing an enemy in a horrific but moving candle-lit night scene. She explains: "We used very odd fabrics from India with gold threads woven into the cotton and silk. We discovered that when you wash it, the fabric turns into a sculpture that you can hang on the body."
Lothbrok's first wife, Lagurtha, who leaves her husband in a huff – taking their young son with her -- when his fling with Princess Aslaug becomes known and the Viking hussy comes home to roost -- literally -- extremely pregnant with her husband's child, Lagurtha then marries a powerful Viking and has to dress the part of the dutiful arm piece. But she soon finds her way back to the battlefield in somewhat showier styles. "It was a pleasure to make her armor and clothing more elaborate and beautiful," recalls Bergin.
By contrast, Princess Aslaug comes from vast wealth and likes to show it off. "She was the shield maiden Brynhildr's daughter and was anxious to make her position known so her costumes are grand and very theatrical," explains Bergin. To that end, she makes her grand arrival – hugely pregnant -- clad in a glittering gold threaded gown and swathed in a colorful furs. "Those huge burgundy color furs and the girl is six feet tall and 8 3/4 months pregnant! Everyone went ‘Oh, my God!'"
Just dying all the furs on the show is tricky. Last season, Bergin found that dying caused the skins to dry stiff and curl up; resembling what she laughingly calls "an angry animal." She added: "But we found a place in Paris that has a way of dying fox fur so that it keeps every single shade. And it doesn’t curl up!"
Bergin sourced good old Irish tweed from a mill in Tipperary, Ireland, but there was still much to work on. "There’s so much building in our fabrics. If you bought couture Italian fabrics you would need to mortgage your house. So we pulled every sixth thread of the wool and threaded it with gold so that on camera it look like rich fabric, like an Armani couture garment."
Bergin veered slightly from historical written record (no paintings exist from that time) that indicates Vikings did in fact wear bright colors, but she preferred to use more natural looking wild berry hues such as rose, burgundy, wine and blueberry blue. Because of the amount of dyed costumes (all the principals and over 1500 extras), her savior is the dying facility History Channel provided. "Dying and breaking down is so important in this series," she says. "It’s such a big asset to be able to achieve to the colors and to over-dye everything from wool to fur."
Bergin freely admits that she was surprised that her work on the Vikings' first season did not receive the critical acclaim she enjoyed for The Tudors, which she was nominated for at the Emmys and CDG Awards.
"I don't think with any diva expectations but I was curious why the costumes were ignored on the awards circuit, especially at the Costume Designers Guild Awards," she explains. "I was delighted to be an Emmy winner for my work on The Tudors and this is such a fresh and different show. I had hoped that its newness would bring it the forefront but maybe it will just take more time."
The time may be coming though -- and for two very good reasons.
"There is always such an interest in the more refined and bejeweled aspects of costume drama," says Bergin. "But there are two contrasting weddings in the second Viking series. And I like to think we will give some of those other shows a run for their money this season."
She’s talking about a hippy-dippy, flower-child Pagan wedding in the forest and an over-the-top Anglo Saxon wedding in an embellished and ornate cathedral. "A tremendous amount of work went into that gown," says Bergin of the Anglo Saxon nuptial frock, describing the pieces of gold she bought in Los Angles many years ago and the use of priest's vestments hoarded by the holy men’s housekeepers and bought en masse by a close friend of hers some 30 years ago.
Much of the wedding gown fabric – with gold threads added to it by her team – was also overlaid with pearls. She said: "We actually kept the dress on the stand to cheer ourselves on hard working days. When the sunlight hit it, it was just breathtaking."