'Chernobyl' Costume Designer on Using YouTube to Create BioRobots, Finding Beauty in the Ugly

Style - Chernobyl - costume design - HBO Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

“I talked to a lot of Lithuanians who had lived under Russian oppression, and that really helped a lot in giving me insight into what they were thinking at the time,” says Emmy nominee Odile Dicks-Mireaux, who re-created looks of 1980s Ukraine in 'Chernobyl.'

British costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux has almost wrapped on Edgar Wright’s new film Late Night in Soho. Although a far cry from the Chernobyl setting of 1980s Ukraine under the USSR, that’s also a period film, set in the 1960s, and thus required the BAFTA winner’s characteristic approach of meticulous research into the fabrics and clothing styles of the time.

“The thing about clothing is it doesn’t really change,” Dicks-Mireaux tells The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from London. “I think human nature is the same — the way people dress, undress, assign gender. There is a social-political aspect to it, and you have to put your clothing in the context of the world it’s coming out of. So it’s really important to understand why people are wearing the clothes they’re wearing in the place they’re in, wherever that may be.”

Dicks-Mireaux spent a lot of time — a year before shooting commenced — learning the context of HBO’s five-episode series Chernobyl. Time well spent, given the hit series’ 19 Emmy nominations, including her own for outstanding period costumes. And when she was first given the script, Dicks-Mireaux knew it was a project she didn’t want to miss out on.

“I remember when I read it a year before we started shooting, and I was being asked to do a budget,” she says. “I felt really tired [about] doing another show, but I thought, ‘This is so phenomenal I can’t miss out on it.’ I had no idea whether people would find something so appealing enough that they would want to watch it when they came home from work at night."

She says everybody who read the script felt the same way, and once they spoke to director Johan Renck and "it became clear he was not going to glamorize the piece in any way, that he was going for an accurate Russian look, we realized we were all passionate to make it right. The whole team was like that.”

Filming in Lithuania gave Dicks-Mireaux the opportunity to have local people on her team, like her assistant, who knew the constraints of the time period well. “It was incredible, to try and understand what it meant to be occupied by Russia. They had all lived during that period. I met and spoke to quite a lot of people who lived in that world, who lived under the effect of Chernobyl. It was fascinating, listening to their stories, researching it with them. Because they could speak Russian, we could tap into a few things, like Russian documentaries, films and magazines, to help. We found original patents for the work-wear and the medical uniforms of the time. We wanted to do it as well as we possibly could, with as much detail as we could. So we were constantly looking for more and more details to add layers to the story.”

Dicks-Mireaux used huge research boards to get as much of that detail for the time period she was after, particularly since the actors were playing real-life characters or composites of real-life characters — Jared Harris as nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, Stellan Skarsgard as the Council of Ministers' deputy chairman and Emily Watson as a Soviet nuclear physicist. “Most of the real characters were documented in some way,” she says. "We went to Belarus and Kiev, looking for real Russian '80s costumes and military uniforms, and we bought a lot on eBay and in the Ukraine. We bought a lot of brand-new original uniforms, old stock that hadn’t been worn before, and we set about making them look old and worn-in."

Renck was adamant he didn’t want the uniforms to look clean and neat, she says. “He wanted them to be more chaotic as the story unfolds, so we did a lot of breakdown to make uniforms of the engineers and the medical workers lived in. There’s a beauty in doing something that isn’t trying to be sexy or glamorized,” says Dicks-Mireaux. “The clothing is clumsy, but there’s a beauty in that and in making that vision.

Dicks-Mireaux, who’s worked on films such as Brooklyn and An Education, is a fan of natural fabrics but she had to use a lot of polyester for Chernobyl characters. “My colleagues back home found it very funny, since they know I don’t like polyester, but it was part of the look, and the actors totally went with it.”

Writer-creator Craig Mazin and Dicks-Mireaux talked a lot about the way Russian politicians dressed. “How badly they dressed, in comparison to European politicians, and why they were dressed so badly. Because the shirts were so badly made,” she says. “That’s all they were allowed to buy, unless they had the chance to go to Europe, like [former president Mikhail] Gorbachev, who had the advantage of a European tailor. There were a lot of homemade things; people made their own clothes. We found a lot of knitting patterns that we used.”

A number of costumes were knitted for Watson’s character, who is first introduced in the episode that Dicks-Mireaux and her team have been nominated for, “Please Remain Calm.” Sometimes the pieces were found locally, such as the green dress Watson wears in that episode from Ukraine. "I don’t plan it too much, I like to let it evolve and work with the actresses. Some costumes were dictated by the scene, whether Emily wanted it to be gentle or hopeful. She wasn’t trying to be a flashy scientist. There is a level of practicality in her costume, and if you look at the reference of women Russian scientists going to work at that time, they looked that way.”

As a reference point for the biorobots — Dicks-Mireaux’s biggest challenge on the series — the team (including her assistant and their Lithuanian military adviser) looked at YouTube footage. “Then you’re really challenged because you want to get it as close to the real thing as you can. There had been a series made in the Ukraine in 2000 and we found some bits in Kiev that they’d used," she says, adding that they worked on doing rubber aprons, but made all the lead pieces out of aluminum. They spent a lot of time prepping for it but dressed the actors quickly. “We made it kind of chaotic, we didn’t think too much about it on the day, because we were trying to re-create the atmosphere they were in — they were just wrapping people up and then sending them off.”

In the process, Dicks-Mireaux learned more about style in the USSR at that time. "We got a few things from England because we couldn’t find enough stock, and what became apparent is that the Russians were trying slightly to imitate — albeit with a brashness and clumsily — things like jeans, which they made out of a terrible denim, or Converse trainers from 1980s America, but they made a bare version of it. All of that information makes the period interesting,” she says.

“The more you look into the period, the more you can find the thing that makes your take on it a little bit different to someone else interpreting the same script,” she says.