How Costume Designers on 'GLOW,' 'The Crown' and More Helped Leading Ladies Find Their Power

Erica Parise/Netflix
Alison Brie and Ellen Wong as their wrestling characters in 'GLOW.'

Designers who dressed up period series including 'Godless' and 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' reveal the secrets behind their creations: "Her armor was her outfits."

Whether toting shotguns in the Wild West of 1880s Colorado or practicing pile drivers in the world of 1980s wrestling, the women of this year's crop of standout period TV series are dressed for battle. Sometimes their struggles involve bloodshed, sometimes international diplomacy. But they always require sartorial armor, occasionally mannish but often brazenly feminine.

Costume design begins and ends with character and story, and with shows like GLOW, The Crown, Godless and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the screen is filled with strong female characters learning to embrace their power and put it on display, often in contexts historically dominated by men.

In Amazon's Mrs. Maisel, after picture-perfect 1950s housewife Midge's (Rachel Brosnahan) husband walks out on her, she finds herself onstage at a comedy club, pouring her heart out — and tapping into her gift for stand-up, a vocation almost entirely reserved for men. ("Women aren't funny!" yells a heckler during one of her routines.) And she does it in a peignoir, that emblem of domestic sexiness, even as she begins to outgrow her role of domesticated wifey.

For the women of that era, the peignoir was "all about preserving the relationship with their husbands, with their boyfriends. Midge is very much, particularly in the beginning, about that identity," says costume designer Donna Zakowska. But when Midge's world falls apart and she begins to explore her identity as a comedian, "in her decline, she rose," Zakowska adds. "It's very much the phoenix rising from the ashes … at your lowest point, somehow you become courageous. And I think she became courageous after that."

Zakowska uses not only specific pieces to manifest Midge's transition, but color. As the season progresses and she emerges from the home front into the larger world, dark blues, greens and burgundies replace sunnier, softer shades. "It became a little bit more urban working woman because she had to be taken seriously," Zakowska says.

But even as she takes on the man's world of stand-up comedy, Midge remains true to the unabashed femininity that is central to her identity, and that's a key part of her strength.

"I think we can't be frightened of the feminine," Zakowska says. "My whole point in making her look good is that I think it's important to embrace the femininity in a feminist fashion. I think you can't shut it down. And I think women in the workplace who are often subject to that — through innuendo, all sorts of things — are made to suppress who they want to be."

When dressing Charlotte Temple (Samantha Soule), Godless' resident girlie girl, costume designer Betsy Heimann took a similar approach.

In the town of La Belle, where nearly all the men were killed in a mining accident, the women have been forced to fend for themselves, and each of them does that in her own way. As they go about the arduous business of surviving in the Old West, Alice (Michelle Dockery) sometimes chooses to wear the clothes of her late husband, and Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) always does, abandoning skirts and dresses altogether. But Charlotte doubles down on her femininity.

"She was somebody who had a complete wardrobe from back East and was very proud of that, and she used that to her advantage to get on the good side of the mining company" that wants to take over the town, Heimann explains. "Her strength came from the fact that she had these clothes because her husband was a big so-and-so. Her armor was her outfits."

There's a compelling conflict of feminist ideals in the juxtaposition of Charlotte's and Mary Agnes' wardrobe choices in the Netflix limited series. In her suspenders and man's trousers, Mary Agnes believes the women of the town can go it alone, whereas Charlotte, in her dainty hats and corsets, feels they need the mining company's men to bring prosperity and security back to La Belle. When Charlotte overrides Mary Agnes, there's a clash. On the one hand there's the "old-fashioned way," Heimann says, and on the other is "what I need to get the job done, and who I am. It doesn't matter — I'm a woman whether I have a corset on or not. And I can kick the shit out of you whether I have a corset on or not."

But neither woman is necessarily stronger than the other. They're just different. And when the time comes, they both take up arms to protect the town.

After all, "These women had to be tough to make the journey [out west]" in the first place, Heimann says.

On Netflix's The Crown, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), chafing at the enforced propriety of life as a royal, is every bit as bold as Godless' frontier women — but in sexy frocks and statement heels. Interestingly, however, while season one sees her in numerous revealing outfits, in season two she shows less skin but more spine.

"A lot of the dresses she wore in season one were off-the-shoulder '50s dresses, and they were quite suggestive and low cut, and the way she played Margaret she would be always pulling things off her shoulder and almost trying to wriggle out of them," says costume designer Jane Petrie. "In season two, in order to make her more free and more edgy and more experimental, we were almost covering her up more, which goes against your academic instinct. For somebody who's free, and suddenly they've met this free spirit (Antony Armstrong-Jones, played by Matthew Goode) that's going to take them away from all of the sort of shackles, you don't imagine covering them up more. But that's kind of the direction that it took as she moved into the '60s."

One item from Margaret's wardrobe says it all. It's a silk and velvet swing coat that "looks a bit like a midcentury painting," Petrie says. Margaret wears it to a gallery before the opening of Armstrong-Jones' photography exhibit. With its "paint splashes and really strong Margaret colors," it speaks to the princess' progressive nature and envelope-pushing relationship with the bisexual Armstrong-Jones.

That coat belongs on a woman who can declare, as Margaret does, "I know who I am, a woman for the modern age, free to live, to love, and free to break away." She's the polar opposite of her sister, Queen Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy), who remains trapped "almost in the '40s really, never mind trapped in the early '50s, and starting to become quite stationary in terms of clothes and fashion," Petrie says.

Then there are the women of Netflix's GLOW, a ragtag bunch of misfits trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. Unlike the ladies of The Crown, for the most part they have no money and no social standing. They repeat outfits because they're broke.

And it was the '80s. "You didn't have as much stuff" as people do today, says costume designer Beth Morgan. "It was not this disposable fashion of Forever 21."

Perhaps more overtly than on any other series, the characters of GLOW find themselves in large part through their costumes — because they must consciously choose who they're going to be as wrestlers in the ring.

Early in season one, the women attend a party at the Malibu mansion of their producer, Bash (Chris Lowell). There they get to raid a giant closet full of clothes in order to develop their wrestling personas. But what's revealed is more than their stage identities; it's their emotional baggage, and the way they see themselves and the way they want to see themselves.

"We had a lot of talk about what that scene should be and what pieces should be available and then what our girls would pick," Morgan says. "Because that's when they're really developing their characters for the end of the season, and they're finding all these things and experimenting. [We discussed] what are we going to put there that's going to spark us to get closer to where they're going to go."

Melrose (Jackie Tohn), the party girl of the bunch and the only one with any money, pounces on a sparkly, in-your-face Bob Mackie outfit. But when she puts it on, something feels wrong: "I really thought I was going to like this. It was like, 'Oh, Bob Mackie, I need that.' But I don't even know who this is. It's a stranger."

For Morgan, that's the moment when Melrose starts to understand that she's not just a shallow party girl who doesn't "have too much emotional attachment to people," and that she actually needs these women she's fallen in with.

Meanwhile, Carmen (Britney Young) covers her face with a hockey mask. "That was a great moment for Bash to say, 'No, that's not who you are. You are beautiful, and we are selling that you are a sweetheart,' " Morgan says. Bash replaces the mask with a bright pink hat from Peru, and in that moment Carmen begins to blossom, to "change and become softer."

But protagonist Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) walks away without a costume, without an identity. And later, in an awkward brown ballerina sweater, ill-fitting pink leotard and what Morgan describes as "brown, really foamy leg warmers," Ruth tries to nail down her character. But it's not working.

"Help us out, Ruth. Who do you think you are?" asks the show's cynical, down-and-out director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron).

"The whole thing with her is she's never going to be the beauty of this, as much as she wants to be the star, so to me that [outfit] was her trying to soften herself, because she still was holding on to the idea that she could be the good girl," Morgan says. "When she becomes comfortable with being the villain is when we really see her truly grow."

That villain is Zoya the Destroya, an evil Russian in a high-cut, skintight burgundy leotard with only one sleeve, a Russian military coat bearing a captain's insignia, spiked hair and a fur cap. And Ruth owns it.

The Zoya look is revealing, but in an empowering way. Like so many of the costumes featured in this year's period TV series, it represents a character's deliberate choice. Through their clothes — whether Alice and her riding trousers on Godless or Midge and her Pepto-pink swing coat on Mrs. Maisel — these characters embrace their womanhood and innate power.

"I think the minute you are able to find personal expression in clothing, there's a liberation in that," says Maisel's Zakowska, "because this is something everyone immediately has or can tap into."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.