'Unfortunate Events' Costume Designer on Creating "Crazy" Latex Octopus Dress, Dragonfly Wings
Cynthia Summers reflects on the costume feats of season three: "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
While the show’s theme song urges viewers to “look away,” the eye-catching costumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events encourage otherwise.
The Netflix original, adapted from young-adult novels of the same name, released its final season in January and garnered its second Emmy nomination for costume designer Cynthia Summers, who joined the series for season two.
Unfortunate Events follows the three Baudelaire orphans as they move from guardian to guardian in attempts to escape the treacherous Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) and uncover the mystery of their parents' past. While the show features a wide range of fashion influences, from Western frontier wear to 1970s garb, it never offers an indication of when the events take place.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld "said that the story is told through Lemony Snicket, but it’s really told through the eyes of a child who’s remembering time through pictures that you have in your mind,” Summers tells The Hollywood Reporter. “People remain timeless in your mind — they remain frozen in time, if you will. So that’s how we established our period timelessness, which I thought was genius.”
In an interview with THR, Summers breaks down the various decades from which she pulled fashion inspiration, how she made Beatrice’s magic dragonfly wings and how she tackled the wild fashion whims of Esme Squalor.
The series never indicates an exact period or exact time frame — how did that reflect in the costumes? Did you look to certain periods?
The kids travel though each book and they go from town to town and each town is very unique in its look, so we had to kind of ground the kids. I would put them between the late '40s to the early '60s and mixed up their look within that time frame. We kept it a little elevated and a little nondescript as far as time, just to keep it mysterious and to keep it on [a] fantastical level.
The rest of the series was dependent on where we were. We tried to stay within the 1930s, and we kind of capped it off at the '80s. We didn’t want to go beyond the '80s, because '80s fashion is everywhere. We kind of mixed it up; if you look at one costume, it probably has elements from a lot of different decades in it. That was intentional to keep the suspense of time and place, so that we could be outrageous with the costumes when we wanted to.
Overall, what was the most challenging costume to nail?
Out of all the two seasons that I did, besides [Detective Dupin], probably Beatrice’s dragonfly dress. There were other costumes that were physically hard to make, like Esme’s octopus dress, but the dragonfly dress had a backstory that I wasn’t really clear on.
It evolved over the season. The wings were going to work on three different costumes. Before Morena [Baccarin] was cast as Beatrice, we did a scene with Beatrice where she has the winged dress on and she gets pushed off the edge of the VFD at the masked ball, which is where we had the flashback. We don’t see her face, and that was actually a photo double for an actress we hadn’t cast yet. That was the first time we saw the wings, that had to be operational, that had to magical and beautiful. They were made out of laser-cut aluminum, and they had to go on to that ball gown, underneath the costume, which was backless.
It also had to work on Morena’s butterfly costume at the opera, which was a completely different dress with a different mount for her body. Again, it had to be magical like the wings just sit on her body or are a part of her body and work for the piece of opera she’s singing. Then they had to work for Kit Snicket, as she jumped off the edge of the cliff when she was diving down and appear to be operational. They also had to appear that they just came out of her back, so we had to build them inside her leather jacket, and she had a pregnancy belly on.
Did the wings take the longest to create?
Most of them are so intricate because we made 95 percent of what’s on camera, including shoes, foundation garments and hats. Everything on camera gets made to look old and decrepit or just shaded to look more 3D. Everything was more time-consuming.
The octopus dress took a long time. It involved finding the right color of purple. We actually had the latex dyed in London and then flown over. Finding someone who actually works with latex — because it’s so toxic to work with — is so difficult, and everything is glued. We had to make two of them, because Esme wears that dress all through that episode and because the clothes that are blown up, of course, need to be blown up throughout the day. It was very labor intensive.
The tentacles were great. Lucy Punch, she’s a miracle, I love her. Her costumes were really fantastical, but she brought so much to it. Every part of her body moves independently; she puts her arm up in the air, her elbow moves independently from her fingertips, everything is always moving and staccato. She just rocked that octopus dress. Barry wanted the tentacles actually to be animated, but we couldn’t with the time we had and the tight space of shooting in a submarine, we just couldn’t make it work. So, it was up to her to make those tentacles bounce around, and she did a really good job. We hung them upside down so they had a little more heft when they moved.
How many total costumes were there?
I never know! There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. Every costume you see on camera, you have to know that with the exception of something like the octopus dress, where we just didn’t have the time or resources to make seven or eight of them, every costume you see has got five to seven multiples of that costume, because of stunts.
When you’re going along in a show like that, you’re sort of living at a heightened level of "Just keep on swimming," because if you stop, you’re just going to sink to the bottom. You just want to live in the moment, with the frenzy and the madness at the end, and then move onto the next episode, which is crazy and great. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.
Did you base the inspiration of it off of drawings from the books? Did the 2004 movie iteration have any influence?
Whether you’re a costume designer or producer or director or production designer, you have to be careful going into a project with someone like Barry Sonnenfeld, where his history is taking things and putting his bend on everything. I interviewed for the first season of the show, and I had illustrations done that really reflected the more Edwardian vibe of the movie, which of course the series is nothing like that. I didn’t get the show season one, because that was not Barry’s vision at all. Had I paid more attention to who Barry was before I went in, and had my illustrations done, it would have been much different.
I did watch the movie, but clearly, I didn’t take much inspiration from that in season two and three, and I definitely followed Bo Welch’s direction on that for the sets. And then the seasons went on, and everything got brighter, the adults got darker and the kids got brighter.
So, the book, yes, because I think the books were important, but again, the illustrations for the books were very Edwardian based, and we just never hit that decade. For instance, Carmelita Spats, I really started with her pin curls, her hairdo, because it’s in the books. And a lot of fan art, I actually was inspired by a lot of fan art for Carmelita, and spun it into her very character-y outfits.
You mentioned Carmelita Spats. She wears a lot of pink throughout the series, and it’s one of her signatures. Did you have certain colors or design details as signatures for each character?
Absolutely. You hit that one on the head for sure. Carmelita’s pink was something that we dyed many, many different swatches of fabric before Barry picked the pink that he liked, and it’s kind of a raspberry-pink that sort of follows her throughout her story point of, as her relationship starts to jive with Esme, you start to see touches of pink in Esme’s costume, and then of course in the finale, when you see them at the very end, they start twinning, their costumes start twinning as mother and daughter. At the end, they’re wearing Carmelita’s pink, both of them. That was definitely storyline.
Olaf was dark throughout, even in his Detective Dupin outfit. It was a purple jacket and that terrible, polyester 1970s fake jeans. Olaf’s palate sort of got darker and darker and his costumes became less costume-y right to the end, and that was on purpose. Esme was the opposite. She was a rising star, and his star was sort of falling in the story. She became brighter, and her costumes became more elaborate and more ridiculous — fabulous ridiculous. There’s a line in The Slippery Slope where she’s skiing down the side of Mount Fraught, and the kids are looking at her, they think she’s on fire, and Violet says, "That’s not fire, that’s fashion." I just love that we took the fashion aspect of what Esme thinks is the fashion, and it’s always outlandish and really crazy.
The kids remained constant, throughout, even from the beginning of season one to the end. They stayed real, in a sense, in their 1950s and '60s vibes. Usually when I asked Barry Sonnenfeld about the time period, I’m like "When is it?" And he was like, "No, no, it’s not a specific period at all. It’s fantasy." And I’m like, "OK, what do you...color, time frame?" And he said that the story is told through Lemony Snicket, but it’s really told through the eyes of a child who’s remembering time through pictures that you have in your mind. People remain timeless in your mind — they remain frozen in time, if you will. So that’s how we established our period timelessness, which I thought was genius. As children, you remember maybe your father in a different time, in a certain period 20 or 30 years ago when they were young, and sort of remember them for the clothing of that time. Or, people that you haven’t seen in a long time. That resonated, that made a lot of sense out of something that is nonsensical.
What costume was the most fun to make?
Esme’s fire outfit was supposed to be a dress in the books. As the fans were getting involved and a lot more vocal, everyone was very excited about the dress and her lettuce bikini. For what we needed Esme to do throughout that episode in the fire outfit, it was impossible in a dress, because our series is very physical.
I had to come up with something that turned into a ski suit and still gave the impression of flames and something that, as she was coming down the mountain, flew like a skirt would fly, but I didn’t have a skirt to work with. The vinyl fabric for that was a bit of the pain in the butt, because it cracked all the time, but it worked onscreen.
The Hostile Hospital, I remember at the beginning of that, someone said, "Oh, it’s just a bunch of hospital uniforms, it’s going to be an easy episode. You’ll have a break." And I was like, "No, because it is a bunch of hospital uniforms, but they have to be as unique as everything else we’ve done so far." For that, we really leaned into the '70s, with a wider bell-bottom pant, with a longer, tunic-y top that was fit on top.
Esme’s costume just grew into what it was. It was pants at first, and then we changed them to hot pants, and then her hair is so large, her nurse's cap is so big, and then we put a cape on her, sort of a Florence Nightingale nod, but it was sexy, because it had the black leather around the collar.
Olaf as well, if you look closely, he wears sort of a turn-of-the-century looking O.R. outfit, that’s got leather straps on it. And in his pockets, he’s got a hacksaw, and then in his upper pocket, he’s got a potato peeler, and he’s got a pair of pliers and then he’s got really dirty Q-tips. Everything is filthy, and there’s pus all over it. That was fun, because we went, "What would be your nightmare hospital to go to?"
And Esme is just magic, Esme creates things, even in that Hostile Hospital, when she goes away and comes back in that fox coat outfit, with the nice heeled shoes, it’s all about fashion. Esme was one character we were able to run with, because in the books, you don’t see as much of her — her story isn’t that big. [Onscreen] we could kind of see what it meant for Olaf to have this sidekick that was just sort of larger than life, and he couldn’t control.
A lot of Count Olaf’s outfits are dirty and aged. Did you have a certain method of doing that?
I have the best breakdown team ever, of agers and dyers, and they work full-time, every day, sometimes weekends, making our stuff look just ridiculous. With each character, they had a color that they would start with. For Olaf, it was really yellowy-gray. For some of the other characters, it might just be a brown or a soft brown. Everything had a hint of tobacco stain or terribly greasy — like someone who hasn’t bathed forever, because he doesn’t. Neil even wore terrible perfume all the time, just for the clothes to not only look terrible, but to smell terrible. The agers and dyers work very hard. The henchpeople were filthy as well, using all waxes and oils. [Using] cheese graters, everything was ripped and shredded.
Count Olaf is known for his disguises — do you have a favorite one?
Even at the end, when he shows up and he’s disguised himself as Kit Snicket with the seaweed hair and the dive helmet that’s got the mysterious mushrooms in it, and the pregnancy belly underneath a piece of discarded fishnet that he’s found, that was fun to build.
His nod to Karl Lagerfeld was really fun, because we had two versions. It's the first disguise we see in season two, and it’s the sort of the height of his disguise before he starts descending to just evil awfulness.
The funny thing about Neil is he walks in as Neil, and he puts the clothes on, and he might tell you a little bit about the direction he’s going to go with the character, often he doesn’t. He just puts it on, and then he stands in front of the mirror, and he turns around, and then he just gives some dialogue with the accent that he’s going to use and the physicality he’s going to use, how he’s going to [move] his hip, and he sort of walks around the room in it like that. It’s so wonderful as a costume designer, because you finally see it all put together, and the costume come to life and the character come to life right before your eyes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.