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“I’m a regular goddamn Murder, She Wrote,” declares private investigator Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni) to overwrought New Jersey patriarch Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale) in Ryan Murphy’s The Watcher. But, in her pitch to identify the culprit terrorizing the new suburban homeowners with threatening letters in the Netflix mystery, the PI could be referring to her enigmatic self.
“She’s an Agatha Christie-type. You don’t know who she really is or where she comes from. You like her so much, and you believe she’s telling the truth. But is she?” asks Lou Eyrich, Murphy’s longtime costume maestro and series producer.
In a dark diner, Theodora makes her first impression in a vintage ’70s Lanvin trench over a black turtleneck and trousers, with a graphic-print head wrap. “She’s covered up, undercover,” adds Eyrich. Theodora shares her colorful origin story — or spins a yarn — involving a jazz career, rehab stint and addiction to true-crime documentaries.
She emphatically gestures throughout, as her spectacular Sermoneta orange gloves punctuate her storytelling. Theodora’s penchant for regularly covering her hands with sumptuous leather gloves was a Murphy directive. “Because she never wants to leave fingerprints behind,” explains Rudy Mance, who co-costume designed the show with Eyrich. (Catherine Crabtree also co-designed episodes six and seven.)
Later, Theodora’s brown gloves, with exposed stitching and white piping, help point the finger (sorry) toward Dean as The Watcher, as she dramatically reveals handwriting analysis evidence to his suspecting wife, Nora (Naomi Watts). But the refined accessories were more a style choice than Easter eggs — or, red herrings. “It’s just dependent on the outfit, if it needs something a little more outstanding, something peculiar, something matching or something more elegant,” says Eyrich, who encouraged Dumezweni to “play” and sometimes select her own accessories.
Theodora’s trademark head wraps, also a Murphy mandate, heighten her timeless aesthetic that isn’t identifiable with specific fashion trends or eras. “So that confuses you, too,” says Eyrich. The team sourced luxe textiles, like a black moiré, from Mood Fabrics, plus vibrantly printed scarves from local shops in the East Village. Key hairstylist Tim Harvey created the elaborate braiding and flourishes, while Dumezweni tied her wraps in fittings.
“She is a little more theatrical and grand, but without being completely over-the-top,” says Mance. He and Eyrich — christened “Lou-dy” by the crew — walked a balance with Theodora’s jewel tones and dynamic square and circle graphics to counter the striver Brannock family’s “new preppy” palette of lush neutrals. “She can’t be so far removed that Dean wouldn’t trust her,” says Mance.
Strategically dressing for the occasion, Theodora, in an Another Tomorrow white- and black-checked pantsuit, connects sartorially for a first solo meeting with Nora, who regularly wears all ivory while drinking red wine. “They mirror each other,” says Mance.
To update Dean with newfound horrors of the family house’s history, Theodora intentionally veers from her suiting silhouettes to a pleated dove gray cape, with a pointed python-print collar peeking out. The slow-build suspense of Theodora’s narration, and intense close-ups on Dumezweni, proves the perfect moment to showcase the piece from vintage rental house Early Halloween, a Lou-dy favorite. But it also enhances the overall mystery.
“If she’s a little more bold there, maybe it’ll distract from the fact that she’s wearing head-to-toe black underneath it,” says Mance. “Is she The Watcher?”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Robert De Niro