In the epic final season of Carnival Row, love and loyalty are tested as Vignette and Philo find themselves on different paths as they try to save the row. Their struggle and that of the row are beautifully brought to life by the cast, crew, and the incredible costumes of Carnival Row designed by Emmy award-winning costume designer Nina Ayres. I spoke with Nina about Carnival Row and the incredible costumes she designed for season two.
Elizabeth: Hello, Nina, season two of Carnival Row has been incredible, and the costumes you created bring so much life to this expansive world. What was it like jumping into the world of Carnival Row while bringing your perspective and vision to it?
Nina: Hi, thanks for talking with me. I’m a huge fan and an avid listener of your podcasts. It was so exciting to join this show. I absolutely loved season one and love the historical/ fantasy genre in general, so I couldn’t have been more delighted to be asked to become the costume designer for season two.
Initially, I had to fully immerse myself in the costume influences and style of season one so that there would be continuity of costumes going into season two. Thankfully, much of the Czech costume team, including my wonderful supervisor Jenni Lander, had worked on the first season, so they were already familiar with the characters’ costumes which gave me, as a designer, a good starting point.
Once I had the first scripts, I began researching and developing ideas for the established and many new characters. Fabric sourcing, hire house liaison, and my creative processes began. My office walls were heaving with mood boards of the various creatures and worlds, with fabric samples hung from them, new inspirations, Post-It notes with reminders, dye samples, and bits of jewelry. I have to do this to see everything, all at once, to constantly evaluate how each group is distinguished and then evolved and refined.
The other H.O.D’s were fabulous, and I had great communication with Nick Dudman, the MUFX designer; Vincenzo Mastrantonio, the makeup designer; Francesco Pegoretti, the hair designer; and Juri Matura, the production designer. We would get so excited and inspired by seeing each others’ work. It sent tingles down my spine to see how their glorious work would play into the emolument of characters.
I was so happy working on this show, as I love the collaboration with all the other departments. It’s essential to creating a cohesive and realistic world, especially in a fantasy setting. The other part I relished was the chance to make almost everything ‘in-house’. Not only all the principal characters, but so many of the other characters on the Row, as their circumstances had changed from season one. You can’t hire costumes ready for fairy wings or puck legs and hooves, let alone trows or centaurs.
We also designed two new creatures; the Elfin Mouro and Kallos. This was a real highlight. I love the creativity involved in dreaming up new species. I’m so invested in every character, principal, or crowd that I invent backstories for them, even if they’re not specified in the script, which helps make any decisions that might come up. I know who they are, their history, and their principles. My vision in creating something is to make it seem real. I am so character driven that I need to reason with everything. I want to go wild, but I patiently wait until I can find a loophole or moment in the script that allows a logical shift in clothing.
I fully embraced working in a new country and the invigoration I felt at the chance to encounter new fabrics, new masters of their crafts, new flea markets, and antique shops. I love finding new ways of interpreting a design. I was the ‘newbie’ in this situation and wanted to learn what was available to me rather than imprint my way of working. This created a beautiful dynamic and, I believe, gave my team the ability to shine. I would design a new costume and take the artwork to one of my cutters, and sometimes a language barrier would misinterpret the idea, but from that, I could either discover some new technique, be inspired enough to alter my design, or invariably find an interpreter that could specify things.
Elizabeth: Through season two, Vignette and Philo continue their struggle to get the fae off the row in very different ways. How did you reflect their missions and character changes through the wardrobe?
Nina: I had a big chat with Orlando at the start to talk about whether his look should change. He stands out on the row, but anything we looked at to help him blend in more gave the impression he had accepted his fae side, which obviously was something Philo was struggling with. The look that had come to define his character we decided to keep, as he had no major developments or new affinities. He still thought like a detective and was one to his core. As a result, we made new garments for him, but in the same style. We were joking that Philo goes to the same tailor, chooses the same patterns, and just asks for a fresh set. As Philo had a lot of clothes destroyed this season, we created many new waistcoats and trousers for him.
Eventually, he gets a whole new outfit in episode ten, Still, no positive life decisions have occurred, so the continuity of style was adhered to. He did have his disguise look for when he gets a message to Vignette after her court case, his formal attire for the pact ambassador dinner, and his disguise as a policeman, so I got to play with some different looks for him when he was trying to ‘not’ be Philo.
Vignette, on the other hand, passionately embraces each change. We start the season almost continuously from season one with some gradual changes in the style of the Black Raven. She loses that outfit when she is arrested and is put into the basic prison garb and metal wing harness. When she escapes and flies back to the row, she hides in Aisling’s wardrobe and arrives to see Tourmaline with a new bundle of clothes to change into.
I wanted the new clothes to look like they came from that wardrobe, from a young Aisling. The lightness of feel to this change, the silks and gold hues, reflect her shift in mood at this time. They show her desire to return to fae traditions, emblems, handicrafts, and color. She momentarily gives up the fight with this look but soon gets new ‘fight’ gear, though this time it has the fae spiral embroidered into her coat with the quilted layers opened up on the sleeve to show the red, which by now has become synonymous with her look and her simmering anger. Her black raven hood is a muted red and textured to reference her homelands. Her new boots have the black raven on the side, she’s there…ready to fight!
Finally, a couple of outfits, back in Tirnanoc. One she wears while flying is a warrior outfit, and the one we see more of is the ceremonial robe. For this, I remembered the Nanai women from Northeast Asia that used symbolism on the backs of their beautiful salmon skin coats to express themselves. I knew that the focus of the ceremony was an embrace, and therefore, the backs of the garments were the feature. The fish skins seemed natural and organic, the symbolism was almost reverential, and the colors were harmonious, so it seemed like a fitting closure.
Elizabeth: One character who has a very different journey and look this season is Tourmaline. How did you want her wardrobe to reflect her new path?
Nina: I designed a costume for Tourmaline to start the season as a transition from her days in season one, a character that had a dramatic shift in role. I kept the oranges and reds, which had been her trademark in season one, but with an obviously more everyday look. I had intended to move on from this, but with the changes to the story amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and flashback scenes of her in that outfit that leaped forward and almost froze her in that dress, I was unable to. I happened to end up liking this, as it gave me the opportunity to invent ways she could accessorize and add clothing, which she could only find in the haruspex shop.
A need to keep her only dress clean required an apron. Her cuffs, as she continuously found her hands plunged into some poor animal’s guts, needed some renewable cover, and the cold outside required a little cape to cover her neck. I loved all these little inventions that added to her storyline. All were completely practical but ultimately brought her more into the haruspex world.
At last, I got to give her a new outfit. She’s in conversation with the Mima, learning her new role and wearing blue suede and orange leaf patterned felt, a very shamanistic costume in contrast to the Mima’s. She is in Tirnanoc and has this dark magic but will learn to use it for good. Then, of course, the ceremony has the same vibe as Vignette but longer and a little darker to show their personalities.
Elizabeth: Another character whose position has changed a lot this season is Runyan Millworthy. How did you blend his background in theater with his new position as a politician?
Nina: Millworthy took inspiration from the poets, artists, and philosophers at the time. This was my thinking, and therefore I designed something that could meet the standards of the Burgue parliament, but only just.
Each costume had some subtle feather motif to nuance his love for the Fae, and especially in remembrance of Aisling, He also had his velvet waistcoat, the black satin frock coat with cream lining and silk necktie, and overall a rather bohemian aesthetic. Simon and I discussed collars, ties, levels of conformity, etc., and finally abandoned them all in favor of a silk necktie worn loosely around his neck. I felt his background with the chancellor would let him get away with an apparent creative air or slovenliness. He also goes backwards and forwards to the row with only a coat and hat change in order to blend in, which has various degrees of success as his chancellor badge gives him away.
After the Bleakness Keep episode, he has less to hide and the feather motif becomes more prominent. He also regains a new deep mulberry suede frock coat, reminiscent of the green one worn previously in his theatre days. When we see him finally reunited with his lovely kobbolds, he wears new checked trousers, a hat, a beautiful bird-painted waistcoat, and most importantly, his beloved ‘theatre cloak’ from season one. He’s a man that now has some wealth and can upgrade his street performer wear, but the cloak seemed like the magic of his shows was contained within it, and I believed it was important to bring it back.
Elizabeth: In season two, we finally meet the Pact up close when they come to the Burgue seeking aid for their civil war against the New Dawn. What were your influences for the Pact?
Nina: I chose the color red to symbolize the pact as it is a strong, flamboyant color with connotations of bloodshed and wealth. It was important that their style differed from that of the Burgue, hence I chose an Indian continent aesthetic. There also may have been a nod to colonies of the British empire of the era at play. The textiles of the rich, the pact ambassador, and those unfortunate souls of the killing fields invariably involved gold or silver metallic brocade and a longer style tunic, a show of almost gaudy affluence and power. I loved the fact that the pact ambassador always wore this pompous sash hanging from his pocket. It just made him look so arrogant.
Elizabeth: The New Dawn is quite different from both the Pact and Burgue in look and attitude. What were your influences for the New Dawn, and what did you hope to convey through their wardrobe?
Nina: The New Dawn needed a fresh palette. Hope and regrowth were at the forefront of my mind, hence the color green became their symbol. Ragusa is a hot climate, and therefore the washed-out blacks and grays, the almost sun-bleached effect was sought after. I wanted there to be uniformity without an actual uniform to convey a strong unity and allegiance to their cause. I used a check pattern along with the color choice to show a utilitarian, work ethic vibe.
I did a lot of research on communist uprisings and nations, and I was struck by the lack of traditional gender-based clothing I saw. The salwar pants and loose-legged trousers were a way to distract from the differences of gender or species in our world. In the Burgue, both are very pronounced, but I hoped to find a way to limit the visual differences of the characters there. There’s a patchwork theme also running through the new Dawn, which conveyed a lack of money but a huge amount of faith. The cobbling together of garments would blend in with everyone else, as obviously, the new Dawn doesn’t possess personal wealth, and any show of individuality would set them apart.
Elizabeth: The leader of The New Dawn, Leonora, is very different from any other leader we see this season. What were you trying to convey through her wardrobe?
Nina: Leonora is the only leader that we see that actively doesn’t use her clothing to convey wealth or power. In fact, her clothing does quite the opposite. She has a dream and power, but it’s important she looks like any other in the New Dawn. I gave Leonora the same checks, patchwork, green and faded shades of her comrades. She’s a very clever woman and knows how to blend in. Thus, when she comes to the row, her heavier wool costume maintains the green check pattern but could easily blend in with the row. The idea I wanted to convey when all the new Dawn came to the row was the ease of blending in, so much that if one were to lose the armband and ammunition, no one could recognize them as New Dawn.
Elizabeth: Imogen and Agreus undergo several transformations this season as they are pulled between The New Dawn and Burgue. How did you convey these changes while remaining true to the characters in each phase?
Nina: I began by setting up a hope of a happy new life, with both Imogen and Agreus dressed rather frivolously for their holidays in pastel linens and cotton. I wanted them to look as ill-prepared as possible for what was about to happen.
Imogen begins her transformation quicker than Agreus. The many frills and layers to her costume quickly begin to get shed, and she makes changes that are more practical to her situation and changing mindset. The bottom tier of her skirt is worn first as a necktie, then a head scarf. An important step is abandoning her corset and bustle to help her move more freely, and she opens the front of her blouse (that used to fasten at the back) to be able to dress without a maid. She’s becoming more independent, making choices based on function over style whilst also outwardly appearing to fully embrace the New Dawn revolution.
Agreus, on the other hand, clings tighter to the position he holds. It was hard won for him, and he isn’t as ready to let his appearance slip. He also has more reason to distrust the Burgue, so he’s not experiencing any of the sympathy towards Leonora that Imogen is. Agreus keeps his wing collar, cravat, and tie pin as intact as possible throughout the whole ordeal. That’s stubbornness!
Oh, the wedding scene… seen through Agreus’s eyes. Imogen wearing the most outrageously frilly, feminine dress that Agreus’s mind could conjure speaks volumes about the way he perceived Imogen at the time.
When they arrive in the Burgue, Imogen goes through the most significant transformation. She begins to adopt a reformation clothing look and stays adamantly uncorseted, a movement that was happening at this time period. When she goes to parliament, I wanted her to wear ‘divided skirts’ in a masculine pinstripe and a little suit jacket. She’s confident and freer than she has ever been and wants to be taken seriously.
For the scene in the drawing room with Kastor, waiting for Agreus to return, she wears a deep red housecoat with a grey openwork yoke. I had stumbled across this openwork tablecloth in a flea market, and it was so unusual with eagles on it. I really wanted to use it for Imogen in this scene, as it was back in this room in season one when the birdcage featured. With Imogen’s speech to Agreus in Ragusa about the cage and finally being free, in my mind, I felt the bird design was lovely to revisit here. Not a sweet little bird, but an eagle, fierce and sometimes deadly. She has killed her brother by this point, after all. It was a beautiful garment but got very little screen time.
Agreus immediately goes back to what he’s always wanted to convey, his standing and right to wear the best clothes and retain a privileged place in society. It’s not until after his ordeal at the fight club, his broken horn and confrontation with Leonora, right at the very end of the season that he tones his look down.
We see Agreus and Imogen at the end of the season having settled comfortably into a life of mutual respect and understanding. Agreus loses the flamboyance and rich silks he has always aspired to and what we have mostly seen him in, and he settles into more muted tones of wool fabric. I found some gorgeous vintage suit wools which I had wanted to use all season, but there wasn’t enough fabric for repeats, so I was very happy to finally use them here for Agreus. He no longer needs to show his wealth and status outwardly, ultimately portraying an inner peace and acceptance.
Imogen, likewise, no longer feels the need to outwardly portray a refusal to conform. She adopts a businesslike but florally decorated coat and extravagant hat to mark her equal standing as a business partner with Agreus. Again, I wanted this to convey acceptance of herself.
Elizaebth: What did you find the most difficult about creating such a large project?
Nina: The largeness of the project was never my biggest concern. Having worked on Game of Thrones for five years and 2 or 3 units shooting in multiple locations, I’m not sure I will ever feel overwhelmed again!
It was very busy though, and the crew wasn’t huge. With the fast paced action and amount of destruction happening time and time again, we were certainly kept on our toes. The difficulties, although it seems ironic as I have just exulted the joys of working abroad, is working abroad. It challenges one to alter expectations, celebrate the fabulous new discoveries but sometimes commiserate the lack of anticipated or familiar craftsmanship.
When Covid hit, we filmed on and off again while the script evolved, so it was a very unusual and unique experience. All costume designers have spoken about not being able to conduct fittings properly, shops not being open, new fabrics not being available, team members being away for 2 weeks, limited fittings with actors and standbys on set not getting to the actors between takes…the list goes on. It was tough but gave us a sense of camaraderie, ‘the show must go on’….
Elizabeth: What was the most fun part about working on this series?
Nina: I loved the people involved in this project. To work with actors, producers, and directors that are as immersed in the worlds as I was and who enjoy creating characters and their journeys as much as I do was heaven. I was surrounded by the most outstanding creative and practical people. I felt I had a voice on this show, and every department supported each other, so that was a wonderful experience.
I had so much fun doing fittings with the actors as we had beautiful creative discussions about their characters, their allegiances, and the subtle nuanced designs I could bring to their costumes to speak of their truth, their journey…this was all so enjoyable.
I absolutely loved that moment when I would go to set to establish new character costumes or crowd scenes and have my breath taken away by everything coming together. That never lost its joy, even in freezing temperatures or soaring heat.