In 2013, costume designer Trish Summerville designed the now iconic costumes for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a film that led to Summerville’s second Costume Designer’s Guild Award for Excellence in Fantasy Film. Ten years later, Summerville has returned to the world of Panem to design the costumes for this new chapter in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. In this exclusive, spoiler-free interview, costume designer Trish Summerville delves into her captivating work on The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Summerville offers a behind-the-scenes look at her creative process in designing the costumes, the challenges she faced, and the inspirations that brought Panem’s past to life.
Spencer Williams: Trish Summerville! I am so happy that we are finally doing an interview. It’s been a long time coming.
Trish Summerville: Hi! It’s nice to see you.
Spencer Williams: Likewise! I’m so excited to be here with you and to talk about the costumes for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It’s such an exciting film. I LOVED it.
Trish Summerville: Good! I’m glad you got to see it so we can really talk about it.
Spencer Williams: Let’s get into it then. Now, for those who are reading, this is not your first Hunger Games film you have designed the costumes for. It’s been about ten years since you designed the costumes for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire! What was it like to return back to the world of Panem?
Trish Summerville: It was exciting and interesting! It was nice to be back in the world with director Francis Lawrence and some of the team from previous films. But this time we had so many new characters and actors. That was all interesting but then the fan base got to have all four of the previous films set in the same timeframe. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes jumps sixty-five years in the past when Coriolanus Snow was only eighteen years of age. It was nice to have that opportunity to present a completely different world and a completely different view.
Spencer Williams: You and your team really got to set a whole different tone. As you said, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place many years before the story many of us became familiar with. The Capitol is still very sophisticated and beautiful, but there is an eeriness to it. To me, it felt as though we were watching a beautiful period piece set in the world of Panem. How did you approach The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes costumes to meet the time period?
Trish Summerville: Early on, I was working with Francis Lawrence and the production designer Uli Hanisch, to figure out what we wanted the world to look like. What sort of colors were we working with? We shot in Germany, and I was really inspired by these photos from our location scouts of massive statues and the incredible buildings that made up The Academy. From these photos, I knew that I would have the liberty to work with color because I was not competing with the sets and background. We also wanted this film to have a post-war feeling as the story comes right off the heels of the rebellion. Knowing this, we wanted to describe that feeling similar to America in the 1940s and 1950s.
With the Capitol citizens, I was trying to keep all their clothing in solid colors and not having a lot of print so that it came across as a bit more serious, a bit more cold, even though I have a color palette working there. But when you get to the districts, you get to see the lives of everyday people, outside of what The Capitol thinks of them and how The Capitol perceives them. Even though in The Capitol there is more money and wealth, you don’t see joy or the freedom of expression. Everybody’s treated as one of many and as a number, and you’re all equally the same. I wanted to express these ideas in the colors of the clothing, showing the difference between the lightness and the darkness of both worlds.
Spencer Williams: There’s certainly a relatability and authenticity to these different characters, and sometimes you could see similarities in our world, both bad and good, to Panem. Now I would love to talk about the uniforms that the audience will see in this film. I fell in love with The Academy uniforms. That red color was striking. The uniforms were sophisticated but still scholarly with a Panem flair. I also can appreciate the neutrality of them. If this is what school uniforms would have looked like when I was in school, I would have been all about them.
Trish Summerville: That makes me really, really happy! For the uniforms… I like to find classic pieces and elevate them in a way that fits whatever the project is. Many films are known for their school uniforms, and that’s the main look of the film. So, there are certainly challenges in coming up with something that is considerably interesting but isn’t distracting. I liked this idea of the red, painting an image where all the students flow into The Academy like a vein of blood. As they flow into these buildings, they stand out in high contrast to what their environments are. Our colors were focused on red, gray, black, white, and blue. We tried to have every working hired hand in The Capitol contained in that color palette.
I, as you said, also wanted to keep an androgynous, gender-neutral kind of look where it wasn’t girls in skirts and boys in pants. In the Capitol, if you’re one, you’re the same; they never let you feel elevated to be special. I loved the idea of the kilt because the kilt is a very old article of clothing that we still use in contemporary times. We’ve seen it every decade in some way or another. So I really wanted to use a kilt and modernize it in a way of just being a front and a back panel for the school uniform instead of being a complete skirt all the way around. We decided to keep the shirts gray with no collars, just keeping it very simple and clean. But we made all the buttons as Academy buttons. So we cast all the buttons so they would have the Academy symbol on them. I just loved the idea of these stark environments with this sea of red when all the kids are coming in.
Spencer Williams: During the games, there were oceans of these uniforms! *laughs*
Trish Summerville: Oh my gosh. *laughs* There was definitely a struggle with these uniforms and the mass amount that we had to make. Procuring enough fabric…. we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of yards of fabric to make uniforms for so many students. We had to make excess uniforms so you can do all the fittings. Then you have to have extra. Plus, we had all of the mentors in the uniforms, so they all had doubles of their uniforms. So it was a lot of red fabric…. It was really tricky.
Spencer Williams: Is there any red fabric left in the world? *laughs* Now, let’s talk about the dress that everyone’s been talking about. Lucy Gray Baird, played by Rachel Zegler, wears this beautiful rainbow dress, which I gather holds a lot of significance to fans. I imagine there was quite a lot of pressure with this specific look, knowing it’s going to be featured so prominently. Tell me how this was created; I thought it was stunning.
Trish Summerville: Thank you very much! There was pressure in a way, but also goals to hit. I’ve said many times that I am really appreciative of our fan base and their dedication. Because of that, I did want it to be true, as seen on the page. When I first read Rainbow Ruffle Dress, it spun around in my head. What could that be? First, I wanted to tie into Catching Fire, giving the dress a nod or some relation between Katniss and Lucy. With that, I chose to do this corset shape that mimics the same corset shape of Katniss’s Mockingjay dress, the blue dress where she spins and the wings come out. From there, I used a lot of colors to help mimic the look of a rainbow, using a lot of color in the corset, and you can see there are painted snakes that go around the chest and down around the waist into the back. There are yellow snakes and green snakes. In the front are Katniss flowers and Primrose flowers.
For the tulle skirt, I was figuring out what I could do to show a rainbow that would also work functionally because she has to do so many stunts and actions in this costume. She’s in this dress for a very, very long time.
Spencer Williams: I was shocked that she wore it so long. I kept thinking about you, actually. There must be probably two hundred of these dresses! *laughs*
Trish Summerville: I wish we could have had the time and money to make two hundred of that dress! *laughs* We had between eight and ten. On the top layer, it was tulle made into hand-cut ruffles and sheared. We were looking for fabrics that we could use that had a bit of stretch and give to it because of all the action she would have to do, so the dress wouldn’t just tear every time. That helped us with that top layer, and we rigged it where each piece was separate and snapped together so that if she did rip some of the top skirt, we could switch. We also had pre-made strips of each color of the tulle handy in case one ripped off; we could stitch it back on. It was definitely a project of love. Part of it was made in Los Angeles at Western Costume, and part of it was made in Berlin. The corset and all the hand painting was done in Berlin with my team there. I’m really, really happy with how it turned out. I thought it looked really beautiful. It looked amazing on Rachel. She was very happy.
Spencer Williams: It worked out perfectly. It required so much work, but it was so worth it! It was impressive that this costume was able to sustain such a life as well. You don’t really see that too often. I’m really excited to talk about Dr. Volumnia Gaul, played by Viola Davis. My favorite costume in the film was, by far, her lab coat, with that blood-red gradient and the gloves. It was haunting! Tell me about working with Viola Davis and these costumes. I would say her character is where we really saw that “Hunger Games” vibe that we came to be familiar with in characters of past films such as Effie Trinket.
Trish Summerville: Yeah! I knew she was someone that I could make a bit more progressive because of her exposure to the world and being a scientist. There is a cultivation of progression in her costume and character. For her character, the location was very important. Set decoration brought all of this amazing shelving, creatures, columns, and light! However, I wanted to stick with that red color we talked about in the uniforms. The color was intimidating! There is a scene where she is sewing up a character’s shoulder with those red latex gloves. I loved how that would look. Francis kept making references to her as a Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory type! I leaned into that.
Spencer Williams: That makes so much sense!
Trish Summerville: I also leaned into this idea of a mad scientist with a bit of Dr.Frankenstein. There’s that serious level as well, but she’s also quite playful. Viola Davis was just really brilliant to dress because she does let you do anything. She just starts transforming into this character. She was just a joy to work with and looked phenomenal. She had just come off of doing The Woman King. Her artists in makeup and hair were phenomenal. I really love her character and how much presence she commands. Everyone is afraid of her.
Spencer Williams: I was afraid of her! I want to be her friend, not her enemy. Now, I can’t let you go without talking about Tigris. This character must have been a costume designer’s dream, knowing that you will have a character who’s known as THE stylist of Panem later on. Tigris is always very concerned about everything that happens in the film *no spoilers* so I felt like she wore her costumes as a form of armor.
Trish Summerville: Having Tigris to dress was great. And then when it’s Hunter Schafer being cast in this role, you get the double win-win.
Spencer Williams: Perfect casting!
Trish Summerville: Right. Could there be another Tigris? NO. That was really a joy. She’s so lovely, and we could have dressed her endlessly. Every single thing we put on… how can we work in another costume? With her costumes, I was inspired by Lilli Ann, a fashion designer really prominent in the 40s. We wanted to go with some of those silhouettes where there was the extreme peplum and a strong shoulder with a very narrow skirt. We were staying true to that 40s feel with also a 40s or 50s Balenciaga shoulder.
For her piece worn to The Hunger Games, I wanted to show a bit of fraying by sewing the seams on the outside. It looks like she’s maintaining it. She’s repurposing pieces because she is talented and is a designer in her own right. Tigris is able to keep the family looking presentable when they’re really struggling inside. There is a bit of discoloration to her look. It’s faded. So we airbrushed all the edges and airbrushed a darker fuchsia tone along the seams. It was a very subtle process, and the team did such a beautiful, beautiful job. I tried to keep her in a happier tone because she is trying to remain hopeful, and she’s always optimistic. But also, she is terrified of what’s happening in the world and like you said, her clothing is her armor. It’s how she can protect herself and then present something that’s not really happening internally for her. Her costumes were really important.
Spencer Williams: I felt like a little kid in a theater just waiting to see what Tigris would be wearing! Trish, this was such a great film. What did this project mean to you and your crew? I am very excited for the fans to see what you all have created.
Trish Summerville: It’s really big! There was a large amount of costumes and people working on it. Also, we shot in Poland and various areas of Germany, so it was a really big film for them. It’s been really nice and really rewarding to hear all the positive feedback, especially from the crew. I’m really excited for the audience and to get more feedback because it is so vastly different from the other films. I’m excited to see what people think!
As a little teaser, we’re working on a collaboration for wearable streetwear merchandise and jewelry that we’re doing as a nod to the film. It’ll also be nice to see what the fans think of that!
Spencer Williams: Oh, okay! I need to get in on this immediately! Congratulations Trish on this collaboration and this incredible new film – The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I’m so excited for everyone to see it. Thank you so much for joining me. I’m so glad we finally got to do a formal interview.
Trish Summerville: Thank you so much. It’s so nice to see you again!