How do you design a medieval world without accidentally replicating the look of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Where do you go when you need chainmail in bulk? And does the costume department have any role in a dick shot? These are just a few of the questions raised by Outlaw King, the new Netflix original starring Chris Pine as Scottish king Robert the Bruce.
Fortunately, I got a chance to speak with costume designer Jane Petrie about her work on the project, which presents some very different challenges from her other big Netflix gig—Season 2 of The Crown. There, Petrie played a vital role in depicting a monarchy stuck in neutral as the world roared forward into the 1960s, visually playing Elizabeth off of famously fashion-forward figures like Jackie Kennedy and her own sister. In Outlaw King, she had a very different task, recreating the world of the early 1300s with somewhat limited source material. I asked her about the difference between designing for the vastly different eras of The Crown and Outlaw King, where you buy chainmail these days, and—of course—the dick shot.
JEZEBEL: How many different historical eras have you worked on? You did the second season of The Crown, you did Outlaw King, you worked on the Elizabeth movies starring Cate Blanchett. At this point, how many historical eras have you covered in your work?
JANE PETRIE: As a designer, I’ve worked on a few, and then as an assistant designer and in my training, I’ve covered loads. Even if it was when I was a junior, even if it was a couple of weeks working on a period I’d never done before, I would take the opportunity. I’ve done a fair bit of the 20th century—I did Suffragette, I’ve done ’60s and ’70s, I’ve done Elizabeth and The Golden Age as an assistant, I’ve done the ’80s—1980s, that is, and the 1880s. I’ve probably been getting proper film credits for about, I don’t know, 15 years? But I’ve been working in costumes since I graduated in 1992. So I’ve done a fair bit of period—even if I wasn’t designing it, I’ve got the experience of the costumes.
What was so striking to me is that The Crown and Outlaw King are set in such different eras and the source material so different—with The Crown, you have the photos and newsreels. With Outlaw King, taking place in the 1300s, you have paintings that look like cartoons. Do you just have to do a completely different process?
I don’t really do a different process, and I’m not attracted to the job particularly because of the period. I’m attracted to the job if the script’s good in the first place. That applies, whatever the date, because I just think if you don’t want to tell the story and you don’t think the script’s good enough, no matter how amazing the costumes can be, if your heart is not in it—films are just too much hard work. You’ve got to really want to tell that story. So that’s the first point.
Then I start researching, and whatever film it is, whatever the world, I’ll always start big. I don’t start on characters. I start trying to learn the social backdrop of the times and what it looked like as best I can. And you’re absolutely right—when I started on Outlaw King, it’s so long ago, and there’s so little, and the manuscripts are hard to read and difficult to imagine. So I did a lot of looking at paintings. You look at effigies on tombs, sculptures, anything you can get your hands on, really.
But I felt I needed something that would give me a hook that felt real, so I started looking at early 20th century photography from tribes around the world, thinking, well, that probably goes into some deep past. The ones I found that really worked for me were photographs of early Laplanders, because they were wearing oiled wool, thick tunics. They were living in almost a Scandinavian version of a yurt. And by looking at those photographs—because they were actual people in actual garments were very simple and felt like some of the research that I’d read about—I felt like I had a visual I could believe. I used those a lot, as well, just referencing how the people who are sleeping in very basic conditions wearing the similar cloth—what happens to the cloth? How crumpled is it? How do they waterproof it? What does that cloth look like? Even if it’s a different shape for our people, it was a good start.
So once you have that information, how do you go about sourcing this stuff? Do you have to commission oiled wool and chain mail?
Yeah, we did. Pretty much in Outlaw King, if it’s on the screen, we made it. We ordered the chainmail, because there’s a place in India that makes chainmail for films pretty much in the way that it was made at the time, and then when we got our hands on that, then we started trying to chop it up a bit and personalize it and give each one a bit of character.
I went to the costume houses and I couldn’t find anything I liked to rent. A lot of them were fantasy or kings and queens from theatrical productions for stage, and I knew I didn’t want to do fantasy, because it’s a piece of Scottish history. I’m Scottish as well and felt quite passionate about the history, and I wanted to try to hold onto something as authentic as you can. It is such a long time ago, but I wanted it to feel authentic. I didn’t want it to feel made up, even though there’s obviously going to be an element of making things up—but all based in research, I hope.
So we made a decision that we were going to have to make most of it. Well, it wasn’t even a decision—I didn’t say, well, I absolutely have to make most of this, but there just wasn’t anything. A lot of the fantasy costumes that you can rent, they look like they come from Middle Earth. They don’t look like they come from Scotland. We had to start at the beginning, then try to figure out how to work that into a budget. Then I found a company in Scotland who waxed wool for me. They put wool through a beeswax process, which they normally do cotton—you know the cotton that you would wear on a hunting jacket or something? They put wool through the process for us. Which really just started to become our language—the vernacular of our film.
You were talking about the sort of fantasy costumes, and one of the things I wanted to ask you was—medieval costume is so simple and so iconic and even stereotypical. On the one hand, it seems very easy to end up with something that looks hokey, like Prince Valiant. On the other hand, how do you keep it from looking like they raided an Eileen Fisher? How do you walk that line?
Part of the problem is the fact that other costume designers who have designed for this period have been very good costume designers. You’ve got Michele Clapton doing incredible work on Game of Thrones. So, you know, fantasy is done, really. You wouldn’t even bother going there, because it’s been done to such perfection by her. And then you’ve got Hazel Pethig, who was an excellent costume designer on Monty Python, in the other direction. So you think, oh, God, what if this looks funny? Because it is a reference! And it’s a good reference, and she’s a good designer. So I kept thinking, oh God, I really need to have a world and build a world here that’s ours that doesn’t reference anything else. But everybody’s looking at paintings and everybody’s looking at manuscripts—everybody’s interpreting a lot of similar research, aren’t we? We all start looking at the earliest paintings available. So you have to hold onto your own aesthetic. That was part of the struggle.
I’ve done quite a lot of period, and repeatedly I’ve found that in the earliest clothing that is what you’d call “folk” clothing, not that high Renaissance court, but earlier, simpler clothing, the fashions are dictated by the width of the loom. In this case, it was probably about 60 inches, which is kind of an arm span, or narrower. It would never be wider than 60. So we chose a width of linen that we liked, and it was narrower than 60, actually, probably 70 centimeters or something like that. It wasn’t huge. And I said to the cutters, “Don’t do any curves.” Everything has to come out of these rectangles, in the way that a kimono does. If you look at something from early Azerbaijan or Romania or Japan, all of those early costumes, they’ll have straight sleeves, and everything’s on the fold, and it’s made out of rectangles and triangles so if you want volume, it’s a diagonal across that width. So you start playing with those rectangles and triangles and never using curves in the sleevehead, and literally the only bit of fabric you throw away is the hole that you cut to stick your head through and probably they used that for patching. Nothing’s wasted.
As soon as we set those rules for our tunics, for men and women, and then we tried really hard to cut new shapes within that, then we started to build a world that just became ours quite quickly. And it was referenced, a lot of it was referenced on early finds, of which there are a few, from clothing from the area. But by limiting the cutting and repeating that process onto each garment and then some of those garments going straight into factories for the crowd and then we were making our one-offs for our principles, we started to build the world like that.
It’s amazing to see the sheer volume of women’s headdresses, just because at this point in Western history, you just don’t see them as much. (I don’t even wear a hat, hardly.) Did you have an entire notebook full of medieval women’s headdresses?
Really, the honest answer is throughout filming, we got better at it. It was really difficult at first and we really couldn’t quite get the tension. You know, you’re showing somebody in the crowd, this is how we want to tie the headdresses on, this is the underlayer, this is the starched piece that will go on and this is how they’ll wear it. Then everybody’s having a go. And they’re all the same shape piece of fabric—if you flatten them out, they’re exactly the same really. And we’ve got little caps and things that were different, but if you’re talking about things that come out of a headscarf, it’s the personalities of the people in the crowd who were getting better and more adventurous as filming went on. It just shows you what you can get out of, you’ve got one shape, go for it and try it and look at the research. We have lots of research on the walls all the time. We’re always swimming in research. I think the variety is just the variety of people working within the constraints of the rectangle.
I’m glad you spotted them! We thought we got better and better and better at it, and by the end, it was like, yeah, we’ve totally nailed the headdresses. At the beginning, we did struggle to get the tension and to get them to stay put and to get them to feel like the women were wearing them, not that they were wearing the women.
Last question: there’s been a lot of publicity around the nude shot of Chris Pine. In a scene where there’s no clothing, did you guys have to do anything for that? Did you have any involvement? Do you have a job when there’s a no clothing scene?
We’ve got a job, but it’s a practical job. There’s somebody very close by to take the garment at the last minute and to make sure that it’s back on as quickly as possible for modesty. The people who stand by on set are very experienced and sensitive to that. In terms of nudity, then, hair and makeup—he came out of swimming, so he was clean. But if you’d seen him going in, there would have been makeup on in the beginning. He would have been grubby and you might have seen that dirty back of the neck and a clean back if the makeup department were involved.
But for costume, it’s much, much more about protecting the modesty of the actors and looking after them. And keeping them warm! It was freezing in Scotland at that time of year, as well.