Real and mythological, figurative and literal; monsters of all kinds abound in Sky Atlantic’s new period horror series Penny Dreadful. We might expect a skulking figure in a top hat and frock coat to be scary, though who would have thought a bustle and redingote could be so terrifying? Well, step forward Eva Green as enigmatic Vanessa Ives. Not hero nor villain, but a dead eyed clairvoyant who definitely shouldn’t be invited to dinner parties.
Penny Dreadful is set in 1891, although is more a literary parallel universe than true reflection of the era. Some of the characters featured are written for the show (Vanessa), some existed in real life (Jack the Ripper), and some are adapted from fiction (Victor Frankenstein). Costume designer Gabriella Pescucci has leaned on history to create a gothic themed Victorian London that stands up to scrutiny yet is perhaps what we expect to see more than what actually existed. Vanessa to some extent reflects the re-introduction of directorie style from 100 years before. Her organdie frocks and riding coats are correct in differing fabrics, even if the drab colours speak more of her character than fashions of the time. Initially she wears all black trimmed in crimson, then a floral underskirt with white and black lace, and later a striking sleeveless purple evening dress. Evidently the colour combinations are a window into her soul; the purple especially straddles a line between death and the supernatural. Although, spiders are Vanessa’s iconography; she repeatedly sees them in visions, while the lace and fringing on her frocks echoes their webs.
Just half a century before Penny Dreadful is set black was still worn by brides. Vanessa is unequivocally all mourning however; a tribute to Victorian sternness. With her brooding face accentuated by frilled or Medici collars and topped by a tiny lace ribbon bonnet, she is far from inviting. Yet by suppressing the more obvious facets of Vanessa’s sensuality, Pescucci has conversely drawn more attention to them. Vanessa’s period correct smaller bustle removes the more cartoonish elements of the Victorian silhouette, and because of this compensates for the concealment of her breasts. Cleavage is mainly reserved for ‘unfortunates’, i.e. prostitutes. This is demonstrated during episode two when one such individual (Amy de Bruhn) is spilling out from her corset attempting to catch the eye of prospective punters. Although, most unfortunates who were not lucky enough to work in a brothel had to carry around everything they owned on their back; hey were smothered in shawls and coats just to keep warm. Nonetheless that would not fulfil requirements of the show’s narrative, and costume must always serve story first and authenticity second.
The gentlemen of Penny Dreadful are likewise attired to be a flavour of the era rather than out and out recreation. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) appears here as an aesthete, a male dress reformer who cropped up around the end of the 19th century. Like Oscar Wilde, the real life author who invented the character, Gray is striving to reintroduce romantic masculine dress. Not as far as breeches and silk stockings, but velvet coats, high wing collars without neckties and colourful silk waistcoats. He is the most lavishly dressed of all the male cast in the show and probably where the most historical liberties could be taken.
Gray seems destined to cross paths with ex-pat American Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) at some point in this story. They’re both enigmatic and handsome, using cocky charisma to mask their secrets. Yet Chandler is not wealthy like Gray, although it’s implied he is from money, or as obsessed by appearance. We first see Chandler dressed in a deliberately ridiculous Old West theatrical costume, yet when stripped of this garb he somehow becomes even more pathetic. He is a sharpshooter, so wears a long duster style coat with shoulder yoke but minus vent. The idea of a coat worn over a gentleman’s suit – a ‘topcoat’ – was still relatively new at this point. Chandler wears his coat as a frock coat layer over a waistcoat. Frock coats were on their way out, soon to be replaced by morning coats with a front edge that curved toward the rear, and then soon after lounge coats which we still wear now. Vanessa comments on Chandler’s “threadbare coat” and resoled boots. He is destitute and by the second episode is sleeping on a beach. Chandler always wears a brown bowler with upturned brim, a more youthful hat than the formerly ubiquitous topper. The bowler came into common usage in London around 1870 then held on to become the most popular hat of the early 20th century. There are few top hats seen in Penny Dreadful, except on extras. Possibly this is intended to reflect the era, or more likely that they are just too cumbersome in a show that frequently involves fisticuffs and shoot-outs.
Timothy Dalton’s character Sir Malcolm Murray is someone who may have chosen a top hat, but here wears an early style homburg. Murray is a famous explorer returned from Africa to search for his missing daughter. He starts out brusque and by episode two is potentially monstrous. His coats are worn as topcoats and nearly always trimmed in fur as a sign of wealth. Murray’s is a life of fine fabrics and exquisite tailoring, though we get the impression this is all for appearances’ sake; he would much rather be traipsing through the Amazon blasting tigers with a blunderbuss. In a fun nod to his game-hunting past Murray even wears a silver satin cheetah print waistcoat, only glimpsed for a few seconds, but obviously there to remind us he does more than just attend The Explorers Club and sip whiskey – he is the real deal.
While we have seen a lot of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) so far, he is normally hiding in shadows so dark it can be difficult to make out his apparel. Not someone of means, not yet anyway, his clothes are workwear inspired and practical. When Murray invites Frankenstein to The Explorers Club he has white tie formal dress sent to his address, obviously assuming he couldn’t afford it himself. Amusingly we can still see Frankenstein’s bulky half boots when he sits down because Murray apparently didn’t see fit to send along some black patent pumps.
Each character in Penny Dreadful feels suitably clothed for their personality and resources. Gabriella Pescucci peppers sly nods like the cheetah waistcoat, a dark red (British Army?) patrol coat worn by Murray’s manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani), and even a crudely sewed undershirt on Frankenstein’s creation ‘Proteus’ – whereby the stitching actually matches that on his skin. Just two episodes in and we are assured an elegant wardrobe of Victorian dress with palatable contemporary embellishment. It is costume design that might not satisfy the re-enactment crowd, but it is difficult to see why the rest of us should be disappointed.
Penny Dreadful begins on Sky Atlantic on 20th May.
This article is based on the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful: ‘Night Work’ and ‘Seance’.
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.