EMMYS: 'Boardwalk Empire' Costume Designer John Dunn Finds The Color

Deadline TV Contributor Elizabeth Snead files this report:

John Dunn began researching costumes for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire by scouring the legendary libraries at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as photographs inside the Library of Congress. Executive Producer Martin Scorsese even compiled a 1920s film reel for the costume designer, who also visited New York vintage shops and Los Angeles costume warehouses. “That’s what really informed us about the construction, the fabrics, materials, details, colors. And the latter was really eye-opening,” says Dunn, who was Emmy-nominated for the first season of Mad Men “We are so used to looking at that period in black-and-white films and sepia photos. Not a lot of the original color survived. But if you take apart a hem or a seam in a vintage garment, you’re like, ‘Holy Cow! Look at that color!’ It was not a drab period at all. We were amazed by the colors even the men were wearing back then.”

Dunn used only authentic fabrics, nothing that did not exist in 1920, and often had to have fabrics specially woven for the men’s suits to get the proper period weight and texture. Steve Buscemi’s clothing was custom-made by master tailor Martin Greenfield, who could turn out a suit for the show in just four days, often in triplicate.

Fashion also reflected the era’s fast-moving social changes and increased freedom. “Women were liberated from the corsets of the earlier Edwardian era,” says Dunn. “The feminine silhouette became straight and rather shapeless.” Dunn chose Episode Four (“Anastasia”) for his Emmy submission:

— “I really liked the spectrum of characters in that episode. We have Chalky in his wonderful, colorful suits, a big birthday party that shows the rich and famous having a wild time in Atlantic City, as well as everyday folks and the working class. This episode has a strong overview of everything that we do on the show.”
— “Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), Nucky’s first mistress, is seen wearing a real vintage find. It’s teal and has lots of little mirrors sewn on it. It also has a combination of fabrics that would only be put together in the Roaring Twenties when they were very experimental. We didn’t want to glamorize fur but, in our quest for authenticity, we couldn’t leave that element out.”
— “I had a lot of fun dressing the showgirls in the slightly sleazy Belle Epoque nightclub. So these particular showgirls’ costumes look a little tired and a little tacky. They were experimenting with nudity and how much they could get away with. They look like they’re naked but they’re actually wearing total body stockings because they would be shut down if they were really nude.”
— “I designed one of Nucky’s tuxes to resemble a tux worn by the Duke of Wales. I loved the shape of the Duke’s waistcoat. It’s tightly tailored, and it just creates a strong silhouette. I really wanted Steve to be transformed because his character is known to be a dresser.”

  1. The costumes are superb in Boardwalk Empire. Well done to both Mr. Dunn and Mr. Scorsese. A little research goes a long way. My favorite 1920s item is the sterling silver mesh purse.

    Wish the writers would have done the same kind of research on John Torrio, Chicago and the language of the day that Dunn did on the clothing/fabric. The historical inaccuracies are shoddy, and at times, laughable.

    1. I can’t comment if they got it right or not but I know the creator said he “studied old newspapers and magazines and read the documentary novels of John Dos Passos” to try to get the way people talked in the 20s.

  2. Several of those photos are from my favorite episode of Boardwalk called Anastasia. It had Lucy coming out the cake in that red bra top, Margaret in the stunning green dress, Chalky White, the Klansmen, Nucky wearing a tux and Jimmy in his new gangster suit. Costume and story married in this episode. It was directed by Jeremy Podwesa and designed by Bob Shaw with John Dunn’s costumes and simply a visual feast. HBO put it in their Emmy submission box with the pilot and it’s gorgeous.

  3. Dunn is so talented. In a whole other level of design. When I think of Kelly McDonald on Boardwalk Empire it will always be in that stunning sea foam green dress from episode 4 at the surprise party. That is when she turned into the leading lady of Boardwalk Empire. The story and dialogue helped but the way she wore that dress designed by Dunn was signature for her character.

  4. Kelly wore that dress in the episode called Anastasia. I thought this episode beat the pilot on every single level below and above the line. The acting, writing, directing and visual design made it my favorite episode of the season. It all came together. Dunn is a true artist.

  5. Our New York-based vintage costume house was delighted to work with you and your crew in supplying many of the authentic clothes for the first and second season!
    John and his crew did a fabulous job, considering the enormous amount of costumes they had to cope with. Kudos to one of the nicest designers around!!!!

Comments are closed.