A Closer Look at the Victorian Era Costumes in ‘The Essex Serpent’

Costume designer Jane Petrie took a multifaceted approach to creating the costumes for Apple TV+’s Victorian Era drama “The Essex Serpent” — both referencing the period broadly and using the show’s wardrobes to help drive the characters’ emotional journeys.

Based on the 2016 Sarah Perry novel of the same name, “The Essex Serpent” tells the story of the newly widowed Cora (played by Claire Danes), who relocates from London to a small village in Essex in 1893 after becoming intrigued with the town’s conspiracy that a mythical snake was terrorizing the area. The series follows Cora on her self-discovery journey after her abusive husband’s death and through her newfound romantic relationship with the town’s vicar, played by Tom Hiddleston. The series airs its finale on Apple TV+ on Friday.

Petrie started her approach to the series’ costumes by broadly looking at the Victorian Era and finding where the characters fit in given the locations of London and Essex. She explained that both cities had their own style, with London exhibiting more modern and couture-like fashion, while Essex had a more homely and casual vibe.

“There’s a little bit of a push with some of the styling, notably when Cora goes fossil hunting and she’s got that really great hat and trousers,” Petrie said. “They’re not accurate, but I think it’s a push maybe for that look so close to London. It wasn’t anything that I hadn’t found when I was looking at pioneer women or women going into the gold rush.”

For Cora, Petrie wanted to convey the character’s emotional journey through her costumes. The series starts off by focusing on Cora immediately after her husband Michael’s death. Viewers see the character in black or dark-colored clothing with high necklines, rigid shoulders and intricate ornamentation.

As the series goes on and Cora spends more time in Essex finding herself, Petrie transitions to dressing the character in more casual and less restricted clothing.

A still from “The Essex Serpent”
Courtesy of AppleTV+

“In the beginning, her style is Michael’s style really,” she said. “The first time we meet her she’s wearing a black and gold shirt that’s similar to a Japanese vibe. And then when she goes to Essex, her costumes kind of open and soften. She starts relaxing for the first time in years.”

Petrie explained the shift in Cora’s costumes is meant to reflect how she’s transitioning from a life where her abusive husband controlled her to now being on her own and making her own choices.

Aside from Cora, the vicar’s wife Stella (played by Clémence Poésy) also has her character conveyed through her costumes. In contrast to Cora’s London attire, Petrie explained Stella’s wardrobe was meant to look homemade to reflect the character’s warm and comforting nature.

Petrie explained she took inspiration from Gustav Klimt’s wife, fashion designer Emilie Flöge for Stella’s character, mimicking the figure’s loose, patterned dresses. The costume designer also opted to dress Stella mostly in blue, which was meant to reflect the character’s gentle nature.

“You can tell that a lot of her clothes are handmade, where Cora’s looked like — although they are handmade — they’re certainly high couture,” Petrie said. “Stella’s has a homeliness to them that isn’t there in Cora’s wardrobe, and then they reflect her emotional journey into blue as well as the colors get more and more intense.”

Despite the differences between the characters, Petrie hopes that their respective journeys and friendship were furthered by the costume choices.

“The message in the costumes is the relationship between each of them is so clear — the relationship they have with each other and with the characters around them, who they are and where they come from,” she said. “It’s on the page and it’s a very well written script, so I know they’re not going to cross pollinate. They are very well defined characters.”


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