Unorthodox costume designer Justine Seymour spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about the art of dressing modesty and expressing mood through shades of color with Shira Haas’ Esther Shapiro.
Emmy nominated Unorthodox costume designer Justine Seymour pictured the show’s lead Esther ‘Esty’ Shapiro to be at the hazy crossroads of her life. Two arms pull at Esty in opposite directions with fierce tenacity, debating her future. The comfort of a traditional modesty she’d always known, and the exit door she’d been warned never to use everyday since birth.
Seymour described the emphasis on subtlety in Unorthodox from adorning a “petite” Shira Haas in the show’s beautiful yet restrictive wedding dress… To Esty feeling the ‘blues’ in a physical and emotional sense. Every subtle shade of clothing, every accessory representing its own mood by careful design.
Interview with Unorthodox costume designer Justine Seymour:
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: I noticed Esther ‘Esty’ Shapiro is wearing blue the first time she openly asks to move back to her grandma’s house. Blue is typically this soothing, calming, gentle color… Yet, in this scene, it paints the collapse of a marriage. It was a subtle detail that stayed with me. Was this juxtaposed, clashing contrast intentional?
Justine Seymour: That’s right! We actually built that dress for her (Shira Haas) and even dyed the fabric to get that blue color. I mean blue is also a sad color, the blues, you know? Who’s singing the blues? Esty was very sad in that scene and starting to really doubt her convictions of being married. I had that dress slightly oversized, slightly long, and a bit frumpy because I wanted her to feel swallowed by the world… On a very subtle level. I think good design work is subtle and subliminal.
Esty is standing by the window and sort of looking out as if she’s longing for another life. I think that was the thought process behind that choice. I was happy when I saw how the cinematographer had lit the whole scene because it looked like some Vermeer painting. It was a very special day on set… A very emotional scene, and juxtaposed by her Auntie sort of telling her, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, pull your socks up, and get on with the life you’ve chosen!’
In the scene before Esty attends her big audition, her mother, Leah Mandelbaum Schwartz, chooses a dress for her. I was a bit surprised that the dress was still quite modest, with noticeably muted colors. Particularly, in contrast to Esty’s original plan to wear her fairly vibrant yellow sweater. To me, it seemed this was done to keep Esty with one foot still majorly cemented in her past. Was that the intended direction?
All throughout, I played with the idea that Esty’s sort of going back and forth, pulling in colors from her past into her Berlin life. For example, I used a pumpkin colored dress for the scene where Esty first met her husband and again for the dinner party with the music students.
So for Esty’s big audition, I was playing with the idea of her original green house dress and dress at the end being modest. I wanted that transition of Esty leaving her modest clothing behind to be very slow… It was all deliberate to give Esty the feeling of comfort & security she found in the modest clothing…
And how she’d still use that a little bit in her exploration of a new life. It wasn’t a very long time period and I didn’t want her just to suddenly go, ‘Oh, okay, I’m completely different now! I can totally handle all these new experiences!’ I deliberately made it slow and paced for her.
When you were picking out clothes for Unorthodox in the heart of Williamsburg, there were shops that didn’t wish to sell you the items… Who did you end up sending to purchase them for you?
Well, the Satmar community is a closed community and they’re very private. I did respect that as best I could but we were making a story about them. I bought all of the male clothing there, and I had to do that because it’s a very specific type of clothing. The men dress with their jackets buttoned up right over left, where as gentiles button up left over right. So, I had to buy it from their community to get that detail correct.
When I first went into a Dry Goods shop there, they did actually sell to me and they were happy about it. But somebody took a photograph of me in that show, me and Alexa Karolinski (Producer).It was sent out virally by some group within the community and they said, ‘These people are making a television show about us… Perhaps, you know, don’t serve them.’
So, from this moment on, we didn’t get much service! (laughs) But you were right, once I got to Berlin and I tried to buy more clothes here, I thought I might be able to rent more men’s clothes for the wedding.
I soon realized, I actually really needed to get back into that shop. So, I did have a young lady who lives in New York to do the shopping for me, and just so that she wasn’t offending anyone, she did dress in a very modest manner. There’s no way that I can because I’m 5 foot 10, I’ve got bleach blonde hair… I’m a very loud character! (laughs) She wasn’t, so she was a much better option.
What was it like constructing Esty’s wedding dress? I particularly took notice of Esty’s headdress when everybody’s dancing and she’s in the center of the circle.
The idea behind the wedding dress was that it had to both be modest and be the wedding dress that catapulted Esty into this future existence that she’d been longing for all of her childhood. Bare in mind, she was only 19. She wanted to look like a Princess, to dance, and have fabrics swirl around her… But I made it very tight & restrictive while covered in pearls.
The thought process behind it was to allude to the restrictive marriage life she was entering. That she was going to have all the constraints of the religious community and all the work that she was expected to do was God’s work. Which was to replace the six million Jews that had perished within the Nazi regime in the second World War.
That is her goal, to help contribute to make as many beautiful babies as possible… And as we know in the story, that does not come to pass. I wanted that dress to kind of have the bittersweet essence of the dream that doesn’t come true and the restricted future that she feels she has with her mother-in-law breathing down her neck. Watching every move she makes.
As for the headdresses, I took a little bit of a design leap there. She wouldn’t normally have had three head dresses but because the third headdress was so beautiful. I mean I made it. So, I really loved all of the references that I had seen of that headdress and I coped it. Normally a woman who would wear a turban headdress like that would then wear a turban within her actual married life but as we all know, Esty doesn’t do that. She wears a wig.
That was just a slight abbreviation from all of the research I’d done. I thought it was so incredibly beautiful, I thought it was a really nice way to end the wedding.
Do you rely primarily on real life references? Would you sit in the park and watch the community or do you utilize photographs & history more?
Everything! When I do research, I cover all bases. I started by reading Deborah Feldman’s book, and then I read a couple of other books on the Satmar community. I actually watched any film that was about Orthodox Jews that weren’t necessary Satmar.
I also watched documentaries, and I spent two weeks walking around Williamsburg, taking photographs & notes, and drawing little images here and there. Buying little treasures from shops to give me ideas of what I could do. I actually did even manage to speak to a couple of the women on the street, they were a bit shy, and it was a bit unusual for a stranger to come up and talk to them. Some were very friendly and very forthcoming with information. Others were unwilling to engage with me.
I learned a lot from my time, while I was there. We also had a full time consultant, Eli Rosen, who also is an actor and plays the Rabbi. Eli actually grew up in the Satmar community and experienced it firsthand. So, he was a fantastic reference point for me.
Whenever I wanted to stretch the reality, I always checked with him and made sure that it was okay. That it wasn’t going to be offensive to anyone. I was very careful not to offend the community. I just wanted to be an observer, and I didn’t want to make any judgments about the way certain people choose to live their life. I just wanted to recreate it in a beautiful and creative artistic way.
Do you feel budget concerns ever affect your creative process at all?
I think necessity is the mother of invention. I actually love a good challenge! That’s why I’m in the film industry because you’re challenged on every single project. For the wedding dress, Shira Haas is a very petite actress, it was going to be almost impossible to buy anything that would fit her. We couldn’t afford to make it, we didn’t have the time or the resources. We actually looked at eBay, and I think my assistant found 10 dresses for me to whittle my way through.
I picked out the one that we actually ended up buying. We took Shira to the person’s house to try it on, and it was just enormous! (laughs) It swam on her, it was like a foot and a half too long. But that’s fine! I bought the dress at a very, very good price, I think I paid 350 Euro for it. Then, I took it back to my tailor and we pulled all the pieces and we remade it to how I wanted to do it.
So, originally it had a drop waist which would have looked lovely on the actual bride who wore it for her wedding. But it didn’t really work on Shira’s body because she’s so petite. I pulled the waist right up and I made it a big, huge Princess style dress. We cut as I said, about 18 inches out of the skirt, and then we just made everything much, much smaller and rebuilt it on her.
Were you involved with the wigs as well? I noticed on your official website you’re spraying the Satmar top hat.
Yeah the hats are my department but the wigs are not. The wigs are a very specialized department and we had a fabulous hair and makeup, Head of Department, Jens Bartram and he actually handmade all of the wigs.
He and his team made all of those Payos, which are the curly hair bits which come down the side of the Orthodox Jewish men’s faces. They must’ve made over 100 of those, it was incredible.
What’s the process like when you’re working with a director day-to-day? Do they ever make special requests in the middle of filming?
I’m not a fan of special requests in the middle of filming because it’s a lot of pressure on my department! (laughs) I don’t make a secret of that, so in preproduction, I try and get all of the ideas on the table. If there are special ideas that the director or the showrunner wants, I try and make sure that they really think it through before we start shooting, so that I can facilitate them as best I can. Because if somebody turns around on the shoot day and goes, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a donkey walking in the background?’ It’s like well, where are we going to get a donkey from?! (laughs)
In preproduction, which I think was about six weeks, that’s where we have the meetings, we pull apart the script. I do the mood boards for each character. Esty, of course, is the main character so she’s my one character that pulls the whole visual story through the narrative.
I often liken it to the idea of taking an enormous jigsaw puzzle and you just drop the jigsaw puzzle on the floor and you pick out the centerpiece. You know that the centerpiece has got to be built around. Esty is my centerpiece!
When I was watching Unorthodox, I noticed Moishe’s jacket appeared slightly blue. Maybe navy blue. Was that an intentional detail?
Yes, yes, yes! With Moishe, who actually has in the story left the community and then come back, he was kind of a bad boy. That’s why his payois were a bit shorter because he had cut them off and was regrowing them. He had got back together with his wife but he still had these ghosts within him. Moishe was still addicted to gambling he still drank alcohol, smoked, and he did things that are a bit frowned upon within this community.
So, how I separated him was I did give him a self striped, navy blue three-piece suit. All of the other members of the community I put in black or very dark grey. I wanted him to just stand out a little bit because he is kind of a sexy bad boy and I wanted to play on that! (laughs) I also gave him a very nice pair of boots because I think that whatever an actor is wearing, it will change their attitude.
Yanky, Esty’s husband, I gave some very comfortable, sensible shoes that were just very ploddy and you know, nobody would ever look at them. But with Moishe, I gave him some suede slip-on ankle boots, to give him the kind of sensation that he actually really nicely dressed. So, he could have a bit of a swagger in his step. Actors really appreciate little tricks like that, when the costume designer makes you feel a certain way, and it pushes the character into life.
I noticed the difference immediately with the Yankees and Mets caps. Do you feel there’s something about the Yankees’ logo that’s considered more ‘sexy’ visually than the Mets?
Those fateful caps were only for them to be incognito while they were in Berlin looking for Esty. I think it was a really cute scene when Yanky and Moishe were sort of fighting over who gets which hat. Of course, Yanky doesn’t get the cooler hat and Moishe takes it.
But actually, they were scripted, so I just got those hats, and we had to clear it with the legal department. Then I let the director play with the way that scene turned out.
I thought you were really able to convey Esty’s Father Mordecai Schwartz really well. He had this disheveled, sloppy kind of look, his clothes appeared a bit wider as well. What was it like bringing this vision of the character from drawing to life?
Thank you! He was obviously not a good husband to Esty’s mother and the relationship broke down very quickly after those two had gotten married. Esty’s mother ultimately did want to keep her daughter but wasn’t allowed because the community considered her children the property of the community. That’s a little bit of a controversial point but Mordecai is an alcoholic and he was a very troubled life. He’s not a father to Esty and the actual actor [Gera Sandler] who plays him is a theatre actor who’s originally from Israel but now lives in New York.
He really wanted to show everyone up so he wanted the clothes to be dirty and I really made them look old. I used sandpaper and spilled food down on the front. He looked really like he wasn’t looking after himself. The hat actually was the brainchild of our wonderful Eli Rosen who was helping us all the way through it. He grew up in the Satmar community and he became our consultant and then he became our rabbi. So he was not only acting as the rabbi but consulting all the way through the show.
I’d found the hat in the shop and was like, ‘What about this?!’ Eli said, “Oh, that would be so good for Mordecai because it’s so old fashioned. I got what. It was really big to wear those 40 or 50 years ago. And now of course, they’re totally out of fashion. We brought the hat for Gera (Sandler) and he really loved the idea of it! We made him really stand out from the crowd of well dressed Satmar community.
What inspired you to want to be a costume designer originally? I’ve read that your first career was in modeling.
(laughs) Yeah, like a million years ago! I have always really appreciated the stories that clothing tells. I started sewing from a very early age when I was about five or six and my granny used to help me make clothes for my dolls I was amazed because she was a very good sewer. She made lots of doll clothes for me and that really inspired me to learn how to sew. And then I started making clothes for myself, for humans. (laughs) The first dress I ever made was actually for my two year old sister, and I think I was about 10.
Then I started making my own clothes when I was about 13, 14 and I really noticed the different types of fabrics. How they made me feel, how they flowed. I was just coming into puberty, so I was experimenting with clothes that were a little bit more feminine, a little bit more sexy. I noticed that certain fabrics and certain designs helped me feel a certain way. That was the seed being planted of using clothing as a communication tool.
I loved going to the theatre of course, going to the West End with my other grandmother who took me to plays. I remember watching Peter Pan and thinking how the costume of Peter Pan had to be made to go over the construction, the girdle harness, the thing that made him fly in the air.
I really remember even at the age of 8, thinking that was something technical that people would have to think about. It was just in my blood! Being a model was just something I did because you know, it’s fun & I happened to be 5 foot 10 and I was very slim. I got to go see New York and go see all that for years. But by the time I was 20, I was utterly bored with it, and thought it was frivolous and stupid. I was also told I’d need plastic surgery, and “I was like that’s it! I’m out of here!”
Really? That’s what they said to you? That’s such a brutal statement.
Yeah! Actually, I was even younger I was 19 and they told me I need an eye job, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen. That’s not ever going to happen!’ (laughs) So I started sewing again. I made clothes for my then partner who was a DJ & a musician and I made all his stage clothes.
Then I worked with Sinéad O’Connor in the 80s and then with Seal. He had a dancer in one of his performances and I made all of his clothes. It just sort of snowballed from that.
Did you have the art, drawing side down prior to taking your innate instinct in fashion to the next level as a costume designer?
Well, when I really realized that I actually could make a career out of doing something I loved. I actually enrolled for film school in Sydney, Australia and I went to a fantastic film school called the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. I did my master’s degree there. One of the courses I took was a live life drawing class. That really helped me get a bit of movement into one what I like to call my stick figures! (laughs)
To be honest, when I first started drawing they weren’t that great. But I’ve been a costume designer now for over 20 years. I have to draw a lot in order to communicate what I want, whether it’s to my tailor or the director or just to present ideas. I just naturally got better at doing them because I do them! I’m a true believer in the 10,000 hours makes you a genius.
I haven’t done 10,000 hours of drawing but I have done the 10,000 hours of sewing! (laughs)
Have you been able to work on The Mosquito Coast, your upcoming Apple TV show, or is production currently frozen due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus epidemic?
We are halfway through shooting it. We’d been in Mexico at the end of last year and beginning of this year and we got to exactly the halfway point. COVID-19 just shut us all down… So, I’m actually waiting to find out whether or not we’ll be able to up and running again. In a way it’s actually great because I have all this time to do interviews! If we were shooting I wouldn’t be able to.
It’s a bittersweet time for all of us but it’s fantastic that Unorthodox has been nominated for 8 Emmys. It’s very exciting! I actually also won the German award for Best Costume Design for Television. Which was just really, really wonderful! So it has to be an amazing year for me but at the same time, it’s been just horrible and difficult to deal with the world, having so much pressure on it.
See more of Justine Seymour’s Costume Design Work:
Watch all four chapters of Unorthodox right now on Netflix! You can purchase a copy of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots which the series is based on, over at Amazon.
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