“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” — Showtime’s reboot of the London-set “Penny Dreadful,” which aired from 2014-16 — takes us back to 1938 Los Angeles. It’s not film noir, explains costume designer Christie Wittenborn. “It’s a hot L.A. summer.” Hollywood here features zoot suits, evangelical radio singers and Mexican folklore as the series flits around social and racial issues as well as political and religious questions. The series debuts April 26.
Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”) stars as the demon Magda, who can take on various human forms, providing an eclectic canvas for Wittenborn’s work.
One of Magda’s early manifestations is Alex Malone, a tough character with a mannish edge who serves as an aide to Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis).
“Natalie gave me a sense of how she was going to carry her body, so I wanted to keep the silhouette of what she wore rigid,” Wittenborn explains. That meant a tightened skirt with some flare at the bottom with a box pleat. By adding that tightness, it would impact how the character walked — with small and deliberate steps. In keeping with the masculine vibe, Wittenborn dressed Dormer in dark grays and browns, creating a work uniform.
Another of Magda’s shape-shifts is Elsa Branson, an enigmatic mother to one of the patients of Dr. Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear). Peter, who has a dark secret, is the head of the German-American Bund. Elsa tells him she’s new to L.A., and is initially dressed in a baby blue pastel outfit that “evokes this innocence to her appearance,” the designer explains. But as the series continues, Elsa’s character evolves, along with her confidence. “This incarnation of Elsa is Aryan ideal made flesh,” Wittenborn adds.
Dormer’s grandest appearance, though, is reserved for the supernatural demon of Magda. We see her early in the first episode, appearing in a grassy field and speaking with her sister, Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo). It’s a juxtaposition of two forms of death as good and evil. The Angel of Holy Death guides souls into the afterlife; Magda wants to wreak havoc. “Are you ready, sister?” she asks. “I’ll give you many souls.” Visually, it was black and white. “I wanted to stay away from black, except when it came to Magda,” Wittenborn says.
The costumer says screenwriter John Logan “wrote a line about Magda emerging from the asphalt like black oil” that she took to heart. “I wanted her long black dress to have a liquefied, transformative feeling as she glides in and out of each character,” Wittenborn notes. The dress was made of pleather, a material suitable for weight, mobility and glossiness. “It has a natural sheen because it’s made from oil in the form of plastic to mimic leather,” Wittenborn says.
For Santa Muerte, the designer did a deep dive into the mythology of the saint — looking at everything from Mexican folklore to Italian statuary — and discovered there were many different examples. “We tried to create one look for her that appealed to all those iterations,” she says. Her goal was to lend the character the weathered appearance of a deity tired of carrying souls to the afterlife. “She has this statue-like drape — a mantilla veil; that was the most iconic way to represent her,” Wittenborn says. “On her head was a crown of thorns, and if you look closely you’ll see the skulls that represent the holy death.”
Wittenborn worked in close collaboration with production designer Maria Caso before creating any of the show’s looks. Whether it was the beiges and browns of the Vega household by day or the sleek burgundy zoot suits for the Crimson Cat club on Main Street or Elsa’s pastels, it was all about being in sync.
“Every set she built, we had a conversation about. We discussed the color palette and what she was going to choose. From there, I’d build my costumes,” Wittenborn says with a chuckle, “because God forbid, you had burgundy walking into a burgundy room.”