The author of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, has a new novel out this October called The Long Song that’s set in the future and is about how society survived after a global pandemic wiped out most of humanity. Helen Huang worked with her to create costumes for the book, which is also turning into an HBO series. Stay tuned for more updates on the show!
“Station Eleven” is a post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel. The costumes for the traveling symphony are designed by Helen Huang, who was interviewed about her experience creating them.
In HBO’s Station Eleven, viewers are immersed in a world radically altered by a devastating flu pandemic, one that wipes out the majority of the world’s population, and follows the story of those who have survived and built new lives and communities two decades after the collapse of civilization as we know it, particularly Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), a performer in a traveling group of actors and musicians who bring Shakespeare’s works to this new world. The clothes are just as important as the powerful performances by Davis and the other performers in bringing Station Eleven, adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s book of the same name, to life. The outfits used by the many characters in Station Eleven all create their own portraits, particularly those worn by the Traveling Symphony during their concerts.
In Station Eleven, viewers receive a glimpse of modern theatrical clothing in the show’s “pre-pandemic” production of King Lear, which contrast sharply with the future costumes that the Symphony creates for its “post-pan” performances. In how they imagined the future for the series, costume designer Helen Huang said it was vital to remove the viewer from the European legacy of theatrical attire.
“One of the most important things I thought about with the future clothes was that I wanted to remove the audience from the European heritage of theatrical attire, particularly when referencing Shakespeare,” Huang added. “That’s a tremendous aim, and it expands our universe. What does it look like if they’re simply producing art and everything is possible?” “How do you make a Hamlet, a Claudius, a Gertrude, nobility appear like nobility without linking it to European conceptions of costumes?”
Huang also discussed how the Traveling Symphony’s members’ backgrounds influenced the outcome.
“The folks in the Traveling Symphony, the people who are producing these costumes aren’t necessarily people with a typical theatrical background,” she said. “They are folks who have gone through a horrible event and have discovered the Traveling Symphony to be a family and a method to express themselves. They are, however, not necessarily attached to the way theater is meant to appear. The second issue is that they may not be able to make everything right on the scene and cut designs that match the body since they lack the necessary expertise.”
Huang said that this led to the utilization of a lot of found things and creative applications for others, such as the Hamlet outfit constructed out of puffer jackets, but she also acknowledged that the show’s costuming was informed by the real-world epidemic.
“We were shooting up in Canada because of the flu, and everything was closed,” Huang said. “Because the only locations we had access to were antique shops with barrels upon barrels of old apparel, we had to obtain these outfits from there. All of the headdresses were found in dumpsters… Claudius wears a crown made of wires. Gertrude’s crown is composed of cardboard, with symbols and other found materials painted to resemble ornamental art. So there was a lot of work that went into those outfits. Obviously, there was a lot of trial and error involved, but in the end, I believe what we achieved was something that had a very discovered and yet strange but familiar aspect to it since many of the elements employed were things that existed in this world.”
Station Eleven is now available to watch on HBO Max, with new episodes released every Thursday.
- costume designer