The Great season 2 covers so much ground that it’s hard to keep up. First, there’s the coup. Then Catherine has to figure out how to run an entire country while also being pregnant. And there’s her ever-changing feelings for Peter. And then there’s that whole situation with Catherine’s mother and her untimely demise! But one thing you can count on with The Great is that regardless of what’s going on, the clothes will look really, really amazing. Catherine might try to stab Peter, but you’ll be watching the scene saying, “Oh my god, that DRESS.”
We needed to figure out how the show manages to pull that off so consistently. Cosmopolitan sat down with The Great season 2’s costume designer, Sharon Long, to talk about Catherine’s coronation dress, what it was like designing elaborate 18th-century gowns and crowns in the middle of a pandemic, and how Catherine the Great, played by Elle Fanning, used fashion as a political power move.
Cosmo: I want to talk about that gold dress for Catherine’s coronation. How important was it to create a dress that wasn’t just stunning but also made a statement to the court?
Long: Tony McNamara, the writer and showrunner, wanted for her to have seen a picture of a dress like this, and that’s a way for her to connect to the Russian people. If you know anything about Catherine the Great, she was quite political in her clothing. She was very aware of the power of clothing.
Marial, played by Phoebe Fox, says it took Catherine’s handmaidens four hours to make the dress. How long did it actually take you to make the dress, and what was the process?
Because it’s such a special occasion, it had to have a lot of impact—it’s a coronation! If you’re looking at man hours, it was two weeks of three people, which is a lot. The average to make those mid-18th century dresses is about a week of two to three people, so it took a lot longer.
We did the fittings with Elle for the shape, so everyone’s happy with the shape before we cut into the fabric because, by very virtue of being metallic, it’s quite expensive. Because of lockdown we were under a lot of constraints… we could only get certain things and once we used them they were gone. So we couldn’t really make mistakes.
Marial also tries to dissuade Catherine from wearing this dress, insinuating it’s old school. Why is it a big deal that she ended up going with it?
Catherine is quite a practical person so she sees an opportunity to make a political move. In a way, there’s an assumption that someone is looking in. Obviously at that time there was no social media, so it’s not like she’s gone on Instagram and everyone’s seen it and the villagers are all so happy she’s wearing the same as them, but you have to assume that word gets around.
If social media *was* around then, do you think she would have used it to relate to her people?
I would think so, yeah. She was apparently really charismatic. Not much of a looker, which obviously Elle is, but she was very charismatic and very clever… and she certainly knew what to do to please people.
Tell me about Catherine’s crown. What went into crafting that?
We were in lockdown so I couldn’t see the designs, so it was all done by email and drawings backwards and forwards. [Two jewelers] had to design the structure and the individual flowers and birds on it. I’d found some embroidery reference that had some really good imagery in it that we translated into the headdress.
They had to meet in one of their back gardens when it was snowing. They were sending me photographs and I was looking at things that were on a lawn, not on a head, because they couldn’t come and fit Elle. When it actually went on her head it was so fantastic that it fit, it stayed upright, and it did what we wanted it to do because it really was a close call!
Yellow featured prominently this season, with the gold of the coronation dress at the beginning and then Catherine giving birth and wearing a lot of yellow dresses postpartum. What is the significance of yellow?
Season 1’s costume designer, Emma Fryer, designed for Catherine as a very young woman, so she had quite youthful, fresh colors like pale blue, yellow, mauve. It seemed appropriate to keep her in the same colorways. I couldn’t see the character of Catherine, who’s German and very practical, suddenly going into dark colors.
Elle looks fantastic in pastels and you always want your leading lady to look her best. Towards the end of season 2, that’s when I started breaking into other colors. I purposely left the red until the end.
There are a lot of pastels in the baby shower scene. It’s in stark contrast to some of the more traditionally “Russian” color schemes. What made you gravitate towards the lighter colors?
Because it’s a baby shower, and there weren’t baby showers back then, we were at license to do what we like. We chose baby colors. Sorbet colors. Even though the traditionally Russian colors are red and green, at that time a lot of the silks were imported from Europe because the court was still trying to be French, which is much lighter and frothier and frillier. It was just a really fun thing to do; to make a lovely looking piece of television.
The Great hasn’t been renewed for a third season yet, but what fashion moments could we expect in the future?
[Laughs] I think that’s tempting fate!
Okay, fair! What about any future recreations of actual dresses that Catherine wore?
I have to say, they’re not the most exciting dresses! She tended towards very loose clothing. There are some actual garments left, and they wouldn’t inspire you at all. Her wedding dress and her coronation dress are the two that would take your breath away.
I found it better to read about her than to look at those pieces of clothing because you would never think they belonged to a queen. She tried very hard not to over-awe people so that she was very approachable. She never wore the same dress twice. If it made an impact once it would never make the same impact again.
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