Using Costumes to Create Distinct Worlds for Amazon’s ‘Carnival Row’

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Nina Ayres is the costume designer for the second season of Carnival Row, which premiered February 17 on Amazon Prime Video. Starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevinge, season two of Carnival Row follows former inspector Rycroft Philostrate as he investigates a series of gruesome murders in a Victorian fantasy world where humans and creatures clash.

Nina was tasked with adhering to the Victorian period’s style while also creating a fantastical world full of creatures that allowed her to use various patterns, fabrics, and finishing techniques. She used different  color palettes and symbols to distinguish the worlds of the humans and creatures, and had human characters borrow elements from other worlds to subtly show their allegiances. Nina also used color to show the progression of the story, beginning with dusty colors and shifting to vibrant colors as the events of the season unfold. 

Nina’s past credits include Game of ThronesOutlander, and The Great. 

PH: Hi Nina! Can you share some of your professional background? What drew you to costume design?

Nina Ayres: Since I was very young, I’ve always made clothes. I also loved performing and making costumes for my school plays or the theatre group I attended. My first costume I ever made was when I was cast as Stig in Stig of the Dump (I was never the princess or any of the other more glamorous roles), and I made my costume from the fake fur rug from my bedroom floor. My mother refused to let me cut it up, so I had to design and fashion it with plaited shoulder straps. I’m sure it was ridiculous to look at, but I was only eight or nine. These passions coupled with my love of art, design, history and geography meant that I really had no other path in life. I remember a teacher telling me one day that I should think about being a costume designer, but at that stage I had no idea it was a feasible career. 

PH: What factors play into which projects you choose to work on?

Nina Ayres: It can really vary. A script or synopsis that I find exciting or fun, an unusual theme, a challenging subject, great actors, directors, producers…. I do love historical themes and historical fantasy, but researching different cultures and countries as well as modern fashion and style also appeals to me. It’s the story-telling I love. The chance to build characters that fully and visually embody the world in which the story takes place. 

PH: How did you become involved with Carnival Row? What initially drew you to the project?

Nina Ayres: I’d seen season one and thought the world-building was brilliant, and the focus on making the gritty worlds and various creatures so realistic really excited me. I loved how the parallels, metaphors, and commentary on the world we live in today played out in this fantasy setting. I really enjoy collaborating with makeup effects, hair, make-up, visual effects, and stunts, and I could see that this show could only come together with good communication between those departments. And the fact that it was shot in Prague. I like the challenges and opportunities that arise from shooting in a new place (aside from the UK). I have worked in many countries across Europe and beyond, and I’m always inspired by talented local crew and invigorated in general by the resources available, such as the new shops and markets to browse around. Something new and unexpected invariably comes from being out of your comfort zone. 

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project? 

Nina Ayres: I first had to immerse myself in the world of season one and fully understand the costume design choices and references to build upon what had been established. Huge amounts of research was undertaken, not only to create designs for the human, late Victorian looks but also the countries which had influenced the various fae folk. I was working closely with Nick Dudman, the makeup effects designer, to create new creatures such as the Elfin Mauro and Kallos for The Row, and then I’d imagine how they would look as citizens in Ragusa or as a New Dawn soldier. 

PH: Can you share how you adhered to the Victorian period’s style while also creating a fantastical world full of creatures? What patterns, fabrics, and finishing techniques did you utilize?

Nina Ayres: The Victorian humans in the Burgue stayed quite true to the era, late Victorian British. We were extremely diligent with the cutting techniques, but I did introduce fabrics which may not be so period accurate. I found so many exciting fabrics in Prague that I quickly threw out the idea of adhering too firmly to the period in order to give each character an individual style. The Pact, New Dawn, and all the creatures were all designed with various regions of the world as reference. 

When we talk of period costume it focuses on fashions of the West, but obviously elsewhere in the world people were wearing very different styles. So, although the creatures and the pact are invented, they aren’t maybe that different to what people around the world might have worn. The Pact was influenced by the Indian continent, so tunics and longer garments worn by the Pact ambassador reference this. The creatures reference the invented habitat they come from. The only habitat the audience has seen is Tirnanoc. This has a cold, Asian environment aesthetic, and the Kallos reference Japan and Samurai, as seen by the two main Kallos fighters at Boz’s fight club. I don’t really separate the historically ‘accurate’ and the lives of the imagined worlds. They all become real to me. My focus is on the characters, their histories, and their lives, and therefore every design decision comes from imaging the world they are from, what resources were available to them, and what would influence their native dress. 

PH: What are some of the designs and costumes you specifically had to create? Do you have any favorites (and if so, can you share them?)

Nina Ayres: We had to create practically everything. Hire houses don’t have trousers made for Puck legs or shirts, waistcoats, and jackets with a back opening for faery wings. All the creatures were so specific that everything needed to be specially made. The only things we didn’t make were some of the human crowd costumes. 

I have many favourites. I loved the way Imogen and Agreus were dressed for their arrival in Ragusa in pastel shades and cottons and linens. I loved the contrast as they arrived, but then I knew how well those costumes could begin to blend in with the New Dawn world. 

I also really enjoyed all of Vignette’s looks. As a character she’s quite impulsive, and along with dramatic shifts in focus or mood, she takes her clothing along with her. She does nothing by halves. I enjoyed her moment when she tries to turn her back on the Black Raven while wearing the gold coat. I love traditional handicrafts, so it was a chance to use smocking, embroidery and an old Uzbek Suzani. The ceremonial robes, inspired by the East Asian Nanai people, that her and tourmaline wear in episode ten were great to work on. It drove my cutter, Jirina, and her makers slightly bonkers patchworking together fabric and fish skins, but I thought they turned out beautifully and work so well in the embrace scene during which you really see the intricate patterns on the backs of the robes. 

I adore Millworthy’s final waistcoat. It’s made from a painted tablecloth square. Zelina’s final bodice with imagery of a dragon chasing a bird was an old tapestry I found in a flea market in Prague. She had had her wing chopped off by the choppers by this stage, and I immediately knew I somehow wanted her to wear it. 

PH: What were some of the benefits to having the costumes and designs being custom made in-house?

Nina Ayres: It’s great because you can see the progression from design to realization, and then breakdown or crafts. If things change suddenly, as they do, you can react immediately. Also, the very nature of a garment being made from a design results in a lot of questions coming up about the cut. The cutters are able to ask all those questions, and I can see daily if something is working as I had intended to. Or not, as the case may be. With all the various jobs in the costume department such as breakdowns, crafts, supervising, crowd, coordinating, standbys and so on, everyone has access to everyone else. Costumes swap from one area to another constantly, either to have an embellishment on, for something to come back from set with the standby’s to be repaired, for the workroom crew to be told of a change in schedule or for many other reasons. 

I really enjoy the majority of costumes being made in house, as they’re ours to do with what we want. We can destroy, make doubles, age down, or make a perfect fit. 

PH: How did you use color to show the progression of the story?

Nina Ayres: Colour was used predominantly to delineate groups of characters. I had a palette for each creature and world they inhabited. As the show is complex and fast paced and constantly moving between worlds, I felt this was important to aid the audience’s understanding of where the characters’ allegiances lie. As well as colour, the hues and intensities as well as fabric patterns were used to tell the story. The Row, for example, is quite muted at the start, but by the end of the season, there is a renewed hope and with that the colours became brighter and cleaner. 

For example, green was the colour I chose for the New Dawn to symbolize a budding movement and a new life. This was coupled with faded, sun bleached greys and blacks to give the impression it’s a hotter climate and that no one wants to stand out. The effect was of a cobbled together uniform with a utilitarian feel. 

A lot of the characters move through colours to show their transition. Tourmaline becomes darker and adopts fae symbolism as she comes to terms with her path, and Vignette begins with dark shades to mirror her anger, only to attempt to reconnect with her roots and return to the golds, rich earthy shades and hand crafted fabrics and embroidery of Tirnanoc during an attempt to escape more conflict.

Millworthy, other than a rather bohemian colour palette, adopts a subtle feather pattern in his waistcoats as a nod to his love for fae. 

Darius initially wears something Philo has found, but as the season progresses, he finds his own style and keeps to a black, grey, and gold palette, as I was thinking of the moon at night. He chooses a coat which references his days in the army but now his patterns and weaves in his waistcoats, and eventually his trousers are chaotic and unpredictable. 

Sophie wore blues and greens as, apart from the fact Caroline looks great in those shades, I made teal the colour of the Burgue, based on their army uniforms. The courtroom and church outfits I had to design were also based on this. I felt that Sophie wearing colours close to teal was a game plan of hers to look like she belonged in an official role. Her dresses, although pretty, were not fussy and quite masculine. I also began to include detail down her back/spine to emphasize her strength of character. 

PH: What challenges, from a design perspective, did you encounter?

Nina Ayres: With the worlds being in turmoil and facing a lot of destruction, finding places where a character can realistically change clothes was a big challenge. I was desperate to get characters to change, but the story wouldn’t allow it, as it made no sense. I constantly had to look for opportunities that were practical for the characters’ journeys. I always asked myself the question, where did they get this garment from? Darius is a good example of this. Every time he turns into a marrock, he loses his clothes. The first time we see him this season, he’s a marrock, so Philo has to bring him some clothes. These are slightly puck-like, and one has to imagine Philo picked them up on the Row. Also, Imogen, Agreus, and Ezra in Ragusa are great examples of this. 

Another point to all the warfare was the destruction of all the costumes. Although I am the world’s biggest fan of the breakdown department, and I love to see an outfit decay and evolve along with the character (Imogen and Agreus spring to mind here), on a practical level this involves making eight identical costumes in various levels of destruction to allow for the filming schedule. We made roughly a hundred full costumes for the Ragusa nobility, only to have them dressed on corpses and be seen laying rotting in the water. 

PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?

Nina Ayres: I’m working on getting a good work/life balance, so lots of big walks with my dog, spending time with friends and family, and keeping fit. I’ve managed to enjoy kitesurfing, snow boarding and training for a half marathon so far this year, and I’m enjoying that immensely. It’s very important to be fit and healthy to work on these big projects that require all your time and energy for at least eight months each time. 

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Nina Ayres: There’s a couple of projects that look interesting but nothing to speak of at the moment.

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