Under relentlessly grey January skies, the latest lockdown feels particularly bleak. No wonder many have been seeking solace in what’s on TV.
Among the various offerings to immerse oneself in this January, Hulu’s The Great – now broadcasting on Channel 4 – is a particularly vivid treat. Written by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, this ten-part series takes on a similarly absurdist tone in its “occasionally true” portrait of famed 18th Century Russian ruler Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) in the period before she took the throne.
Playing fast and loose with the facts, it’s a show that revels in the grotesque side of human nature: full of complex machinations, gratuitous bloodshed, lurid bacchanalia, bitchy court dynamics and the cruelly childish actions of Catherine’s impetuous husband King Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), all set against the young Empress’s high ideals and ruthless ambition to enact a coup and claim rule of Russia for herself.
In between the plotting and mayhem, it also offers a rather sumptuous visual feast. Much like the darkly comic (and occasionally just plain dark) tone of the show, presenting the Russian court as a place of relentlessly garish excess, costume designer Emma Fryer has brought an appropriately OTT touch to the cast’s lavish attire.
Here we break down some of the main maximalist sartorial lessons to take from the show - including jeweled satins, big sleeves, and plenty of frills and furs - to liven up your lockdown look...
A big sleeve goes a long way
If there’s anything that’s been apparent both in recent costume dramas and also on the catwalks, it’s that people love a dramatic sleeve: puffed, flounced, cuffed, or fluted; bell or bishop; the sleeve options are numerous as long as they cause some sort of stir. The Great is no exception, coats and gowns alike adding flourish around elbows and wrists. Special mention goes to some of the simpler tailoring here too: emperor and empress alike adopting their own versions of loose shirts with billowing sleeves. Plump for a pussy-bow blouse like the former, or pair with a long, sweeping skirt in a contrasting shade like the latter.
Mix up your references
The Great forms yet another entry in the growing pantheon of period dramas taking a less than strictly accurate approach to its costuming: infused with the spirit of the time, yes, but also irreverently plundering more modern styles too.
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) is an obvious precedent, mixing its pastel gowns with converse trainers, while more recent offerings including The Favourite (2018) and Netflix’s currently popular Bridgerton have similarly played with the balance between historical reference and modernity.
Keep an eye out here for Nicholas Hoult in 18th Century style hoodies, leather breeches, and leopard print coats like a delinquent Mick Jagger, as well as the strong influence of Dior’s New Look bar jackets and nipped-in silhouettes in Elle Fanning’s regal wardrobe. Similarly, don’t be afraid to mix up different decades in a single outfit – or, in this case, centuries.
Adopt an opulent night gown
This a show in which the sex scenes are rife and royalty stalk the corridors in their bed clothes (or, as in the case of one memorable scene featuring Nicolas Hoult, wearing absolutely nothing at all). These night gowns are both luxurious and capacious: coming in shades like blush pink and mint green on the empress and gold and quilted rust-red on her husband, all equally ideal for sweeping around in after dark or flinging on post-bath.
Although we’re more likely to be wearing our dressing gowns to work from a desk than recline on four poster beds and stride through rooms full of priceless paintings, choose something similarly sumptuous in velvet or satin to weather out a winter at home.
Embrace all the trimmings
The Great doesn’t scrimp on the frills and furbelows. Hair comes adorned with feathers or studded with pearls. The ladies of the court wear garish pastel wigs. The organ-squishing corsets are adorned in zesty florals. Everything is decked out in ruffles, bows, medals, metallic thread, lace, complicated braid, fiddly buttons, embroidered belts, and a pretty hefty array of jewels. It’s a good reminder of the maximalist pleasures of heavy accessorizing.
Invest in some dramatic outerwear
This being Russia after all, many of the show’s stand-out costumes are built to withstand the elements (albeit often with a hasty retreat to a carriage afterwards). From powder blue capes with ribbon ties to Catherine’s tasselled teal coat trimmed with furry collar and sleeves – reminiscent, perhaps, of a grander, more Russian-influenced Saks Potts number – the outerwear here is always designed to do more than provide practical protection.
Follow suit during a winter in which there is nothing to do but take long walks by bundling up in something appropriately dramatic, rather than just reaching for an anorak.
At the beginning of the show, the costume designer Emma Fryer explains, Catherine arrives at court clad in a paler palette: wearing light brocades and restrained floral jacquards, these shades are an outer reflection of her girlish idealism when it comes to both love and politics.
But as the series progresses and her plans for a coup solidify, her wardrobe similarly gets bolder. Beginning with bright, jewelled satins in greens and blues, and dipping into deeper colours more reflective of the court around her (who favour rich reds and purples), by the final episode as she’s ready to claim her powerful future the empress wears assertive, shocking pink.