I have just finished watching Station Eleven – which, if you haven’t seen yet, I very highly recommend. There are some shows I watch where the styling is probably what I most enjoy about them (The Politician); there are some where the media fuss about the costumes fills me with consternation (Inventing Anna); and then there are shows – like Station Eleven – where the costumes play a huge role in the characterisation, mise-en-scene and general atmosphere, and bowl me over with their sheer creative brilliance.
Station Eleven is set in a post-pandemic world whose dystopian setting might sound all too familiar. However, this narrative is different (and refreshingly so), because its focus is not on human survival per se, but rather on the enduring and restorative power of human creativity and culture. What really makes life worth living in the post-pan world is acting resourcefully and making work – with those you love – with heart and meaning. Station Eleven‘s rag-tag family of strolling players (who have dubbed themselves the “Travelling Symphony”) do this by bringing the works of Shakespeare to dispersed, traumatised communities.
In the post-pan world, clothes are another way of making-up the self, of creating a new-world identity from remnants of the pre-pandemic past.
Anything goes in this landscape of found objects. Car interiors can become coats, or kitchen utensils hats and jewellery. Released from fashion and time – from their historical moment, their social contexts, and their gendered associations – clothes simply become a matter of utility on the one hand and self-expression on the other.
The Travelling Symphony dedicate themselves to breathing new life into old art. While on stage, they enable Shakespeare to speak to resilient contemporary audiences (that are hungry for inspiration) so off stage they revive and modify the objects of the old world into the stuff of the new. Through their everyday clothes and on-stage costumes, the Travelling Symphony refashion and transform the detritus of late capitalism into the fresh, creative playthings of the post-pandemic world.
And as the members of the troupe adapt their acting skills to play a range of different Shakespearean characters, so in their day-to-day lives their creative clothing allows them to play at who they are, or might become, trying different identities (and outfits) on for size. Thus post-pan baby, Alex (Philippine Velge), is one day a chiffon-adorned, puffy-sleeved Ophelia . . .
. . . and the next an edgy, brittle Hamlet, all straps and collars.
So a huge hats off to designer, Helen Huang, for developing costumes that, in their creative use of waste materials really capture the inventive, resourceful, and ultimately hopeful heart of Station Eleven. I’ve been unable to find an image of Huang’s industrial-felt-cocooned Polonius, or of the amazing Laertes costume that’s worn by Alex in the final episode (whose upper body appeared to be formed from the intertwining arms, hands, and fingers of a random series of stuffed opera gloves) but Kirsten’s golf-glove-caped Ophelia is definitely one of my favourite costumes of the series!
So many of Huang’s character costume choices are absolutely pitch-perfect – from the way that Sarah’s (Lori Petty’s) sheer sleeves and frayed tabards convey the immediately recognisable lagenlook of a very stylish, senior Arts/ Humanities academic . . .
. . . to the way that Clark’s (David Wilmot’s) drapery lends him the unmistakable vibe of a senator in an imperial Rome that’s just about to fall.
. . . and the joyful choosing and adaptation of August’s (Prince Amposah’s) garments to his creative, wearing body.
Huang has spoken in several interviews about how she and her team were forced to seek out alternative methods for costuming characters in Station Eleven’s fictional pandemic during our recent actual one, seeking out textiles and garments from thrift stores and dumpsters, rather than their usual industry sources, and re-developing their creative, crafting skills. “It really does go back to scavenging and solving problems and practicalities and melding those things together to create an aesthetic for all the people,” she says.
Station Eleven’s ultimately heartening “after the apocalypse, we’ll all make stuff” message is one, I imagine, most contemporary crafters would happily embrace.
Station Eleven is available to stream now in the UK. I subscribed to the channel on which it currently features primarily to watch the new watergate drama Gaslit (also excellent) – definitely worth it for these two top-quality shows!