A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2

A Series of Unfortunate Events injects sartorial whimsy into a dark landscape

Contributed by
Apr 5, 2018

Circumstances continue to be dire for the Baudelaire orphans on Season 2 of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, now on Netflix. A world of darkness beckons, but color seeps in through the clothes they wear. Pastels and glossy raincoats are replaced by yellow gingham, orange overalls, plaid shirts and pinstripe, as well as an array of other styles. Genre and period are hard to pinpoint; the costume design aesthetic mixes and matches from a variety of decades, injecting retro whimsy into each terrifying location.

Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) continues to blast his way through disguise after disguise. In Season 2, he is joined by fashion obsessed Esmé Squalor (Lucy Punch) in his mission to obtain the Baudelaire fortune.  

Also joining A Series of Unfortunate Events for the new season is costume designer Cynthia Summers. Summers spoke to SYFY FANGRRLS—as she took a quick break from shooting the third season—about what to expect from the various unfortunate circumstances the Baudelaire orphans find themselves in from Vile Village to the Carnivorous Carnival. Plus, Summers discussed hybrid genres, how to work with growing actors, sustainable fashion in costume design and helping Neil Patrick Harris out with Halloween.

What is it like coming onto a project at the start of the second season? It already has the established looks and there is the movie as well. How do you put your own stamp on it?

It is more difficult than anybody really thinks for all of those reasons. You’re either trying to carry on another designer’s vision or you’re changing it, which was slightly the case with this show. Season 1 does look quite different from Season 2 and 3, but that was intentional and follows the story, so I don’t think it will be jarring for fans.

There is a distinct retro feel to the costuming. Can you talk through the aspects you had to take into consideration?

The biggest note I got from Barry Sonnenfeld, our fearless leader, was we wanted this season to be more colorful because the Baudelaire’s situations are becoming more dire and harder for them to solve. The adults are getting darker and the children are getting brighter. They come together near the end of Season 2 and that is when we see a lot more color in the adults.

When anyone asks us what this genre is, it really is a hybrid genre. Period-fantasy is the simplest way I can put it. There is no real period. When I first started I asked, “What period is this?” Because the books were Edwardian. I want to say we’re somewhere between the late ‘40s and the mid-'70s. So Lucy’s [Punch] shoulder pads are something to watch in Season 2 because there is definitely a story with them. Her shoulder pads were inspired by oversized ‘40s shoulders and definitely influenced by curved Balmain-looking shoulders. We’re in a bit of the present, and we’re in the past.

All of these different situations too; we’re at Vile Village, which has a Western/Mennonite vibe to it, we’re at the circus at the end of season two and at Ersatz Elevator, which has a ‘40s New York vibe to it.

In terms of the fashion side, it reminds me of the whimsical yet dark fairy aesthetic that keeps having a moment. Did you look to the runway at all? You mentioned Balmain; are there any other brands you used in your research?

Definitely. And obviously with Google you can put in what you are looking for like “large shoulders” for instance and you get everything from past, present and even future looks. Olaf in Ersatz Elevator is reflected in someone we all know. His fashion aesthetic there.  

Karl Lagerfeld?

He was definitely the inspiration. His collar actually stemmed from 1800s and there is a nod to Karl. There’s no doubt about it. Neil [Patrick Harris] played it up.

Neil is a genius by the way. He comes to every fitting that we have with the voice he is going to do for his disguise character down pat. He usually comes in the prosthetic makeup. He’s very method that way. Just such a great actor to work with. He comes in with all of this on ready to go. And it is just so joyful and creative in the moment.

What can you tell me about Count Olaf’s season two costumes?

I think the ringmaster look for the Carnivorous Carnival was a little difficult because right now there are a lot of circus themes in film and TV; American Horror Story did it and of course The Greatest Showman just came out. We’re going to air after, but we were prepping and shooting it at the same time as these other productions. So that was hard because we didn’t want to be exactly the same as everyone else.

Our circus is really dilapidated so that was helpful to make it different. His outfit is all white, that was intentional just to take us away from what other productions were doing, because ringmaster costume is ringmaster.

It was also interesting because [Neil Patrick Harris] was on that episode of American Horror Story so he really didn’t want to be wearing a red ringmaster coat.

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How is it working with such young actors?

Our biggest issue with the kids for Season 2 was what to do with them because in the books they don’t age; of course we’re dealing with live people and children who age right before your eyes. We try to keep them youthful. Going from a baby who had to be carried all the time to a toddler who is walking and talking. Kids that are now in their teens portraying younger kids. It’s all smoke and mirrors to try to keep them physically looking youthful.

We decided to embrace the aspect that they’re changing, so we when we start back at the academy at the beginning of the season there is a disclaimer at the beginning; the kids have been waiting to see Vice Principal Nero (Roger Bart) for months. They’ve been sitting on that bench for months waiting for him.

Because Season 2 goes to these really specific places we decided that instead of having the kids stuck in one look, we would intimate that they had suitcases with them or someone has brought them some wardrobe from the past. We masterminded how they could change along the way, which gave us some range in how we could dress them for the occasion. Clearly at Ersatz Elevator, Esmé has dressed them in their pinstripe suits identically as if they were triplets.

Putting a little pinstripe suit on a toddler is the most adorable thing in the world and also a pinstripe suit on Malina [Weissman] is great because it is very hip for a girl to wear a boy’s suit. It brought a little more connectivity and youthfulness in the way they dress. Connectivity with the audience, which is also why we have this non-determinate range of period and even the dialogue they refer to the internet sometimes, refer to things that are clearly modern. That’s intentional to try and keep the young audience engaged.

Can your reveal anything about the just announced casting of Allison Williams?

She’s top secret. We’re working with her right now. [In] Season 3, there are a few characters that have been spoken about for all of Season 1 and all of Season 2; they’re now materializing either in the past as flashbacks or in the present in Season 3. There are a lot of questions answered in Season 3.

You’ve worked on shows like UnREAL, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce and The L Word. Is your process different when you work on a show like Unfortunate Events as opposed to contemporary?

The difference is volume. Instead of shopping for great couture pieces all the time, I am shopping for great fabrics. I’m really into faux fur and I try not to use leather where I can. You have to still consider all the elements from head-to-toe and inside out in the functionality. It is quite similar, but it is obviously different.

You mentioned faux fur and not using leather, on Instagram you showcase sustainable fashion. How do you put that into practice? Is it harder when building costumes or is it easier?

I think it is easier. For instance my next project will more than likely be a contemporary project; it will wind up being a fashion project like Girlfriends’ Guide or L Word. I have to engage in the fashion.

Really what it comes down to for me is my own personal ethic, I think I have to put aside to some degree when I am doing contemporary because I don’t have control over wool or a cotton or how things are grown to the same degree as I do when I’m sourcing the fabric from the beginning. So I still might not know where everything has come from, but ethically I can work easier in something that has been created from the ground up.

You helped with Halloween costumes for Neil Patrick Harris and his family. I know it is only March, but are there any plans for this year? How was that experience?

It was great. His family has a little cameo in Vile Village so that was really fun. His kids are great; they’re such a well-rounded group, that whole family. They’re so tight and were gems to work with. He is such a gentleman and was really appreciative of us helping him out.

It was so fun to do their Halloween. I didn’t really know it was a thing with them until he asked me if I could help him out with it. We were doing the carnival at the time, which is why their Halloween was carnival inspired, so I had some things at hand.

I don’t know what this Halloween will be, but if we are in the same city I sure would love to help them out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.