Olaf TrackSuit, A Series of Unfortunate Events

Emmy Contender: Costume designer Cynthia Summers on A Series of Unfortunate Events' bold disguises

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Aug 6, 2018

Costumes are an essential part of the storytelling in A Series of Unfortunate Events— after all, the villainous Count Olaf (along with his accompanying henchmen) is usually in disguise, and as season two progresses, so are the Baudelaires themselves. But emerging alongside Count Olaf this season was a new rival for impersonations-on-the-fly: his oh-so-fashionable sidekick, Esmé Squalor.

"She's just the Carrie Bradshaw of her world," explained Emmy-nominated costume designer Cynthia Summers. "Esmé thinks, 'I'm just going to put that here, because that's more fashionable…and I'm in disguise!'" Summers was gracious enough to walk SYFY WIRE through her inspirations and process for the entire season, including her favorite looks, her biggest challenges, and the outfit which broke her heart.

Count Olaf, A Series of Unfortunate Events

Credit: Netflix

"The Austere Academy" (based on the fifth book of the series): In order to infiltrate the Baudelaire's new school, Count Olaf comes up with a new persona — "Coach Genghis." In the book, he's described as wearing a sweatsuit, sneakers (presumably to cover his eye tattoo), and a turban (presumably to cover his unibrow).

"The whole question to us was, why is he wearing a turban?" Summers said. "So we heavily leaned into that." Assuming that Olaf took the tracksuit from the actual gym teacher — "we don't know if he killed her or not, but she's gone" – the team decided that it needed to look like it was really old, as if it had been at the Academy for 20 years, and it had been worn by a woman. Summers started by looking at irregular 1980s tracksuits, and decided velour was the way to go for Olaf and that red would make it stand out against the burgundy school uniforms.

"Neil [Patrick Harris] was instrumental with the fit," Summers said. "He really wanted it to look like it was too small for him, so it was very short in the leg and the arms, short in the torso, so it's at his upper waist, and we would have to pull the bottom of the tracksuit up, a little too uncomfortably high to look at, which added to the sleaze factor."

The turban, she decided, came from a school banner piled up in the back of the bus that had been hijacked. "It's a little hard to see, but when we unravel the turban when Violet gets her hands on it, you can see the writing 'Prufrock Prep' across it," Summers noted.

The broach on the turban is our first clue that he's in cahoots with Carmelita Spats, our latest enfant terrible. ("The original owner really liked it!" she marvels when the principal compliments her on it). Figuring out Carmelita's color scheme proved especially tricky. The pink dress, in real life, is about "40 percent brighter" than the muted look it has on camera, the way the show is lit.

"We called it Carmelita Pink," Summers said. "It looked like a kid's Disney program because it was a bubblegum pink with a little bit of gray in it, and a dusty fuchsia over the top." Her cheerleading uniform was more of a true bubblegum color. Although she initially imagined the character to be like Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie – even using that blonde character's face on her illustrations — Summers later decided that Carmelita's curls should be red, because "it was just so bold."

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Credit: Netflix

"The Ersatz Elevator" (based on the sixth book in the series): Everybody has to be "in" on Dark Avenue, according to Esmé Squalor, and that means pinstripes. When Olaf makes his presence known at the Squalor's art deco penthouse, he's in his guise as "Gunther," a European auctioneer of supposed great taste.

Producer Barry Sonnenfeld thought Karl Lagerfeld would be a good inspiration for Gunther, so Summers leaned into that as a model for her initial illustrations, while Harris came up with a voice to match. "It helped give him that flair, and made the character gel," she said. "It was a real combo of the look, the intent behind the look, and the voice." (The show has yet to hear if Lagerfeld approves, but Summers hopes that the fashion icon loves the tongue-in-cheek version of himself).

First Gunther wears a brocade smoking jacket, and then, as we see more of his partnership with Esmé, he switches to a pinstripe suit, along with his riding boots and glasses, "to marry the two of them in that visual way."

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Credit: Netflix

"The Vile Village" (based on the seventh book in the series): This is the Emmy-nominated episode, and it's the first to showcase both Olaf and Esmé in disguise together. This time, his façade is Detective Dupin, and unlike his previous aliases, the book didn't provide as much description (other than ridiculous green plastic shoes with yellow lightning bolts), which left the production free to dream up the disguise.

In early January 2017, the team met up to discuss Olaf's first four disguises, and for this one, Sonnenfeld thought the color turquoise would be best... until they realized it would work better for Esmé and put Olaf in purple. "We were like, what is this place, this village? It's like a time capsule, and it's slightly western, slightly Mennonite, and we needed them to outshine anyone in the village, which was really broken down, muted, earthy colors," Summers said.

And then there was a question about what kind of detective would Olaf try to be?

"Is he wearing a fedora? Is he leaning on the jazz scene?" Summers said. "He's so ostentatious because he thinks he's all that, so he chooses to go down this road as this scat-singing, greasy detective." The idea for the look came together ten days before the shoot, and the outfit itself was completed the night before — purple leather jacket, 1970s Easy Rider sunglasses, a porkpie hat, really tight high-waist fake denim jeans, and lots of chest hair showing. "We illustrated it right down to the toothpick in his mouth," Summers said.

Although she tried to find a vegan alternative to the leather jacket — as she usually does — this one didn't work out in time because of its requirements. Summer and her assistant looked through the organic section of Mood Fabrics in Los Angeles, and picked the pieces she could use to make multiple coats in the same dye bath (since they needed them for the stunt doubles and second unit shoots).

"I rarely come up against actors who say, 'I must have real leather!," she said. "And Neil doesn't do that, either. And it's usually much easier to facilitate our needs in non-organic fabric, not from an animal, but the requirements for this jacket were really limiting to find in a pleather. It had to have a vintage fit, shine, and color, and it was so color specific. But time wasn't working with me to get other material, and I'm not going to lie, it really broke my heart. I'm getting a little choked up talking about it, actually."

Summers put her personal beliefs aside to make it work in time, and the result was her favorite Olaf disguise in season two.

Esmé's outfit is her first as Olaf's sidekick, and so they took her façade as a police chief and turned up the volume. "She's all about being in disguise to be in disguise," Summers said. "She thinks she's being very fashionable, so we went sexy."

Starting with riding pants and a too-tight cop shirt, Summers added motorcycle boots, spray-painted a Vespa helmet turquoise, and gave her fingerless gloves to showcase her long nails. "She's trying to be CHiPs," Summers said, noting that the braid was both sexy and practical, but the rhinestone belt was not practical in the slightest. "I wish we gave her a motorcycle to go with all of this!"

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Credit: Netflix

"The Hostile Hospital" (based on the eighth book in the series): When Olaf and his henchmen hunt the orphans at the hospital, they steal their uniforms out of the laundry truck, so nothing they wear is clean. "We didn't want to do blood," Summers said, "so it's all yellow and orange, which would be pus and body excrement, which hopefully translates. It's just to make them appear even more disgusting."

It also helps to keep the crew from wearing all white lab-coats. ("How boring is that? Our people are anything but boring!" Summers said.) Olaf's coat is done up the back, so it resembles more of a straitjacket, his gloves are from a Hazmat suit, and his "medical tools" are meant to be funny but creepy – a potato peeler, a drill, and a hacksaw. But it's Esmé's outfits that wow us in these episodes. "We still don't know how she does it," Summers laughed. "Maybe she has a seamstress stuck in the truck of the car or something! She's magic!"

Esmé starts off as a Nurse Nightingale type, with a bit of a dominatrix feel — fake black leather, an oversized nurse's cap, a nurse's watch she's wearing as a necklace, hot pants, and stiletto heels. For her second look, she channeled Cruella de Vil.

"That was a reference we tried to stay away from at first, because it was too obvious," Summers said. "But then we have a moment where we see her be extremely evil for the first time, when she wants to kill the children, and we wanted to show the black-and-white."

In the script, it was written that she would be wearing a fur coat, which became faux fur with plastic fox heads and fake eyes. "We were like, how do you make a fur coat more evil? So it's filled with fox legs, as if they're her lucky charms," Summers said.

Esmé is also using fox claws in her hair and as her necklace. Originally, the team was leaning towards a tiger print, but it looked "too earthy," and so the foxes won out. And for her final murderous touch, Esmé is wearing bladed heels, which were somewhat tricky to create.

"Where can we get a knife that won't snap in two or bend when you put the weight on it? Where it won't embed in the floor? How can we not kill people with this? How can it work around children?" Summers explained. "There was so much consideration with that one, because it's a prop and a weapon."

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Esme

Credit: Netflix

"The Carnivorous Carnival" (based on the ninth book in the series): For the final disguises of the season, Summers designed looks for Olaf and Esmé which looked like they had been pieced together from the striped fabric of the circus tent – which meant she had to help create the tent itself.

Since NPH had worn a ringmaster suit in American Horror Story: Freak Show and Hugh Jackman had worn one inThe Greatest Showman, Summers wanted to stay away from the looks and colors of both of those fairly recent renditions.

"Our sets are dark, so I said, 'Let's do it in white!'" she said. She found a plush velveteen fabric which a lot of luster, which gave the camera something to work with, and went white for his boots as well. (His vest is the same fabric as the tent). Then for Esmé, there was a quick beat which showed how she stole the fabric, cutting it out of the tent. "When did she have time to make that?" Summers laughed. "Who knows? But it was genius."

Originally, Summers wanted the dress to break away from the knee and flow out with the train in the back, which "gave it a lot more mermaid volume at the bottom." But since the actress, Lucy Punch, needed to maneuver around dirt floors and hay obstacles, the dress needed to get out of her way, so it became more like a stage curtain, going up the sides with a rosette pining. If you watch the character throughout the season, Summers pointed out, Esmé's cup size keeps increasing, "because in her mind, she's evolving a bigger sense of self." (Her heels get bigger as well, and the shoes in these episodes were painted to match the dress.)

One of Summers' favorite costumes to make this season, however, belongs to Madame Lulu. A corset had to be custom built, since the actress, Sara Rue, wears a large cup size, which can make it difficult for strapless items to stay up. Summers' solution was to do it choker-style, with a strap to a neck piece slightly hidden by the actress' hair. The skirt had three layers on top of bloomers (which had to be added so she wouldn't be "mooning the camera" when she sits with her legs splayed at the table).

And of course, like every costume on the show, it was aged by the breakdown department, since the idea is that the fortune teller outfit has been passed down through the generations. "There's so much detail in that one," Summers said. "It was such a dream to make! I love her, I love that outfit, I love the hair, I love the makeup, and the wig is outstanding."

A selection of A Series of Unfortunate Eventscostumes will be on display at FIDM starting August 21.