The Haunting of Hill House

How the costumes help unlock the mysteries of The Haunting of Hill House

Contributed by
Nov 14, 2018

What does a ghost wear? It's a question costume designer Lynn Falconer had to ask when creating looks for the spirits who interact with the Crain family in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House, as well as the ones lurking in the background. This adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name covers multiple decades of fashion trends — including ghostly attire from the 1930s, florals from the summer of 1992, and contemporary outerwear. 

Clothes play a big part in unlocking the mysteries of the 10-part series, and SYFY FANGRRLS recently spoke to Falconer to find out more about the secrets revealed via the color palette, the Bent-Neck Lady ensemble, and Olivia’s fancy robe collection, as well as how watching this show is like solving a “math problem” with color and the origin of certain items being used to tell a larger story. (And for those who would love to know more fashion details including where to get gloves like Theo's [Kate Siegel] or Nell's [Victoria Pedretti] wedding dress, then you've come to the right place.)

Detailed spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House ahead!

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

Red is, of course, a huge part of the story; the Red Room is integral to Hill House and plays into each character’s deepest fears and strongest desires. In Shirley Jackson’s original novel, red is tied to Nell (as Eleanor), which is why Falconer weaves this color through Nell’s story from her bridesmaids' dresses to her burial frock. Falconer used Jackson’s color palette for other characters, including touches of yellow in Theo’s wardrobe — the yellow velvet Sandro top she wears in Episode 5 is just one example.

This is Falconer’s fourth project with Hill House creator Mike Flanagan, and there was a strong sense of collaboration between the two when she discussed their relationship, including the use of red in the finale. “Steven (Michiel Huisman) has a Bordeaux red cardigan on, [and] there are red roses on the funeral director's lapel. That was Flanagan’s direction. He brought that to the table,” Falconer noted. “There are tiny red feathers on the bowler hat. We found a place for it everywhere.”

The Haunting of Hill House
Color also provides a visual bond when relationships are fractured. The Crain family are reunited for the first time in the present-day timeline when they gather the night before Nell’s funeral in “Two Storms.” They aren’t exactly in the best place, but their clothing suggests a common ground as blues and grays dominate. As Falconer explained, “They need their separation points and they need their unification points visually.” She worked closely with Flanagan, the DP, and the production designer to “collaborate with what the set and cameras are doing,” going so far as changing Timothy Hutton’s shirt in this scene as it read as too monochromatic on camera.

Other technical aspects had an impact; during the long takes in "Two Storms," there was no boom operator. Microphones were embedded in the actors' shirt pockets, which also meant ensuring the fabric wasn’t noisy.

The Haunting of Hill House
Both Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Nell creepily linger in the funeral parlor; in death, they look similar in their styling, but otherwise are far removed from the rest of their family. Falconer pointed out this dress changes color as “you’re not supposed to see what she looks like” in those earlier episodes. In fact, Olivia is wearing the Bent-Neck Lady gown when Hugh (Timothy Hutton) returns to bed at the start of the first episode, just after Nell has encountered this version of herself for the first time.

One link between Olivia and Nell’s demise is Hill House ghostly resident Poppy Hill (Catherine Parker). Poppy’s impact manifests itself in a number of ways including sartorially, as Poppy's '30s style is reflected in Olivia's early '90s look, which is then passed down to Nell. Olivia’s proclivity toward wearing loungewear during the day is more pronounced as her migraines increase, a sign of “what is going on in her internal state,” said Falconer.

The Haunting of Hill House
"Fancy robe" is not a technical term; instead, the name of Olivia’s garment is a peignoir. Falconer sent us the definition of this to explain why she chose this garment — beyond it fitting Olivia's penchant for City Girl meets Lilith Fair clothing. “The word comes from French peigner, to comb the hair (from Latin pectināre, from pecten, pectin-, comb) describing a garment worn while brushing one's hair, originally referring to a dressing gown or bathrobe.” This was something that Falconer admits came to her randomly when she was doing research for 1992 loungewear and the 1930s pieces that Poppy might have worn. Falconer added that she “also loved the connection between Olivia’s long flowing hair and Poppy’s vanity/mirror — that Olivia stares into and breaks."

The Haunting of Hill House
Early on, Olivia wears a sumptuous teal velvet robe, which was made using a piece of fabric Falconer found in New York that was then dyed. The red version is “its complementary color ... meant to be the same robe [while] she exists in Hill House in death." This not only links Olivia to the Red Room but also Nell's signature shade.

The green and lilac La Costa Del Algodon robe, which appears in Episode 6, is a turning point, Falconer said. And the final light peignoir, or rather Olivia’s “death peignoir” as Falconer referred to it, is also symbolic. "She goes from a solid rich velvet and then she slowly fades." The collection of loungewear is highly covetable — Falconer has received many emails about these pieces — but also provides a link to the tragedies of Hill House's past, the horrors that befall in 1992 and Nell’s return in the present day.

The Haunting of Hill House
Not only does it provide a thread between these three women, but it is also Falconer’s way of paying homage to Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, The Haunting. Julie Harris as Eleanor dances through the house in a white nightgown and robe. Falconer noted that she “moved it more into a 1930s silhouette because of Poppy,” but the inspiration was from the first adaptation of Jackson’s novel.

The Haunting

Julie Harris in The Haunting (1963) - Getty 

Nell’s other gown of significance is her beautiful wedding dress, which looks like it could be vintage but is actually from Anthropologie’s bridal division BHLDN. It is a contemporary gown, so this one happened to have a stretch factor, which Falconer describes as “serendipitous” because Victoria Pedretti as Nell had to run up the stairs in heels while wearing this gown.

So what do ghosts wear? In The Haunting of Hill House, it depends on the relationship between characters. Nell isn’t limited to her death garb or even what she is buried in. And while Flanagan had no set rules for the ghost wardrobe, Falconer did have some costuming guidelines she stuck to. When Nell visits Steven in the first episode, she is wearing the same outfit as the last time he saw her; this is not a coincidence. “Since he was the viewer of this ghost, it had to germinate within him.” This outfit is his last memory of seeing her.

The Haunting of Hill House
There is no change of clothing for the Hill House ghosts because the Crains don’t have a personal connection or memory of them. The bowler hat is a big part of William Hill’s (Fedor Steer) aesthetic as is his Chesterfield style coat, the latter of which Falconer chose because it “has a lot of flexibility in terms of time period.” When William stalks Luke outside of Hill House he is instantly recognizable without the whole 10-feet tall aspect: “It looked period out on the street with Luke, but not over the top.”

The Haunting of Hill House
Extensive backstories for the house and its inhabitants provided the cornerstone of Falconer's ghost costume decisions — she had four boards detailing William’s entire timeline to determine what he would be wearing. Even the background ghosts have a specific reason for being there, whether they were a traveling salesman or a service person. Just because they are on camera for a second doesn’t mean the outfit is thrown together; Falconer had four racks of vintage clothes for the background ghosts and they were dressed head-to-toe in these garments. This ensured mistakes wouldn’t get made as “the minute you say it is OK to not worry about the shoes is when you end up seeing the shoes.”

The Haunting of Hill House
The costumes on Hill House were a mix of builds, vintage and off-the-rack. Ghosts such as Poppy and William Hill wore custom-builds by Falconer and her team. A majority of the clothes in the 1992 Crain family scenes were from the early ‘90s and the present day scenes were mostly off-the-rack. Falconer buys a lot of vintage and is particularly drawn to velvet and lace, which heavily informed Nell, Olivia and Poppy’s costuming.

Fabrics from estate sales were transformed into garments, including Nell’s camel coat that she wears when she returns to Hill House. Alas there were only two made, so this isn’t something you can snap up at Barneys.

The Haunting of Hill House
If peignoirs are Olivia’s signature, then gloves are Theo’s. This isn’t a style statement — even though she looks cool af on a night out in long gloves paired with a bralette, jeans and dangling suspenders. “Her whole body is sensitive, but she is also looking for a connection,” noted Falconer about the clubbing ensemble we initially see this character in. The outfit came first, followed by the specific gloves to work with the sleeve length as longer gloves will cause hem issues with a long sleeve turtleneck.

Theo’s hands are covered so she can control when she uses her gift, but if you’re looking for some Theo-inspired gloves for the colder weather, then Portolano or Shaneen Huxham are the brands Falconer used.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix 

A lot conversation about The Haunting of Hill House is dedicated to how scary it is, but a number of the costumes are being coveted by viewers as Falconer’s very full email inbox will attest. This is the first time she has experienced this kind of reaction to her work with daily emails asking about various garments — Olivia's peignoirs and Nell's wedding dress are the most sought-after items. Falconer, for her part, is thrilled. "It is so fantastic and so rewarding to get that global audience contacting you." 

A number of similar garments can be found in stores to what you see in the Crain family flashback scenes because fashion is cyclical; instead, Falconer looked back to when she moved to New York City in the early ‘90s to study fashion at Parsons School of Design for Olivia inspiration. “I put this Robert Lee Morris necklace on layaway, [and] it was a leather necklace with an amulet hanging off it, that is where the locket came from." Drew Barrymore was a reference point and model Tatjana Patitz's Vogue cover informed what Olivia is wearing when she appears to Hugh in "Eulogy." Falconer also noted that she worked closely with Carla Gugino to create Olivia's specific look. 

When Olivia enters the house for the first time in high-waisted shorts and a floral body it's a quintessential early ‘90s ensemble, which also happens to the be most optimistic this character looks over the course of the entire series. The entire Crain family are in brighter colors, as the house has yet to have any impact. They don't know what a ghost wears yet, but they will soon find out in the most devastating way possible. 

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