Penny Dreadful City of Angels
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Credit: Showtime 

Look of the Week: Natalie Dormer's Penny Dreadful shape-shifting style

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May 22, 2020

Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!

John Logan's Penny Dreadful spinoff switches from gritty London at the turn of the century to Los Angeles in 1938, offering up horrors in a sun-drenched city that is ready to ignite. As shape-shifting chaos demon Magda, Natalie Dormer is the supernatural antagonist at the heart of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, whispering into the ears of men who need little encouragement to light the spark. Racial tension is threatening to envelop not just Los Angeles but the world — which is on the precipice of a world war — and Magda weaves a path of destruction wherever she goes. The original Penny Dreadful excelled in the wonderfully macabre and stunning costumes, and this follow-up is keeping with the sartorial strengths via Magda sowing seeds of discontent in different guises.

Credit: Showtime 

The primary story arc follows LAPD's first Chicano detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and his Jewish partner Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) as they investigate what looks to be a racially motivated murder; however, there is more to this grisly tableau than meets the eye. Man may be doing a lot of the legwork in pouring gasoline on a volatile situation, but Magda is encouraging this behavior in a variety of aliases — from a troubled German immigrant with an abusive husband to a political secretarial aid subtly pushing her nefarious agenda. Distinct costumes separate the four characters Dormer inhabits, ranging from a to-die-for black leather power-shoulder gown to a closet packed with delicate baby blue tea dresses. Magda's overall endgame seems set on destroying L.A. from within (and providing the Third Reich with a US base of operations) and her wardrobe is part of the vast arsenal at her disposal.

The first episode opens with literal light and dark imagery. Magda's signature leather (or rather pleather) gown is shark-like in its moments, gliding through the field with a trail of flames behind her. "Are you ready, sister? I'll give you many souls," she tells the white lace-clad Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) as they look on at the unsuspecting humans Magda is about to slaughter. The scene serves as a representation of the two sides of death; Santa Muerte safely guides the deceased to the afterlife, whereas Magda revels in chaos and violence.

Credit: Showtime

Crafting four distinct characters (as well as the rest of the cast and hundreds of background actors) is a challenge costume designer Christie Wittenborn rose to. Magda's goth girl aesthetic is not bound by the 1930s period that dictates what Elsa, Alex, and Rio wear. Each persona plays a role in corrupting the men around her, using different aspects of femininity and assimilation to get the desired result. Elsa, for example, must appeal to fellow German ex-pat Dr. Peter Craft (played by Penny Dreadful alum Rory Kinnear) who is the head of the American German Bund and wears the swastika with pride.

Blonde curls and an array of Peter Pan-collar pastel frocks and a demure beach cover-up help catch the doctor's eye. "This incarnation of Elsa is Aryan ideal made flesh," is how the designer described this look to Variety, which taps into the racist ideology Dr. Craft subscribes to.

Credit: Showtime 

Dormer often portrays characters possessing a duality, whether it is playing not one but two iconic Sherlock Holmes figures in Elementary or the schoolmistress with a secret past in the 2018 TV adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Even as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones she switched between kind and manipulative, going toe-to-toe with Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) — and failing spectacularly.

Playing sweet, sultry, and devious are all aspects Dormer has wielded with aplomb in the past, but in Penny Dreadful she takes the chameleon charm to new levels, and what she wears aids this transformation.

Credit: Showtime

Oozing glamour is one way to capture hearts, but in her role as a secretarial aid she eschews makeup and color so the piggish councilman she works for pays attention to her ideas and not her body. The boxy neutral skirt suit is masculine-meets-feminine styling that strips the stripes and frills of an outfit worn by His Girl Friday's Hildy Johnson and leaves the bland outline. However, the buttoned-up blouse and jacket are still appealing, and this lack of vanity is how she wraps Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) around her finger.

In contrast to the drab council closet, the patrons who spend their evenings at The Crimson Cat are dressed to impress. Pachucos are vital to the history of Los Angeles and play an important role in how Magda chooses to manipulate Tiago's younger brother Mateo (Jonathan Nieves) as the Zoot suit-wearing Rio. Looking for his place in the Mexican-American community he believes his cop brother has turned away from, Mateo heads to this popular dance hall.

Credit: Showtime

A night embracing this subculture is broken up by the racist cops and this ignites his rage. A surprise curfew leads to the raid in "Wicked Old World," which comes after a jubilant dance sequence. One act of aggression by the police is to cut the suits with razors — "so we're not Pachuco anymore," Rio notes, before saying she is this way even naked. Mateo points out the obvious factor that Rio is white, but Magda's backstory for this cultural appropriating character is that she was born in Mexico before moving to L.A. when she was three years old.

It isn't a case of throwing together any high-waisted suit. The Zoot suit has a specific silhouette and place in the history of Los Angeles — its origins are in jazz and African-American communities in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit. No doubt the Los Angeles "Zoot Suit Riots" of 1943 factored into this story (just a few years ahead of reality). On Instagram, Wittenborn notes the costume design team made 75 suits using over 1000 yards of fabric for this episode — and each one is stunning.

Credit: Showtime

Magda can look and dress however she pleases in the blink of an eye, which is how she targets the various male figures she believes will help set this city ablaze. Picking her clothing carefully, she uses a curated image to tap into a divided Los Angeles. Not everyone is easily manipulated; Tiago will have to figure out how he can wear the badge of an LAPD detective and still retain his identity while racists hurl slurs his way.

God (or the perception of God) also has a role to play via Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), who is bound by an image that has been thrust upon her. A battle is coming and so far, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is proving a demon is just as powerful in a pastel tea dress as she is in a black leather frock with fire trailing behind her.

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