The Great’s Costume Designer on Dressing Modern Characters in an 18th-Century Setting
Emmy-winner Sharon Long on her favorite looks from season three of the Hulu show, and the little details you probably missed.
Spoilers for season three of The Great ahead.
Being the new kid is never easy, but being the new kid who needs to design historically accurate yet uniquely modern 18th century Russian costumes for an already hit show can understandably feel like an almost impossible task. That was the predicament Sharon Long, costume designer of Hulu’s The Great, found herself in when she joined production at the start of season two. “You never know how you’re going to be received,” she tells W. “You're walking into something where everybody knows each other and you don't.”
But Long was up for the task and, now, after two seasons on the Emmy-nominated show, she fancies herself a bit of an expert on the niche topic of Russian court dressing, and also the ability to balance authenticity with Tony McNamara’s exceptionally modern script. Eighteenth century corsets weren’t made for dancing, badminton, and ravenous sex—acts depicted in almost every episode of the series. “You have to allow the actors to express the character in the script,” she says. “And so that means that everybody has to be able to move very easily.”
Long’s success in the endeavor has earned her not only an Emmy for herself, but also a new client in the show’s star. Last year, Long designed the old Hollywood-style dress Fanning wore to the Emmy Awards when the actress was nominated for her turn as the titular (Catherine) The Great. “I really admire that she wanted to draw attention to costume designers,” Long says of Fanning. But while it was fun to see her work on the red carpet for the first time, Long isn’t eager to recreate the moment. “It was really nerve wracking,” she recalls. “I definitely had a couple of sleepless nights about it. I had to give the dress to Elle and she took it on the plane. I couldn’t be there to make sure it looked right, which in the end it did, thanks to her fantastic stylist. But I don't know if I could ever do that again.”
Luckily, Long has a solid gig creating works of art for The Great, and season three did not disappoint in continuing the legacy she established during her first go-round. Below, the costume designer breaks down the designs for four of the show’s major characters, and discusses the details you might might have missed during your first watch.
Fanning’s Empress Catherine goes through quite the transformation throughout the 10 episodes of season three. After moving past the whole “you fucked and killed my mother and I subsequently tried to kill you” thing, she and her husband, Peter, are experiencing the closest we’ve seen them get to matrimonial bliss. “She's in love, she's a mother, and she's running a country,” Long says, and her dresses during this time reflect that. “I wanted them to be more complex, with florals and whimsy because she’s in love.” Catherine’s first standout look of the season comes in episode two, when she entertains the UK and American ambassadors, both vying for Russia’s support in the Revolutionary War. Catherine holds a dinner for her guests, and attends in a white gown embroidered with colorful florals, an ensemble that could have been plucked from the set of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
“That was probably as flamboyant as I'd gone with her at that point,” Long says of the confection. “I wanted her to look both powerful and whimsical because she's flirting with the ambassadors. I went as pale as I could so it would almost look like flesh, and then we covered it with strong motifs of flowers and animals.”
If there’s anything to know about Long’s designs, it’s that they always engage an especially discerning eye, whether it’s picking up on the dainty embroidery of one dress, or the Russian-themed toile of another. Fanning wears a red and white dress in episode three of the series, and even from afar, the outfit, with its added blue ruffles, collars, and bows, is a humorous one, but it requires up-close inspection to really elicit its deserved reaction. The traditional drawings of toile de jouy were replaced with Russian, or more accurately, The Great motifs. Bears attack couples in the middle of love-making, a dog floats down on a parachute, a crocodile appears seemingly out of nowhere. Long designed the fabric alongside one of her assistants, Benjamin Thapa, without knowing where it would be put to use. When she read the script for the episode “You the People,” she knew it was the perfect moment.
But not every one of Catherine’s looks was filled with such whimsy this time around. Episode six brings with it the tragic death of a main character, which plunges the second half of the season into a darker place. In “Ice,” Catherine meets Peter on a frozen lake to duke it out once again before watching him fall to his death in the icy waters below. “I wanted Catherine’s costume for that scene to depict her closeness to Peter,” Long explains. We see the Empress in a white coat, lined with the fur of a snow leopard, a piece that mirrors the darker leopard coat often seen on Peter.
Long received the episode scripts in twos, designing pieces as she went along, never sure of what would come after. “I assumed that would be the last light point in the season, and things would get darker after,” she says. Of course, she was right, and in the episodes following Peter’s death, we see Catherine descend into a grief-fueled madness. “The fabric on her dresses are cracked and the edges are quite messy,” Long says of Catherine’s wardrobe in episodes seven and eight. “We also discussed the idea that somebody grieving a lost love would smell their clothes to try to keep them close.” In episode eight, we see Catherine, at the deepest point of her grief, covered in Peter’s furs. It’s never mentioned in the script, but the heavy nature of the fabrics, and the implications, are obvious.
All of the costumes on The Great are exaggerated depictions of period dressing, and when it comes to Peter, that exaggeration was provided by a rockstar inspiration, specifically one old photo of Cat Stevens that initially caught the eye of both Long and actor Nicholas Hoult. “There's a fantastic image of Cat where he looks beautiful and he's wearing a fur-collared, very ‘70s long jacket without a shirt and some really tight jeans,” Long recalls. “It's not quite as glittery as Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix, but that photo was the inspiration behind some of the jackets Peter wears.” Throughout the early part of the season, Peter’s wardrobe is consistent with how we’ve seen him in the past—big cuffs, large fur collars, always in very slimming silhouettes. “It’s all slightly seventies,” she says. Upon the character’s death, however, Long turned her attention to Pugachev, also portrayed by Hoult, and designed clothes that evoked a poor man’s Peter.
“Pugachev is a sort of rougher version of Peter,” she says. “He’s dirtier, grubbier, but those same slim lines are still there.” In the latter half of the season, we see Pugachev rise to power within Russia, stirring up support through impassioned rallies, invoking that same celebrity feeling Peter once conjured. “He’s like a rising rockstar really,” Long says. “He needed to have that rockstar presence on stage, but still not seem so glamorous that he overtook Peter. We kept him dirty and sleazy.” The colors were muted, the furs and animal prints replaced with less desirable options. “He's still wearing gold and fur and animal prints, but they’re bit more weaselly.”
It’s difficult to stand out among the quirky and rambunctious court in The Great, but somehow, Belinda Bromilow’s Elizabeth manages to do just that. It’s thanks to not only her witty retorts, her constant, unsolicited graphic retellings of her sexual escapades, but also her costumes. Always featuring panniers that reach out many feet on either side of her, and decorated with whimsical woodland creatures, it often seems like Long has the most fun dressing Bromilow of all the cast.
“Belinda's tall, so you can really drown her in something and she’ll still carry it,” Long says. Sometimes, that means throwing every fur in the costume department on the actress, or clothing her in a gorgeous, jacquard vests atop flowing blouses. But while the damask patterns and pussy bow tops stand out, there are plenty of hidden elements within Elizabeth’s wardrobe. “There are a lot of butterflies and moths,” Long says of the added decorations. “There's an awful lot of jewelry as well, spiders and insects all over.” Long took to Instagram to show off some of the artistic moments that might not be as noticeable on camera—beautiful pins topped with dragonflies, a crocheted frog made into a bag. “I almost wish there was an exhibition we could put the pieces in because there was some really beautiful work.”
And then, of course, there’s Paul, who doesn’t get too much screen time throughout the season, but manages to steal the show with his looks every time he appears. Long enlisted knitwear designer Liria Pristine to help produce the one-year-old’s wardrobe. We see the royal baby in a few different knitted pieces throughout the season, but it’s his bear costume that really steals the show. In the final episodes of the season, Gwilym Lee’s Grigor takes Paul out into the woods upon Catherine’s request, to keep him safe following Peter’s death. Grigor tucks Paul away in a box hanging from a tree, placing him in a little bear costume, likely to help him blend into the surroundings, but also because it’s just so darn cute.
“The idea is that Grigor has gone slightly mad and made the costumes for him and Paul,” Long says. She admits that she doesn’t exactly know where the idea for the bear hat came from. “I just wanted to do that,” she says with a laugh. “I just thought it'd be really funny if he was getting attacked by bears in this cage while wearing a bear hat.”