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How the costume designer on a TV show about slavery brought icons like Harriet Tubman to life

Harriet Tubman, Underground
WGN America
Bringing famed abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to life was both wonderful and scary for costume designer Karyn Wagner.
By Ashley Rodriguez
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are only a handful of known photographs of Harriet Tubman in existence. And even fewer of the US abolitionist during the mid-19th century, after she escaped from slavery and helped others do the same through what became known as the Underground Railroad.

That’s when Underground, a US TV show about a group of slaves who escape from a Georgia plantation, takes place. To bring Tubman to life for audiences was a challenge for costume designer Karyn Wagner.

An art historian, Wagner has gravitated toward period pieces like Underground in her career. She has styled films like The Green Mile, The Notebook, Lovelace, and TV shows like AMC’s Preacher, which is a passion project of hers. But recreating real historic figures like Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who is played by musician John Legend in the show, was daunting.

“What an honor, what a huge responsibility—and kind of scary because I am representing this person who is so important,” Wagner tells Quartz.

She studied the three or four known photographs of Tubman out there, poured over the descriptions in Tubman’s writings and letters with fellow abolitionist Douglass, and scoured the history books to learn about the fabrics and silhouettes people would have worn during that time period. “From that, you have extract who you think she was, and from that you have to extract what you think she was wearing,” she said.

During the sixth episode of Underground, which premieres in the US tonight, Tubman’s ensemble resembles her look in a portrait believed to be taken in the 1870s. The episode is entirely devoted to Tubman, who is played by actress Aisha Hind on the show.

Left: WGN America, Right: Library of Congress

In an earlier episode, Tubman’s outfit more closely resembles her dress in another photograph from the late 1860s.

WGN America

“I have quintessential images [for each character] that sort of ground me,” said Wagner. “And I let my gut navigate.”

Only a handful of the characters on the show, like Tubman and Douglass, are historical. Others are amalgams of people who lived, or fictional characters that are based in reality.

WGN America

For example, Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton), who illegally traded slaves from the early 19th century, is portrayed in the show even though she wasn’t alive during the 1850s, when it takes place. She died in 1829. In the show, she plays the daughter of a nobleman and a prostitute. She uses her mother’s wiles to work men, but also wants everyone to know that she comes from noble blood.

To get that across, a lot Cannon’s costumes were hand-tailored and made of a mix of feminine and masculine pieces. Her character might wear a feminine blouse, for example, with a masculine frock coat and pants, Wagner said.

Wagner also dressed Cannon in very bright greens. There once was a dye known as Paris green that was mixed with arsenic. At the time of the show, it was newly invented and therefore very expensive, but also poisonous. Dressing Cannon in that color suggested that she was brazen—and perhaps a little crazy.

5,000 costumes

Another character, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is working with Tubman to help fugitive slaves find freedom, disguises herself as a young, free black man in the show. She wears men’s clothing, tucks her hair under a hat, and binds her breasts so that her chest looks flat. Through her costume choices, she’s able to hide in plain sight, which is a theme of the show, Wagner said.

WGN America

Other characters might be dressed in clothes from the 1830s or 1840s that were handed down from a mistress to an enslaved person and remade—another detail Wagner learned from old photographs.

“It’s this fabulous process of picking out all these tiny little details and adjusting my costume choices based on those tiny little clues to who people were,” said Wagner. “It’s forensic costumes in a way.”

Wagner estimated that she and her team created 5,000 costumes for the first season of Underground and even more for the current second season.

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