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‘Dynasty’ Costume Designer Talks Styling the One-Percent on a Budget

The relationship between costume designers and actors is an intimate one, veteran designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack, currently working on the CW’s “Dynasty,” knows. While the designer has a clear vision for a character’s look, he or she must also take into consideration actors’ needs so they are comfortable. For “Dynasty,” Markworth-Pollack often faces the challenge of making couture statement pieces extremely functional in order to withstand catfights.

What was your inspiration for getting into the world of costume design?

I was studying film at UCSB and we watched [Robert Altman’s] “Nashville” — I think it was a ’70s cinema class — and I don’t know why but it was like the first time I was really paying attention to everyone’s wardrobe. And it was something that we addressed about the film, and I just remember thinking, “Oh wait, somebody dressed every single character.” And it was such a huge cast [with] all of these background moments. And it was the first time it clicked, but I come from a family [where] my mother’s an interior designer [and] my grandmother was a fashion designer, so I had this love of fashion and the arts and film, and I really decided in that moment I wanted to pursue costume design.

Since that was a period film class, did working on period projects become a specific goal right away?

The first film I ever worked on — I started as the intern and worked my way up to PA — it was a period film called “The Notorious Bettie Page.” So I got a little taste of that right away, and it can be a little bit intimidating in the beginning, but then I realized you really just do your homework — your research. Any costume designer can do it — it’s not just like a historian has to do it — you just have to know what you’re doing.

Is there an added challenge to all of that research — and to the fact that you can’t just pull pieces from the mall or online retailers?

In a lot of ways I think period is easier. “Reign” was a little bit of an exception because we took liberties. But most of the time it is what it is, and you have all of the history and the research to back that up. And with contemporary, it’s almost like the doors are always open, and it’s open to interpretation. You have actors’ opinions, you have producers’ opinions, directors, writers — and not to say that they don’t have input on period, but so much of the time with period, this is what they wore and you have research to back it up. For “Reign,” it was a huge build show, and we made everything — which is just a completely different way of approaching a project, rather than shopping for everything, like on “Dynasty.” You’re thinking about importing fabrics and embroidery and all of the specialty fabrics that go into it and how many people you have in the shop and how many multiples you need. For a contemporary show you still face those challenges where “Oh my gosh this person gets shot, I need five dresses,” but you can go online and have it at your doorstep the next day.

What balance were you looking to strike between style informed by the 1980s version of “Dynasty” and modern looks?

I’d say it was probably about 50-50 — because there’s the sentimental side of it, not only for the people involved in creating the show but also for the viewers and the fans we knew would tune it. Obviously it was such an epic show for costumes, and it put that look of the ’80s onto the map, put designer Nolan Miller onto the map, put the stars on the map. So we had to acknowledge that and pay respect to it, but we did not want to recreate it any way. And because it was CW, we also knew 90% of the audience probably would have no idea of what the original “Dynasty'” was — which turned out to be completely true — so we had to make sure it stood alone and felt fresh and modern.

The Carrington family is the 1%. What’s the most important aspect of representing that on a CW budget?

What’s interesting is on the original the designer Nolan Miller made pretty much everything, and that style of designing for contemporary doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know anyone who’s able to pull that off, except on a period show or a specialty show. But I read he had about $30,000 an episode in his budget, and I literally went to Google and went “What is $30,000 today?” That wasn’t necessarily how I set my budget, but it was a concern, and I went to the producers right away and I was like, “This is not your typical CW budget show. I’m going to need money.” They saw that right away, and they’ve been really good, but you’re always going to be on a budget, so you have to be really creative. I’m always looking for a good deal. I’m at Barney’s but I’m also at the Barney’s outlet. Especially in Atlanta, where we shoot, I’m in the consignment stores a lot looking for handbags, looking for nice quality pieces. And then you really divide where you spend the money. Obviously the money’s going to be spent a lot on Fallon, Cristal, Alexis, Blake, Jeff Colby.

That’s pretty much everybody, and it doesn’t even account for the big events like weddings or the catfights!

That, too, you just get really creative. There are a lot of conversations with the actors and the producers and the directors about what’s possible, what’s not possible. They understand, too, that women are going to get the majority of the budget — because gowns are expensive. I know we’re all used to walking into Zara and The Gap, but once you go to that next level or three levels above that, everything is very expensive. [But] we also do have designers who do send us pieces. I don’t think it’s as lucrative as it was 10 or 15 years ago on “Sex and the City” or things like that — times have changed — but it does work, and people do respond to that, so that helps a lot, too.

What do you have to consider with clothes they wear for catfight scenes, so they can actually move the way they need to?

For the catfights — we had a huge one in the finale, and we had five of each gown. A little trick of the trade is you go up a size and then you take it in in places where they don’t need as much movement. I work with the stunt coordinator, too, to find out where exactly they need to move. But sometimes there’s the humor in them not being able to move and you want that.

How did you settle on the color palettes and styles for the individual characters?

What I loved from the original that Nolan Miller set up was the world, specifically, of Krystle Carrington. It wasn’t only the palette but the fabrics, too. It was cream and champagne and blush and camel, and it was mohair coats and cashmere sweaters and silk pants. I just loved how light and fresh that was, and specifically for Nathalie Kelley, who plays Cristal in our version, she’s Peruvian-Australian, and she has this beautiful, exotic look to her, and I knew those colors would really suit her well. And then for Fallon — Nolan Miller kind of established on the original and I kind of took it with us — gem tones and bolder prints, stronger colors, even more structured silhouettes, and also a little bit more playfulness. And then Alexis is just the wild card, and she’s just out to make a statement, and you never know what she’s going to show up in. She could be in the white power suit one day and ripped jeans the next.

Alexis came in well after the season had already started. How did that expand your design world?

We knew she was coming, so we could kind of plan a little. We knew she was severe and strong, so I did save a little space in my head for her and a space in the aesthetic, which was kind of just really strong, structured looks that are constantly pushing the envelope. And then when we found out it was Nicollette [Sheridan], [it was about] embracing who she is and who she wanted to bring to the table as Alexis, finding something we felt was original but also honoring our visions. She’s very different from the Alexis of the original, and I’d say that’s kind of the furthest we’ve gone away from what Nolan established. But I think that’s really a good thing because I think Joan Collins is so iconic from the show that if Nicollette came in in these ’40s silhouettes with matching furs and matching embellished blazers, it would feel too from that period and not fresh enough.

What did season 1 teach you that you want to incorporate in season 2?

I really like building costumes, specifically for women — dresses and stuff — and there were a few moments I got to do that in season 1, but it’s something I would like to explore more of. It’s using a different side of your brain, in a way. And I think there’s a lot of room now that Nicollette is becoming a series regular and will be sticking around to really play with her and push the envelope even more. But more than anything it will be about where these characters are going and how their hurdles or battles will affect their wardrobe. There’s never a dull moment!

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