Modern TV crime serial “The Alienist” is interesting from the point of view of its stage costumes. The outfits of this movie’s characters are made as historically accurate to the 1870s-90s American Gilded Age, as possible. Let’s take a closer look at these clothing articles and analyze The Alienist’s costume designers’ work. Also, we’ll compare separate garments with their real-life analogs and share some funny stories connected to the TV show’s costumes.
This material is based on the video from YouTube channel “Costume CO”.
“The Alienist” takes place in 1896 in New York City, which was in the midst of the Gilded Age, a period of time in the United States that dates between the 1870s to the turn-of-the-century. This period of time coincides with the Victorian era in England. The name “Gilded Age” points out that this is the era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding.
Costume designer Michael Kaplan told Gold Derby, “I always loved the contrast between the various levels of the society, the Victorian society and the seamy underbelly and the tenements, the Italian tenements, the Irish tenements, the Jewish tenements, just the melting pot that was New York at the time”.
Michael Kaplan said of The Alienist’s historical accuracy, “We did not want it to be stylized like a lot of other projects of the same period that are kind of winking at you with contemporary elements mixed in, the Victorian-era British series Peaky Blinders being one. [Director] Jakeb [Verbruggen] said it's only going to work if we do it true to the period, so we did”.
Michael Kaplan also said, “Mara [LePere-Schloop], the production designer gave us all such an amazing background for the actors to perform and for my costumes and we tried to base it in reality as opposed to doing something very stylized, which seems to be the trend right now with a lot of period movies of around the turn of the century”.
“The Alienist” protagonist is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist or alienist, called upon by his former Harvard classmate Theodore Roosevelt to try to get into the psychology behind grizzly child murders. Kreizler has much in common with the fictional Sherlock Holmes, with his powers of observation.
Of The Alienist protagonist’s look, Michael Kaplan said, “Kreizler was a young man, but I kind of wanted him to feel a certain kind of maturity and wisdom”.
And then assistant costume designer Rudolph Mance adds, “For Kreizler's look, we wanted to keep him very serious, studious”.
So this old-fashioned look is achieved by dressing Kreizler in double-breasted frock coats with peaked lapels, which had become more reserved for more formal occasions and less fashionable as daytime attire worn by young men in the late 1800s.
Here are Michael Kaplan’s sketches for Dr. Laszlo Kreizler's looks: a daytime jacket look, a frock coat ensemble, and a white tie and tails ensemble.
And Kaplan said, “What I do, generally, is after reading a script and getting a feeling for each character, I assign each character a color palette. It's not that heavy-handed, but just so that they are each defined and easy to recognize”.
“Dr. Kreizler”, Kaplan states, “his palette was blacks and dark greens, and he's a little more old-world. I wanted him to have a European feeling in his clothes more than Moore's. It's all about defining the character with color and texture and different motifs and the different types of cravats they wear”.
Michael Kaplan also had to keep New York weather in mind, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “This story spans three seasons, it starts in winter, goes to spring and there are even some summer clothes”.
Michael Kaplan adds, “There are a lot of coats; the one you're referring to [in the interview] is a wool coat with a big Persian lamb collar. I was conscious of not going to furriers to get fur. A lot of times on projects, mostly Star Wars, I would use faux fur, but it does photograph differently, so I went to thrift shops in Budapest for old fur coats, which we dyed and cut apart so we weren't going to furriers and buying new fur. I was cognizant I shouldn't be using fur at all”.
Costume designer Daniel Bruhl said of his character’s costume, “The clothes make you walk and move differently. You have your pocket watch, your cane, all these things help you and understanding the time and understanding your character”.
Gentlemen and ladies would always wear a hat of some kind, like this bowler that we see here on Kreizler.
Here's Kreizler's frock suit on display, a special exhibition by Pentagram of artifacts from the series. The double-breasted frock coat, like the one seen here, was sometimes called the “Prince Albert”, named after Queen Victoria's consort.
Here's an example of a men's 1897 frock coat, waistcoat, and trousers from the Philadelphia Museum of Art made by Philadelphia tailors Mattson & Dilkes. The coat and vest are made from black wool flannel, while the trousers are gray & white striped wool twill. Unlike our modern-day suits, coats rarely matched the trousers or waistcoats. Like a capsule wardrobe, pieces could be mixed and matched.
Here's a close-up of Kreizler's footwear, a brogue boot of sorts. His shoes and pant legs are muddy to reflect the filth of New York streets.
And then here's Kreizler dressed in his formal attire. The standard pieces of this suit include black tails and button-fly trousers with a satin stripe down the outside leg, white or cream waistcoat and white bow-tie, and a white shirt with a starched bib collar and cuffs.
This example of a men's 1900 starched linen collar is from The Museum at Fit. Collars like this, would be attached at the back of the shirt with a button and then were closed at the front buttonhole with a stud like we see here.
According to Fit, detachable collars such as these, were an important element of fashionable menswear during the early years of the 20th century. The detachable collar was invented in Troy, New York as a solution to the endless laundering required of collars and cuffs in order to achieve the flawless requirement of fashionable gentlemen. And makers of this collar, the Arrow Shirt Company, became the largest collar, cuff, and shirt factory in the world.
Here's a collection of a variety of styles of Arrow collars.
So typically, turndown collars were worn for daytime, while stand-up and wing collars would have been worn with formal wear like we see here.
In Caleb Carr’s fictional telling of “The Alienist” in both the novel and the series, he includes two key figures amongst others in the story. So we have Theodore Roosevelt, then the newly-appointed commissioner of the NYPD, and J.P. Morgan, a financier and banker.
In reality, Theodore Roosevelt was an American Statesman and writer who served as the 26th President of the United States, while J.P. Morgan Sr. was an American who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation in the States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Michael Kaplan had no trouble determining how to dress the historical figures in “The Alienist”, saying, “There are a lot of real-life characters in the series, like J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and a lot of the famous gangsters, so it's very easy to research them… with research today with the internet, it was easy to kind of look them up and see how they presented themselves, how they dressed in those days”.
Michael Kaplan, who has worked most recently with director J.J. Abrams on the sci-fi giants like the new “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises, stated, “It was quite a nice change for me to get back into costume houses and to be doing research and going to research libraries and I enjoyed that very much. I enjoyed that process”.
Here Teddy is wearing pince-nez (meaning “to pinch the nose”), which was a style of corrective lenses that Roosevelt was known to wear.
Here are a few examples of suits from this era, captured in these cabinet card photos. This Brooklyn, New York gentleman, pictured on the left, from the 1890s is wearing a three-piece sack suit, and on the right, is a close-up of a shirt collar, vest, and jacket.
Roosevelt and Kreizler are the same age but there is a large contrast between the two. Roosevelt often wears three-piece sack suits in a variety of tweeds and twills. Sack suits had been in fashion for some time but it was the Brooks Brothers, America's oldest men's clothing, that introduced the uniquely Ivy League sack suit in 1895. Teddy Roosevelt was a frequent customer of their clothes.
Here's a picture of Teddy Roosevelt from 1897 – just a year after the year this series is set in – and it's likely that the design team, perhaps with Brooks Brothers help, determined the fabrics and shape of his suits during the late 19th century.
A fun fact is that Roosevelt commissioned Brooks Brothers to create this dress uniform for the Spanish-American war. And on the right, is Robin Williams as the come-to-life statue Teddy Roosevelt from the movie “A Night at the Museum”.
Here's one of gorgeous suits of Roosevelt. This chocolate-brown, double-breasted, widely-spaced pinstripe suit.
Michael Ironside portrays J.P. Morgan, who was known for his W.C. Fields type nose. “Morgan didn't just have a bulbous nose; it was also purpl-ish/red because of a skin condition he suffered from as a child known as rosacea”.
J.P. Morgan was so subconscious of his condition that he “… was known to violently lash out at anyone who attempted to take his photo without his permission”.
Being an older gentleman, J.P. dresses more traditionally – in muted grays and blacks.
And in this picture, you see that, like Roosevelt, Morgan wore pince-nez glasses worn around his neck on a chain.
Here's a few pictures of Morgan with the glasses. We don't have dating on this picture but it's likely the early 1900s. And in both pictures, he's wearing a high-buttoned waistcoat, a pocket watch, shirt with a wing collar, and a cravat with a frock coat.
Here are Morgan in the show, wearing a close facsimile of the clothes from Morgan's real-life portraits.
John Moore is a New York Times cartoonist and illustrator, as well as a society man who attended Harvard with Dr. Kreizler and Roosevelt. Moore is the ideal psychic for Kreizler, although there are times when their relationship is adversarial.
Of John Moore, Michael Kaplan said, “The crime reporter, Moore, is a bit of a dandy and bon vivant [meaning one who lives well]. He has these brocade vests, stylized hats and his color palette has different shades of gray and blue”.
Actor Luke Evans says of his character, “John Moore is a privileged man and he's had quite a privileged life. He likes to have the entitle experience of, you know, going to the theater, drinking in nice bars”.
Here, Moore is wearing a striped cutaway coat which is a semi-formal daytime garment for gentlemen. It's similar to the frock with a waist seam and attached skirt, sitting close to the body but the skirt cuts away from the body instead of dropping straight down at the front. And he's wearing matching pants, although these clothes could be interchangeable with other pieces.
In this image, you can see that the color of the jacket is bound.
Here is Moore without a jacket. His waistcoats are made from a variety of brocades or silks both single and double-breasted, with shawl and notched collars. Moore often has a fob, which is a small ornament attached to a watch chain hanging from the pocket of his waistcoat.
And unlike his co-stars who were a little less fussy about their costumes, Michael Kaplan states that “Luke Evans’ fittings would go on for hours. He loved the clothes, I wanted to take the mirror out of the fitting room! He'd say, ‘Don't rush me, I'm admiring myself. Can I put on that coat again?’”
Here are Michael Kaplan's costume designs for John Moore in casual, semi-formal, and formal wear.
Kaplan said, “What I usually do with characters is create a color palette around them so that they can kind of live in that world and also do costumes that are designed appropriately. All of their clothes were made for them… we did make all the principal's clothes in Budapest [where the show was shot] and worked within their color palettes as I was saying”.
Moore wears an assortment of woven silk cravats and neckties, always fastened into place with a pin.
In this picture, Moore is wearing a “homburg”, which is a stiff, semi-formal felt hat with a center dent in the crown (called a “gutter crown”). The homburg is named after a town in Germany.
Edward VII, the Prince of Wales, popularized the homburg, pictured here in 1890.
In this picture, Moore wears a slightly more casual three-piece houndstooth sack suit.
Here's a close-up look at Moore's boots with a built-in spat upper, and, like Kreizler, showing some caked mud on the soles.
Pictured here, is Moore and company, wearing white tie and tails. And by the way, 19th-century coats in tails have a separate cuff detail – something that you won't see in modern jackets.
And no formal attire would be complete without a fringed opera scarf, white gloves, and black topper.
This Brooks Brothers’ black beaver topper with silk grosgrain ribbon dates circa 1890.
According to the museum at Fit, “Top hats were worn throughout the day during the 19th century, by the 1890s they were more often associated with formal attire. The top hat became fashionable during the closing years of the 18th century and remained an essential element of fashionable dress for men into the early years of the 20th century”.
Here's what this shirt looks like underneath the coat, with a collar removed. Although, you can see the stud has been left in the front.
According to Brooks Brothers, part of the attraction of the detachable collar was the versatility it offered.
And the bib in the front is usually starched and stiff and matches the single cuffs that are fastened with cufflinks through buttonholes. But double cuffs and French cuffs were also popular.
Finally, in 1900, Brooks Brothers introduced the button-down collar Oxford, a classic shirt style that endures to this day.