These days, there are so few movies that use period-accurate costumes of the past eras. So, we’re trying to analyze most of them, especially those illustrating the 17th-19th centuries. And the series Penny Dreadful is one of the great examples of such films. The outfits of its lead character Vanessa Ives are truly magnificent. And also, they’re rather accurate 19th-century costumes. For you to understand how hard it can be for costume designers to work on a series like this, we’ll say that there were at least 300-400 original costumes created for this movie.
This article is based on the video from YouTube channel “Costume CO”.
Penny Dreadful is a British-American horror drama television series created for Showtime and Sky by screenwriter John Logan. He said in interviews that he had been thinking about the story and characters for more than 13 years. The series ended in June 2016 after just three seasons.
Vanessa Ives, known as the “Little Scorpion”, is the female lead in the series Penny Dreadful. She is the lovely young ward and aide to Sir Malcolm in the search for his missing daughter Mina. Mina was Vanessa Ives’ childhood friend. Vanessa Ives is played by stunning French actor Eva Green.
The costumes for the series Penny Dreadful were created by Italian costume designer Gabriella Pescucci. A selection of costumes were created by cutters and stitchers at the Torrelli Atelier in Rome, Italy. The remaining costumes were created in the 4,000 square-foot wardrobe department at Ardmore Studios in Ireland, where the series was shot six months of the year.
When asked, what percentage of costumes were custom-made, Gabriella Pescucci said this in an interview, “I cannot say the exact percentage but, where possible, I use vintage clothes. In other cases, I use pieces of authentic embroidery, lace, or buttons that I found in the London vintage market, applying them on corsets or dresses made with new fabric. I also used vintage men's jackets, waistcoats, scarves, and hats when the actor's measurements and characters would permit”.
The wardrobe team created at least 300-400 original costumes. Although it’s hard to tell the exact number because duplicate costumes had to be made because of the numerous stunts and stage blood. While a costume might take a week to fabricate, it sometimes has to be made 4 times when a character is killed.
Inspirations for Vanessa Ives’ costumes
Gabriella Pescucci has stated in interviews, “Our costume designs were inspired by French and impressionist painters of the time”.
You can see the depictions of everyday life by artist Gustave Caillebotte in this 1877 painting “Rainy Day”.
Popular French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir captures late 19th-century women's clothing in his two paintings. The first, “At the Concert”, on the left is from 1880 and the one on the right, “La Parisienne”, was completed in 1874.
Here are two additional Renoir paintings from 1883 and 1878.
Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet both captured the everyday Paris life. In Degas’s portrayal a fellow American Impressionist Mary Cassatt in 1880 and Manet’s 1877 depiction in “Skating”, seen here on the right.
As did Edouard Manet with “In the Conservatory” in 1879.
Gabriella Pescucci has also stated in interviews that she studied Gustave Doré's illustrations of 19th-century London.
There are many excellent examples of costumes from the late Victorian period that are exhibited in museums and in many private collections, for which Gabriella Pescucci was possibly inspired in creating Vanessa Ives’ costumes, such as this late-19th-century French gown.
Two significant couturiers of the late 19th century for upscale households are French designer Emile Pingat, known for his gowns and capes, and his contemporary English haute couture designer Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the Paris fashion salon The House of Worth. Both designers had their fashions worn by highbrow ladies from Europe and America. The House of Worth was dressing royalty and the famous actors of the day.
On the left, we have a silk velvet walking gown from The House of Worth from 1858. And on the right, an American silk walking suit from 1898.
Here are two examples of French gowns from the late 19th century, both on exhibit from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Both gowns were designed by Emile Pingat. This grand blue gown from 1885 is made of silk and cotton.
And this gown from 1889 is created from silk satin damask, silk plain chiffon, silk appliquéd lace, and glass beads.
And finally, here's an exquisite Italian gown from 1890 created from Texas silk, bobbin lace, silk needlepoint, and beads.
Vanessa Ives’ gowns
When describing her choice of color palette for the show's lead, Gabriella Pescucci says, “Vanessa, Eva Green’s character, is a young tormented woman who doesn't like the superfluous, which women's fashion was full of in the 1890s. At that time, black was a widely used color, and not only for mourning. The elegant physicality and the pale color of Eva's skin led me to choose dark colors for her”.
This is apparent from the beginning, when we were first introduced to Vanessa in the show's debut “Night Work”. She wears a simple tailored black jacket with simple black piping, a black A-line skirt, and an underblouse with black net and a lace jabot. Her accessories include simple drop earrings and a cap.
We get a better impression of the blouse without the jacket and see that her skirt is topped with a satin waistbelt in the Season 1 episode “What Death Can Join Together”.
Here is a close-up detail of the netting and the lace.
Here are some actual turn-of-the-century vintage lace jabots – a popular fashion item for women of the time.
Vanessa receives a visit from Nathan wearing this gorgeous black dotted silk blouse with black silver velvet ribbon, netting and, appliques. The delicate pink piping and black & pink lace add a youthful hint to an otherwise sober palette.
In this Episode 2 called “The Seance”, Vanessa's no-nonsense look shows her femininity, with this black & creme bobbin lace blouse.
She appears at ease, wearing the blouse slightly unbuttoned.
The blouse features some lovely details – velvet bows on the shoulders, jet buttons, and beaded floral appliques. The understated dotted silk skirt is finished off with a silk satin belt with embossed silver belt buckle.
In Season 1 Episode 4, Vanessa's look is more austere in solid black. Her hair is pulled back more severely, she wears no jewelry and nothing to soften her face, like the high Victorian collar or jabot as we've seen before.
The sheer lace blouse is constructed with various bits of net and lace, an offset with a pleated silk belt with a jet bead buckle and an A-line skirt, one of several black skirt sets Vanessa cycles through throughout the seasons.
Adding a shot of color to otherwise dark palette, Vanessa wears this beautiful burgundy velvet bodice, covered in black guipure appliques in Season 2 Episode “Verbis Diablo”.
The neck is filled with a delicate striped net and collar. Cuffs and belt are constructed from black silk satin.
Her A-line skirt is constructed from black silk and trimmed with black tuxedo striping.
Silk guipure was developed in the town of Le Puy, France, famous for their bobbin lace. “Guipure” is a French word used to describe lace that has gimp or thicker thread to outline the pattern and a technique that connects the motifs with bars or plaits rather than net or mesh.
On the left, are two samples of vintage Le Puy silk guipure bobbin lace, and on the right, Maltese lace. All samples are from the 19th century.
Here's an example of vintage silk Chantilly bobbin lace from around 1870 that would be used as an overlay on skirt hems.
Here are some contemporary examples of guipure lace fabric.
In this promo shot for Season 2 Episode “Verbis Diablo”, Vanessa wears this black guipure lace, cream embroidered, and bobbin lace bodice. The fitted sleeves are capped with guipure lace overlay and the bodice and sleeves are heavily decorated with clusters of jet beads, dangly beads, and velvet ribbon.
The creamy collar and cuffs are decorated with clusters of small jet beads.
In the Season 1 Episode of “Resurrection”, Vanessa wears one of her most memorable looks for the series – this stunning blouse is fabricated from black netting and completely covered with narrow silky cords or soutache.
At this time in history, the technique would have been done by sewing machine, like it is in this case, but in the past, all this work would have been done by hand.
Here's a much closer look of the detail.
Vanessa re-purposes the same skirt and pleated satin belt with jet buckle from Episode 4.
Here are two examples of some Victorian silk cord appliques. These French appliques are hand-sewn into these elaborate designs, and they were very popular at the time.
And some samples of modern guipure lace trim.
In the Season 2 Episode “Above the Vaulted Sky”, Vanessa is having tea with Victor and his creation creature Lily. She's wearing a pretty cream satin silk blouse with an embroidered silk bib and cuffs. A pretty gold & purple ribbon is softly tied at her neck.
In the left picture here, you can see the smocking or gathers at the back, and this is a technique that tapers the blouse at the waist. And on the right, we get a glimpse of Vanessa's cap constructed from assorted ribbons and trim.
Walking suits and outdoor attire
In the latter part of the Season 1 debut “Night Work”, Vanessa wears a sensible walking ensemble consisting of a black silk blouse and a box-pleated windowpane woolen skirt with narrow black velvet trim in the seams. The front panel of the skirt is cut on the bias.
This coat is constructed in a similar fashion to the majority of her coats throughout these three seasons – each is hourglass-shaped and usually is mid-length or longer. It has a center-front opening with double darts in the front and princess seams in the back. The upper sleeves are always gathered and slightly puffed, although not as large as some of the leg-o-mutton styles from the period. And it's tapered at the waist, with M-notched stand-up collar wide lapels and pointed hem.
This particular coat is constructed from a textured burgundy silk. It's fastened at the front with black silk-cord frogs and embellished with silk cord details on the cuffs and at the center waist.
Here is a sample of some Victorian frog closures on the left and a braid applique on the right that were very popular in that era.
The high-neck collar of the underblouse is trimmed in burgundy silk cord.
For the Season 2 opener “Fresh Hell”, Vanessa adds this gray silk brocade overcoat to an existing ensemble.
The coat features gathered upper sleeves that taper into a point and a stand-up M-notched collar. The large collar lapels and cuffs are faced with silk velvet and trimmed in black velvet ribbon. The coat closes at the center front with large black buttons and braid, and it's a prettier alternative option to toggles.
While the sleeves are more leg-o-mutton on this coat, this 1980s House of Doucet silk evening jacket has a similar cut to many of Vanessa's coats.
Here we find another overcoat cut in a similar way. This coat is made of velvet and has a stand-up collar, features slightly puffed and then tapered sleeves, and has similar braid & button closures. This simple and yet elegant outerwear piece is the standard silhouette for Vanessa throughout the three seasons.
In the Season 1 Episode “Demimonde”, Vanessa wears blue textured silk coat. Like all of her coats, this one has functional slant broad welt pockets.
The coat features a black fur collar with a soutache overlay and has small black buttons at the center-front closure and then smaller versions of the buttons on the cuffs.
She wears a matching black lace and silk flower cap here, too.
You can see a close-up of the soutache decoration here.
In the Season 1, Vanessa's coat lapel and cuffs are trimmed in the same style of soutache braid.
Here are two examples of soutache braiding on late-Victorian garments shown here. As you can see on both the left and the right, the decoration can take the garments from simple to exquisite.
Here are two Victorian soutache appliques. They're little forms of artwork unto themselves.
In the Season 2 finale “And They Were Enemies”, Vanessa wears this purple velvet and black silk high-neck blouse with little black buttons.
For the season finale, she adds this bluish purple brocade tapestry coat with a turn-back collar and contrasting cuffs, cut like all of her other outerwear coats.
The collar and cuffs are piped and trimmed with burgundy satin cord.
Here's a bit of a new look for Vanessa with Dr. Alexander Sweet on the Season 3 Episode “Good and Evil Braided Be”. This mid-length jacket is constructed from a silk twill fabric and it's cut with shoulder princess seams with black piping and a partially stand-up notched collar. Her hair here is softer, too, and it reflects a more contemporary look but also expressing her changing heart.
The sleeves are slightly puffed up.
She wears it here with a re-purposed black skirt that we've seen in Seasons 2 and 1.
With a softer color of coat and hairstyle, as seen here, it's clear that in the Season 3 Episode “No Beast So Fierce”, when she meets Ferdinand Lyle, that Vanessa is in love.
The coat is in stark contrast to the burgundy striped skirt. The front panel of the skirt is cut and sewn in a chevron pattern, while the side panels are cut on the straight grain, with the addition of soft ruffles near the bottom. The soft rose-colored antique satin double-breasted coat is lined in burgundy and offset by the burgundy cord trim on the collar and cuffs.