Oscar-nominated costume designer Sharen Davis comes from a world of period dramas, having shaped the look of musical icons both real and fictional, including Ray Charles and the Dreamgirls. But Davis has made her mark on prestige TV dramas as well, starting with Westworld season two before moving into limited series territory for Watchmen. When Davis signed on to HBO’s adaptation/sequel to Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, showrunner Damon Lindelof gave the Costume Designer Guild Award winner some inspiration for this reimagining of a world of masked vigilantes. But Davis also had to draw from one of the most horrific chapters in U.S. history to create the backdrop for Lindelof’s exploration of state violence, inherited trauma, and erasure.
Watchmen has garnered many accolades for its superior performances, writing, and directing, including 26 Emmy nominations. Among them is a nod to Davis’ costuming design, which proved just as significant to establishing a world swirling in shades of gray. The A.V. Club spoke to Davis about the massive production that was the show’s pilot, leaving clues for viewers in everything from masks to hoodies, and how she’s embraced science fiction and superhero dramas.
The A.V Club: On a show like Watchmen, with its masked vigilantes, the costuming sets the tone as much as the writing, the directing, or even the acting. What kind of foundation were you working with when you got started, aside from your own research?
Sharen Davis: Well, there are so many elements here in this first episode. There’s the black and white silent film [playing in the Dreamland Theater, where the episode opens]. Then there was the actual massacre event that happened in Tulsa in 1921. Then there was the ultimate reality of 2019. Finally, there was the DIY kind of costuming for the police officers. So, I wanted to make sure each of these situations and roles had their own color palette so that they wouldn’t blend with each other. Because together, they really are jarring. I didn’t have to worry about trying to make it flow, because each of these are different stories. The 2019 scenes had definitely a more brilliant color palette, using a lot of yellows and reds, while 1920s Tulsa was more sepia, with earth tones and soft pastels.
AVC: The opening scene alone in “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out Of Ice” is really a massive undertaking. There’s so many characters, it’s basically like doing a feature film. But then there was Tulsa’s reputation as the Black Wall Street: You had to evoke a sense of prosperity as the town was being destroyed by white looters. How did you know where to even begin?
SD: I always start with women’s fashion, because that will set the tone for what someone’s financial status is. So, usually if you’re doing 1920s [scenes], you would do 1915 [fashion]. The clothes would be a little dated, but for this, I decided to almost hit it on the nose because these women actually had money. So, I wanted to make sure that they looked stylish. It was a very prosperous town. So, we rented the majority of them, but we had to make almost half of the dresses. They had to be in multiples for the stunts that were going to happen in the scenes. The men had three-piece suits, very nice suits. They were very put together. Hats. I tried to accessorize them heavy though. It was very hard as they were running. You don’t really get to see Tulsa for long as the Black Wall Street—you mostly see the massacre taking place, but we had prepared just in case we were going to do that.
AVC: We don’t get to see the town before the attack, but you do get the sense of how vibrant that community was. They even had their own fire department.
SD: Right—at the time that was one of the only towns in Oklahoma that actually had automobiles. The white towns didn’t have any. I mean, I think there was one white car in this white community, and the only one who could fix them was a black man in that community. They had a very successful chocolate company that was there. They were really progressive and amazing, and it just caused so much anger in the surrounding communities.
AVC: You also helped establish how all of the masked heroes and villains were going to look. Sister Night’s is probably the most memorable look; is that where you started?
SD: Yes, and it was quite an undertaking. I had to really meditate. I had a wonderful concept artist with me, but they gave me the time, and I took at least two weeks on creating this costume. The only note I got from the producers and directors was, “We’re thinking of a catsuit,” and I thought, “Okay, you can guys can keep thinking that way.” [Laughs.] So, I thought, “Sister Night. Well.” Her background was she was raised in an orphanage with nuns. I thought, “I’ve got to put a little of that in there, from that aspect, but I really wanted to be body-fitted.” I didn’t want a cape, so I made the flowing skirt the thing that operates like a cape. I didn’t want it to be all black, so I put the white turtleneck underneath. It had to be almost to her waist to break up the black and give some dimension to the costume.
AVC: Regina King is such an incredible actress that it just kind of feels like the next step in her evolution to become a superhero. How did it feel when you saw her in her Sister Night outfit, fully made up with the airbrushed mask and all of it?
SD: Well, we actually started with a whole different mask. That look came about in the midnight hour, but I was so happy. I mean, we just kept playing and playing with masks. Then I just said, “Why don’t we just spray-paint her eyes?” I thought, what would make sense for her if it’s a DIY costume? And I said, “I think she just sprays her eyes. Then she pulls up a silky mask, the hood covers up the rest, and there we go. It just came about. I think it was the day before we were shooting. We had all these masks that looked too Catwoman. They looked too good, too superhero-ish. But I knew she had to have something she could do herself, like there’s no magic involved in this costume. It’s something she had in her closet and puts on. It was so thrilling to see the dailies of [King] like that. She was just so formidable.
AVC: You mentioned the DIY kind of aesthetic to some of these, or rather that some of these costumes are more DIY than others, but there’s also kind of a playfulness too. Some characters have very dramatic costumes. But then you look at somebody like Paperwork Panda, who’s on the force and has that beat-up old Panda head. Was that your idea?
SD: [Laughs] It was actually Damon Lindelof’s, and it made sense. He said the character had to wear a mask, but the backstory was that he just happened to be walking near a school, and there was an old Panda head in the trash or whatever. He just picks it up. That’s what a lot of this is, like Red Scare. He’s got a running suit on. He just want to be comfortable. He puts on a red running suit says, “Okay, I’m good. Am I good? No one’s going to notice me when I’m not in this costume.” [Laughs] Then of course you have Looking Glass. His mask was highly functional for him. His clothes are completely normal, but that mask, that reflective mask seems to capture someone’s personality and thoughts. So, that one is a little more intense.
AVC: There are so many subtle ways that you nod to the graphic novel. You have the bright yellow of the policemen’s masks.
SD: Oh, you got it. Yeah. The smiley face. Yeah.
AVC: You created an even more homemade version of the Rorschach mask for the cult in the show, but Looking Glass’ mask is also similar to it. They both kind of shift and change whenever the person breathes and talks. There was a similar effect in the movie. It’s just such a great little homage to the predecessors.
SD: Oh, exactly. It’s the 10.0 version. Even his character is somewhat torn like Rorschach was from the rest of the group.
AVC: You ended up only working on the pilot, but you did so much important work that helped build this world. When you look at the show as a whole, do you see your costumes as being in conversation with Meghan Kasperlik’s work in later episodes?
SD: It’s so amazing. It’s almost like Sister Night and Looking Glass’ looks kind of stayed in shape, but a lot of the other ones fade out a little bit. For Ozymandias, that’s his old costume. But I did concept art before I left the show, so Lady Trieu works off the concept I left. Most of them were done in the pilot; we did the spacesuit. We did a few. I was asked to stay on a little longer and design those looks. So I would say yeah, it does. Sometimes I can see some changes, but then I see how the second episode kind of went sci-fi with the clothes. Then it kind of went back to normal. I mean, the reason I kept it more grounded is because when you go into science fiction, the race problems also tend to disappear, like on Star Trek. I had to keep the everyday clothes grounded so that the show reflected the reality that the people watching it are living. Everything in my world has a ’70s twist, but I don’t think it stayed there. I think it went to another place, like I saw Regina kind of dressed up, and then I saw her go back into a blue jeans. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, but I did love what [Meghan Kasperlik] did with Lady Trieu and some of the other characters. It was great.
AVC: Well, I have to ask you since you mentioned doing some kind of mock-ups or conceptualizing some of the other costumes. What about Lube Man, the guy that slides into the sewer? Did you consult on that look at all?
SD: Okay, you know what? [Laughs] He wasn’t a concept when I was doing that part. He was not a concept. I did not know about him. I knew about all the traditional characters that came back, of course, like Jean Smart’s character, Laurie Blake.
AVC: Did you know about Will Reeves’ backstory when you first designed the look for the character as he is in 2019, played by Louis Gossett Jr.?
SD: Yeah, I did. I wanted him to look just like he was confused about what he should ever wear with anything because he’s lived so long. Also, I always had a hint of his true colors on him somewhere.
AVC: There are so many great clues in his wardrobe! The older Will also wears blue and red, and he has a hoodie. When you rewatch it, you just kind of slap your forehead like, “Oh god. It was staring us in the face.” How much fun was it for you to drop those hints through his clothes?
SD: Oh my gosh, it was so fun. I was like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe he’s Hooded Justice. He’s so great.” When you put together that the little boy from the beginning was Hooded Justice… Our showrunner Damon runs a lot. You wonder, how did he arc some of these characters to the bitter end? It was so impressive to me. I did not know about Cal and Dr. Manhattan at the time. But Damon knew, and he said to me, “I need [Cal] to fade away, like he barely has a personality.” He goes, “He’ll be rebilled later.” I said, “Oh my god, who could he be?” That part was amazing.
AVC: How do you even make someone who looks like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II fade into the background?
SD: [Laughs] Well, he was playing the role of Dad. He’s just a dad, just grays and tans. When there’s a party, you put him in a Hawaiian shirt. He played it so well from the beginning to when he’s revealed to be Dr. Manhattan. I think Yahya always knew who he was.
AVC: With the stage performance of Oklahoma, there’s also kind of a production within the production. Did you work on those costumes as well?
SD: Yes. It was supposed to be a 2019 version, but with the history twisted. So, there was rodeo wear mixed with traditional pioneer wear that kind of pumped it up a little bit. Then of course we used modern-day hair to set off the whole thing. We made it all. We made all the women’s dresses and some of the men’s shirts. We were busy, but that was really fun.
AVC: You also had to create some pieces that had more sentimental value. There’s the Army jacket that Will’s father, O.B. Williams, wears. You mentioned that when you watch the progression of some of the costumes that you conceived of they become more worn in. That jacket also becomes more worn as the show goes on, and it ends up being as emblematic really as anything else that anyone else wears.
SD: Exactly, and it is like it is actually a costume in itself. You know what I’m saying? It’s definitely like it might as well be Sister Night. [Sighs] I really wish I would have stayed on it to do the whole series. I had a prior commitment to a film, though, so I had to go.
AVC: When a show has this much mystery, you’re playing everything very close to the vest. Did it feel that way when you were working on the pilot, or did you feel free to let your imagination run wild without worrying about keeping secrets?
SD: I did have to worry about keeping secrets. If I had done the whole show I don’t think I would have, but since I didn’t know who was taking it over, I had to play things much smaller than I wanted to because I didn’t know what was going to come next. Plus after they reviewed the pilot, I didn’t know which way it was going to go anyway. So, I just thought that “I’ll just keep everything small.” I mean, I’m not going to make any big statements that would be totally gone when the next episode shows. I wanted it all to bloom.
AVC: Do you typically find yourself setting wheels into motion like this on a TV show before moving onto something else, or do you prefer to kind of see things through as much as possible?
SD: I like to see things through as much as possible. I’m a really good starter. I have no fear to jump in. I like to get things illustrated and shown to director or the showrunner right away as opposed to being insecure or unsure. I need to know if they’re inspired. With Watchmen, the character I started with was Sister Night, and everyone else was going to be developed from her and Regina had not even been hired when I designed the costume.
AVC: Oh, really?
SD: No, she didn’t get hired until the very end.
AVC: It’s so hard to imagine anybody else in that role, let alone in that outfit.
SD: I know. Isn’t that true? I mean, It was like she walked in and I went, “Oh my god. I guess I made it for her.” We had worked before on Ray, and I really love her. But she came in and said, “This is the best. It’s Regina.” It was so wonderful. That worked out quite well.
AVC: Watchmen tells such an important story and one that feels so timely, not least of which is because it doesn’t pretend that making art means staying out of politics. Do you feel like people are engaging with politics a bit more through their art?
SD: I do. I mean, I left Watchmen to go do Project Power for Netflix, and even though that is a more lightweight film, it still had moments. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but it does have some racial commentary. I did like that about it, too. At this point in my career, I challenge myself to jump into shows that I’m not usually known for. That’s science fiction and action. My wheelhouse is period shows. I’ve been enjoying sci-fi, because it deals more with reality. I mean, this man, this showrunner [Damon Lindelof] opened an unknown or untaught piece of history and dared to make it part of a hero-type TV show. I was floored when I read it. And I feel that science fiction is probably the safest place to do it in, to engage a path like that.
AVC: And it allows for commentary because it affords some distance. People will look at these stories and go, “Oh, well, this isn’t us.” It’s the same distance that period pieces create. Viewers think, “Well, that was in the past.” But the truth is, this is us; this history is ours, or that of this country.
SD: Exactly, and this is actually even safer, because you have a woman running around with a strange outfit on and a guy with a red running suit. When it came out people were really shocked. People called me and went, “My gosh, why was that beginning scene so violent? I don’t understand.” I said, “Because it was based in reality. This really happened.” There was no way to sugarcoat that, this massacre. It made people look up “Black Wall Street” and “Tulsa massacre.” It was amazing to shine a light on that chapter of history along with the Black Lives Matters movement. But I also think Sister Night offered a way in for people who couldn’t face that yet. It was interesting to put three different very strong suggestions in one pilot and see where people gravitate to.