INTERVIEW: Costume Designer Justine Seymour Talks Netflix’s UNORTHODOX

Photo Credit: Katerina Stratos

Hi Justine, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thank you for having me, it is wonderful to be chatting with you about this exciting project Unorthodox.

After having worked on two other previous shows (Messiah and Medal of Honor) with Netflix, and now the highly successful Unorthodox Did your previous projects working with the streaming provider help you land the gig or how did you come into the project?

Messiah was Netflix International and Unorthodox is Netflix Europe, so they did not overlap. My daughter, Marlene Melchior (who was also involved, she wrote and directed the “Making Unorthodox” behind the scenes featurette) was meeting with Anna Winger and mentioned I was a costume designer. One thing led to another and I got an interview with Henning Kamm and director Maria Schrader and won the job. I really have my daughter to thank for the initial introduction.

Unorthodox touches on some hot topic subjects – What themes does the series display that enticed you into being a part of this project? Did you have any second thoughts on jumping into a project with a rather sensitive subject matter?

I was intrigued by this wonderful adventure of a young woman who had the courage to step outside her world and follow a dream of her own, to find the voice she felt was not heard in the community she grew up in. Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski were cautious to respect the Satmar community’s traditions and beliefs. We wanted to celebrate the beauty of the traditions through the language, clothing, dance, music and ultimately Esty’s song. I was not worried about telling the story of an outsider; that feeling is not unique to this religious group. It is a universal story. Ours just happened to be Deborah Feldman’s story. I rejoiced in recreating the wardrobe and dressing customs that Deborah grew up with.

Hasidic Judaism adheres to a specific fashion style (or dress code) – Did the specificity of the wardrobe make your job more or less challenging?

For the Satmar Hasidic dynasty the dress code is modest clothing. Meaning it is designed not to be distracting in any way, the neckline is from collar bones to wrist, to five inches below the knee. The strict guidelines were fun to play with, I aimed to celebrate the individual characters while showing each personality, all under the same dress code, I really enjoyed finding the details that made this show look authentic and strangely beautiful.

Courtesy of Netflix

Did you take any creative liberties when it came to the wardrobe?

I did use a bit more color for the women than my original research dictated. I also used a muted color palette for the Williamsburg scenes, not only to create a visual distance between Williamsburg and Berlin but also to find old Europe, particularly in Bubby’s house. Bubby grieves for her lost family and times gone by. She still suffers the trauma of her childhood, so it felt right to pull back the color palette for her.

The other liberty I took was with the wedding headdresses. After Esty was married she wore a wig. Strictly speaking, she would not have worn the elaborate final turban look at the wedding. I had seen this in some of my research and thought it was beautiful. With Anna Winger’s approval, she allowed me to make the most sumptuous wedding attire I could which gave me the freedom to have a total of three headdresses during the wedding scenes.

While researching the customs and community of Hasidic Judaism, did you get to meet with members or get close to the community in Williamsburg, NY? Or research indirectly?

My research was extensive, I read books, watched movies, TV productions, and documentaries and spent two weeks in Williamsburg and Borough Park NY, taking photos, going to shops and restaurants – observing street life and the individual ways in which the local women adhered to the dress codes. Being quite a closed community, talking with the locals was a bit challenging. However, I did manage to ask a lady on the street how she got her headscarf to have such a firm structure. She explained that they have a foam base, made to measure individually and they use the base under the scarf. I, of course, could not do this for my 50 women in the wedding scene, so I bought 50 thick wool hats (beanies) and used them as the structure for the head scarfs, usually worn with a Shpitzel (The small hairpiece that sticks out the front to look like a fringe. It may actually be silk or lace, or synthetic fibers, to avoid too closely resembling real hair). We could only afford a few of Shpitzels, which I kept for the character of Miriam.

Our advisor, Eli Rosen, grew up in the Satmar community, leaving that world behehind somenyears before he became our advisor. He also played our Rabbi. He was my visual guide throughout the design and filming process, double-checking that I was being as authentic as possible. He has a wealth of information and his willingness to explain the smallest of details was never too much trouble. He was amazing.

For the Shtreimel, you chose to use faux fur – What led you in this direction/decision? Was it monetary or did it have to do with your own beliefs/preference?

The Shtreimel is a beautifully made hat using the skins of 6 Minks in each object. My original idea was to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to be respectful to the community, but once I started to look into actually purchasing the hats, I soon realized I needed to think outside the box for this piece of headwear. Eli Rosen and I went into one of the main Shtreimel shops in Borough Park, where we were flatly rejected and asked to leave.

Next, I looked into renting them but I could find only a few threadbare, out of shape and old fashioned Shtreimels (yes these hats have a fashion) in London. Being a vegetarian myself, I was happy when the director Maria Shrader and the showrunner Anna Winger both agreed that I could build the hats from faux fur. Shrader introduced me to a studio workshop in the Hamburg Theatre, where they agreed to make 45 of the hats under my direction as to the shape, height, and crown pattern. Once we found a fur that best resembles Mink, we went ahead and had them built. The final touch was spraying a heavy lacquer hairspray and molding each piece into shape, creating the crown-like peaks at the top. It was a journey to find the perfect solution. I am so happy we did not contribute to the fur industry and I think they actually look great!

With a show dealing with such a conservative group of people, “normal clothing,” meaning shirts and jeans and swimsuits, play a major role, more than usual – Did you take that perception when coming up with the selection and designing?

Dressing the Satmar community was fun and a challenging process. I did not use any “normal clothing” at all. All the men’s clothing was purchased while I was in Williamsburg from G&G Dry Goods and the women’s clothing I bought from a variety of clothing shops (mainly thrift shops) in Berlin. Then, of course, I actually built all the house dresses for Bubby, Malka, and Esty.

With the Berlin part of our story, I had the freedom to play with the youth of the music school and used a combination of vintage and new clothes, for the huge nightclub scene, I scoured the amazing secondhand clothing markets of Berlin every Sunday afternoon. There, I selected wonderful treasures to create a visual cacophony of character and fun —with all the diversity that Berlin is famous for.

The moment when Esther goes to the beach and puts on a swimsuit and gets into the water – Did you look for any specific type of clothing for this scene?

When Esty goes to the Wannsee lake with the music students, they all rip off their clothing, devoid of inhibition or care. Esty, on the other hand, has never seen anything like it. Dasia encourages her to go into the water, at which point Esty only removes her thick denier tights and her button-down shirt. She walks into the water fully dressed, marking the next transition of her life. This scene reflects the scene at the Mikvah; instead of preparing for marriage though, she removes her wig and symbolically immerses herself in a new life, free of the constraints of her upbringing. The shedding of her costume pieces in this scene speaks louder than words.

How important were the colors of the wardrobe for this series?

The color palette was simple, but effective. Our production designer Silke Fischer and I talked about how we would visually represent the different lives Esty would live. In Williamsburg the world was more closed, with muted colors and heavier furniture. I reflected that in the wardrobe with darker colors, the details of ruffles and restrictive clothing. Once we arrived in Berlin, Silke lightened up the locations, choosing spaces with air and movement. I brightened the color pallet and allowed the characters freedom to show skin and wear a variety of light and flowing clothing. So yes, the palettes were exceptionally important to the design process.

I chose to keep small elements of Esty’s former life, such as a scarf around her neck. I kept her skirt in her first change, shoes that were sensible and bit heavy and tried to not show too much skin, allowing the character to find her new self organically and over time.

What was the most challenging aspect of this miniseries in terms of costuming?

The most challenging aspect is creating a beautiful world and remaining within the budget. The wedding was a huge and expensive scene for my department, coupled with lead actor Shira Haas being a petit lady. I found the wedding dress on eBay. My tailor Matthieu Niemeier and I pulled it to pieces and refit it to Shira’s small frame. Matthieu painstakingly rebuilt the dress, sewing much of it by hand, as it was so heavily encrusted with pearls.

What else is happening next in Justine Seymour’s world?

My world  just like the rest of us, is at home in isolation. I am in Los Angeles after being brought home from my current project (Mosquito Coast). I was shooting in Mexico for the past four months.

I have been making face masks for the many caregivers that were unable to them due to the global shortage. Our teams of costumers and costume designers have made 20,000 face masks in the last two months. I am privileged to be able to contribute in a small way to all the hard work going into saving lives during this pandemic.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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