Tribal Warfare

Walking Dead costume designer Eulyn Womble dressed the main survivors in brown, green, and earthy tones to evoke a tough group of warriors living in the woods, while the Governor and the residents of Woodbury, the town he oversees, are in black, gray and blue. “Survivors are becoming their own tribes, with new chiefs, and starting new cultures,” she says.

Opposites Repel

During season two, Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) descend from best friends into a bitter leadership rivalry. Womble often dressed them in opposite colors to highlight that rift. In these images, Shane wears a dark shirt and light pants, while Rick is reversed. Shane embraces civilization’s decline in military-style cargo pants, while Rick clings to his past life in his uniform. “But his clean uniform kept getting dirtier and badges fell off,” says Womble. “By season three, he’s a completely different man, and no longer wearing it. But I still keep him in the same color shirt he wore as the sheriff to remind the audience of who he used to be.”

Carl’s allegiance

Shane is like a surrogate father to Rick’s son, Carl (Chandler Riggs). Carl becomes torn between the two father figures as their friendship disintegrates. Womble dressed Carl in a confusion of their two styles, like Shane’s cargo-style pants and Rick’s sheriff hat.

A look to die for

Zombies went from more individual looks and color to more monochromatic as the survivors learned that they travel in herds, and stopped relating to them as former humans. “They’re of one mind and in increasing degrees of dead,” says Womble. “They went from reds and blues in season one, to grays and blues in season two, to yellows in season three.”

The return of Merle

Human detritus turned Governor’s right-handless man, Merle (Michael Rooker), is probably the only character who cleaned up after the apocalypse. “His style changed significantly,” says Womble. “Before, he looked like a racist biker dude. Now, he’s more grown up and organized, and his style is not as threatening, because he has to blend in to the Governor’s town. His style is influenced by military attire--charcoal and green and shirts with epaulets.”

Guardian angel

Daryl’s (Norman Reedus) angel-winged leather vest (right) was a hit with viewers, and signified his emergence from Merle’s troubled younger brother to protector. “The vest is the same one Merle wears in season one--they’re brothers and cut from the same cloth--but Daryl’s going in a more angelic direction, which is why I put the wings on his. He’s a guardian angel to the group, saving Carol from zombies (left) and becoming Rick’s right-hand man.”

Superwoman

“Michonne [Danai Gurira] is my superhero!” laughs Womble. “All the character study went out the window and I just had fun with her design. The best thing that happened all season was that we shot in a deer-processing plant. There was a ton of leather, so I grabbed a few pieces. What’s a superhero without leather? She has a burlap sack converted into a cape, boots with studs, an African warrior headband, and an 'M’ in rose gold on a silver chain--like an emblem. I grew up with African prints and was influenced by the way tribes put clothing together, and Danai grew up in Zimbabwe, so we had that reference in common.”

The new threat

“My take on the Governor [David Morrissey] is that he’s putting forth an image, so I wanted him to look a little off--a man of the people, but a little bit better than the people," says Womble. "I have him in unironed cowboy work shirts, a very fitted expensive looking vest, a vintage-looking watch, and boots that are both dressy and tough. He’s a contradiction--a working man with everything in place.”

Glenn mans up

Glenn (Steven Yeun) started the series with a look straight out of the Walking Dead comic book, particularly his colored baseball cap. “At first, Glenn is cute and childlike,” says Womble. “In season two, I wanted to show a more grown-up side. After he meets Maggie, he literally mans up. He started taking off his hat, putting it in his back pocket. By season three, he’s gotten rid of it altogether.”

Creature of habit

“Hershel [Scott Wilson] is beautiful example of changed man," says Womble. "This was the man who, when he helped save Carl in season two, got blood on his shirt and immediately changed into a clean shirt. Now, it’s not an issue. I kept him in the same pants and jacket that he had when he left the farm--he’s still a creature of habit--but they’re more ratty.”

The princess warrior

Farm girl Maggie (Lauren Cohan) was awash in floral pastels when viewers met her last season. “Maggie is more of a warrior now,” says Womble. “No more frilly shirts. Everything she wears is more practical, sleek, and tough.”

Trying to belong

“Lori [Sarah Wayne Callies] had her signature bra strap sticking out at first, but covered herself up on the farm, because she really wanted to belong, especially when she finds out she’s pregnant," says Womble. "Her colors change as she tries to assimilate with the farm family. She, more than anyone else, wanted to stay there teaching her son homework. This season, we had to be clever about making it look like she made her own maternity clothing. I extended the waist of her pants by removing a back pocket and sewing it into the sides.”

Carol’s Rebirth

As Carol (Melissa McBride, far right in the left picture) toughens from a battered wife meshing into the background to gun-toting maternal force, her wardrobe transitions from drab floral patterns and sandals to more exposed tops, bold colors, and boots. “After Carol’s daughter dies in season two, she rips off her cross necklace and we never see it again,” says Womble.

Taking Control

“Laurie [Holden, who plays Andrea] is a sexy woman with a strong body, and I wanted to play with that when I started dressing her in season two," says Womble. "I made her clothing fit and gave her a pair of cowboy boots, which matched her character’s evolution from suicidal to sultry warrior. She’s unapologetic as the only women who would rather hang out with the men on guard duty than do dishes or laundry with the women. In season three, Andrea embraces Woodbury, so I dressed her more in blue when she’s there.”

Good defense

“T-Dog [IronE Singleton] is all about his cut-off finger gloves,” says Womble. “As soon as we get to the prison, he uses the riot gear gloves and cuts the fingers off…hardcore! I was actually very interested in his backstory as an ex-football player. I found clothing that evoked sporty, practical, and disciplined.”

A Flicker of Hope

“Beth [Emily Kinney] signifies the group’s ray of hope," says Womble. "I dress her to look young. Her signatures are her heart necklace and mismatched earrings.”

What To Wear To The Apocalypse: Walking Dead Costumer Eulyn Womble On Telling A Story With Wardrobe

The disheveled garb of The Walking Dead’s survivors is actually carefully designed to inform character arcs and storyline. Costume designer Eulyn Womble lifts the veil on how wardrobe impacts narrative, and how she keeps zombie hunting just a little bit sexy.

While your eyes feast on blood, gore, and zombie guts, Eulyn Womble gets into your head.

Breaking down wardrobe the way actors dissect a role, the costume designer for AMC’s The Walking Dead deploys a psychologically driven arsenal of color, style, texture, and accessorizing to subliminally enhance plot and character development. If she does her job right, you don’t notice it. You feel it.

“Eulyn not only has a real sense of style and a great eye, but she also understands that costume design signifies a character’s emotional state,” says executive producer Glen Mazzara. “She’s been very creative about showing how our characters feel about themselves and each other through how they dress. She’s also taught me a lot about how people would change their sense of style over time in different circumstances.”

Now in its third season, the hit series chronicles the emotional and physical toll on a group of survivors who battle zombies, rival groups, and each other to stay alive. Womble designs, colors, and coordinates the cast’s outfits to not only mirror changes within individuals, but also their relationships with each other, and other groups of survivors.

“When I’m reading a script, I can see people immediately,” she says. “I start drawing pictures and making notes. Then I’ll put ‘feeler boards’ together—how a certain character makes me feel. I’ll talk with the actors a little bit or do a quick character study to make sure we’re on the same page. Glen and [executive producer] Gale [Anne Hurd] have final say. They let me run with ideas, but they have to rein me in at times.”

Eulyn Womble zombifies the line. Photo: Gene Page/courtesy of AMC

More often, Womble’s quirky ideas win them over. “One rule of film is, 'Don’t put people wearing the same color next to each other.' But I do that in Walking Dead all the time,” she says. Usually, it’s to show cohesiveness—like this season’s swath of warm colors for the survivors.

“I call them my Earth Tribe,” she laughs. “They’re mostly in brown, green, earthy tones. They’ve been living in woods, and have become quite a team of warriors. What everyone wears is very practical, utilitarian. They’ve had to toughen up. No one cares who you were before the apocalypse. Now it’s, 'Can you survive and hold your own?' Then you’re introduced to the Governor and his group. They’re my Sky Tribe, which wears a little bit of blue. I wanted more of a conservative, uniform feeling, and a metal look—like guns, weapons, and the helicopter, which gave me their nickname.”

Photo: Gene Page/courtesy of AMC

Womble engaged another subtle twist with the prison uniforms. Early in the season, the survivors secure a dark labyrinthian prison full of zombified inmates. “Some of the crew members were shocked when they were blue and striped, and not orange,” she says. “They’d say, ‘I really can’t see them.’ That was the point. The gray-blue enhances the zombie makeup and you don’t see them as easily. It’s scarier when they seem to appear out of nowhere.”

Conversely, other choices end up becoming focal points themselves—like the fabric angel wings she sewed onto the leather vest worn by Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) that made fansite chatter last season, while the African warrior-tinged look of newcomer Michonne (Danai Gurira) generated buzz leading up to the show’s return last month.

“This season, I introduced Daryl’s poncho, which was inspired by practicality and evoked the Wild West,” says Womble. “I was taking a risk introducing so bold an item—the colors are stronger than what he usually wears and the ladies love his arms. It was a horse blanket that I cut and stitched with ugly overstitching. I wanted it to look like Daryl did it himself, to use to sleep and cover himself. I had to do it so it didn’t get in the way of the bow and arrow. Norman was very excited to get it. He calls it his 'blankie.' He always asks, 'Can I wear my poncho in this scene?' I’m like, 'It’s not that cold, Norman.'"

Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and his latest apocalypse fashion statement. Photo: Gene Page/courtesy of AMC

Womble’s wardrobe design engages in a kind of empathic dialogue with the actors. While she draws inspiration from the personalities, personal styles, and backgrounds of the actors, her costumes help inform acting choices.

“I call her the Wardrobe Goddess,” says Melissa McBride, who plays Carol Peletier, a formerly battered wife who rallies strength after her daughter becomes a zombie. “She’s very intuitive about people, and approaches it like an artist: 'How do I want to paint this character? How do I want to feel about her?' Part of my character choices were because of the wardrobe I was given. Carol’s colors in the first season were drab, which communicated how she thought of herself, as meshing into the background. In the second season, as Carol begins to blossom, Eulyn introduced a little bit of color and freedom of movement. She also taps into the actors’ own styles. I wear headwraps all the time, and she loved it, so she put Carol in one.”

Eulyn Womble in her wardrobe lair. Photo: Gene Page/courtesy of AMC

Defying odds

Womble’s creative process parallels a career that has also defied boundaries. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, where women of color with designing talent were expected to sew in clothing factories, Womble managed to establish herself as a wardrobe designer for international commercials, TV shows, and films shooting in South Africa, which were not hobbled by the same prejudices as the strictly local productions.

“When I graduated from high school in 1994, they still referred to us as 'colored people,'" she says. “Colored women worked in clothing factories—we were not allowed to design clothing lines.” As a multiracial woman—a mixture of Malaysian, black, and European lineages—Womble often walked a delicate line between communities. “When I became one of the first women of color to design for television in South Africa, people of color would say, 'How sad that you’re so fair-skinned.'

“It’s a part of my history, but I don’t dwell on it,” she adds. “My intention in sharing this is to inspire other girls and young women of color who may face adversity and prejudice in reaching for their dreams.”

Enlivening "Dead"

Eulyn Womble, with husband and WD production supervisor, Caleb, and pooch Pablo. Gene Page/AMC

An unexpected twist in her life and career came in the form of husband Caleb Womble—now the Walking Dead production supervisor—whom she met on an American production shooting in South Africa in 2004. Moving to the States later that same year, she continued to hone her craft on films like The Secret Life of Bees and TV’s October Road before landing as set costumer on Walking Dead in 2010. Last year, she was promoted to costume designer.

Where season one’s wardrobe intimated who the survivors were before the apocalypse, for season two, Womble surreptitiously deteriorated that clothing to parallel the breakdown of their identities. A major story arc in season two involved a power play between former police officers and best friends, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal).

“I didn’t want to change them too dramatically,” she says. “Individually, you could see bits and pieces unraveling. Rick is still wearing part of his uniform, but instead of a white shirt underneath, it’s gray. He’s not quite as clean-cut as he used to be. Shane completely removes his uniform. I made him more militant and put him in cargo pants, and often put his colors opposite Rick’s, so they look like a unit, but they’re not.”

The farm family the survivors stay with “was all about color,” she adds. “The farm was more like a dream state, so I had them wear dreamy, happy colors to suggest their desperate clinging to an old way of life.”

This season, Womble is walking a fine line of calculated grunge. Where season two garments were oversized, now the clothing is deliberately mis-mended, but fits a little better.

“I wanted to make it a little sexier,” she says. “There’s something sexy about being dirty and sweaty.”

In the above slide show, Womble details her strategy behind the wardrobe choices for individual characters.

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5 Comments

  • Cmblankenberg

    Well done Eulyn. You make us all proud. Take care and keep up the wonderful work. Greater things are yet to come and we wish you all the best. Lots of love - the Blankenberg's in sunny South Africa.

  • Jim Ulle

    Fantastic article. I love the walking dead and this article has given me a new appreciation of the wardrobe employed for the survivors and the zombies.

    I really like the trick of dressing Rick and Shane opposite in season 2... It gives the illusion that they are at odds without any verbal cue. I really think this tactic can be employed elsewhere too.

  • Lynette Hufkie

    Well done Eulyn! Remember what I always taught you: "What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God" I'm sure God is pleased with your efforts. Love MoM xxxx

  • Eustace Keith Hufkie

    Well done Eulyn.....you always had a fashion sense and a creative mind.
    Keep it up, this is only the begining. You have lots of talent to still unearth.

    The aparheid thing helped to shape you, because you prospered in spite of it. Keep up the good work.