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.”
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.”
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.'"
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.”
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.”
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.