Q&A with ‘Mercy Street’ costume designers Amy Andrews Harrell and Ignatius Creegan

Q&A with ‘Mercy Street’ costume designers Amy Andrews Harrell and Ignatius Creegan

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Anthony Platt, PBS)

In the Times’ October interview with “Mercy Street” co-producer Lisa Wolfinger, we examined the story behind the new PBS Civil War-era miniseries. Set in Alexandria, the plot is based on the true story of the Green family of Carlyle House and their hotel, Mansion House, which was commandeered by Union troops to serve as a hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers. The first episode was screened at the Alexandria Film Festival on November 5 and will premiere on TV Sunday.

In exclusive interviews, costume designer and Richmond resident Amy Andrews Harrell and the show’s hat designer and Petersburg, Va. resident Ignatius Creegan unveiled some interesting facts about the creation of the show’s beautiful period costumes.

Harrell’s professional career started when she became a set costumer on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Later, she served as costume supervisor on HBO’s TV miniseries, “John Adams,” the winner of four Golden Globes and thirteen Emmys, earning more than any miniseries in history. In 2012 she was key costumer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” winner of two Academy Awards. By 2013 she was designing costumes for National Geographic Channel’s docudramas “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy.” Most recently, she was costume designer on the yet-to-be-released thriller “Imperium.”

What was your primary resource for research on the period?

For inspiration I used the book by John Guntzelman, “The Civil War in Color: A Photographic Re-enactment of the War Between the States” as a guide.

Did you use any fabrics from the era?

I discovered a bolt of ten yards of original cotton from 1860 on eBay that I used in Jane Green’s dress. Also, I had good luck with an antiques store in Mechanicsville that had pieces of dresses of the period. The silks were shattered, as old silk will do, but we were able to use parts of things. We used a lot of things from there as well as from a vintage store in Richmond called Halcyon, owned by Connie Carroll. She found some wonderful pieces of embroidery, lace and net that I could add onto Jane Green’s dress. I loved that it came from an estate in Richmond and is of the period.

How many multiples did you need to make to hold up to the mud and blood?

Only in one instance. The first dress that Hannah wears gets ripped, so we had to make two of those. We had very limited resources to work with, but still it was very exciting. Whenever I looked out a window I could see one person doing three people’s jobs. We didn’t have the breathing room I’ve been accustomed to. We really worked without a net.

How did you keep them clean?

We knew beforehand which characters would get bloody or hurt and we had extra things for them. While stage blood has detergent built in to it, it can wash out if it’s on too light of a fabric. It’s unpredictable. It can turn a garment pink when you least expect it.

What’s a costume disaster from the filming?

We had really good luck, even though at night I would sometimes have dreams that there were things I forgot — like someone without a costume!

Milliners Ignatius Creegan and partner Rod Givens, who live and work in a 7,000 square-foot Civil War-era mansion in Petersburg, Va., have worked with Harrell on many of the aforementioned films and were responsible for creating the historically accurate bonnets and caps. Creegan’s career goes back to 1987, when he started designing and making hats for theatre, movies and private clientele.

How did you decide what to design?

We worked with Amy’s designs and found a fair number of photographs of hats from the period. We also had designed historic era hats in the past. We have an antique straw sewing machine we used for some of the hats. These “straw machines” were the first commercial machines made for the industry. Notably the Civil War was the first time sewing machines were used.

What was the process like?

It was interesting because I was able to use actual fabrics from the period. I cut them up to match the dresses. It was wonderful to be able to take a couple days to hand sew them. Hats were something that people made by hand then. It was an education for me to be able to work with those vintage styles and a luxury to incorporate those fabrics and trimmings including some wonderful old velvet ribbons that Amy had collected.

What was it like to design hats for a period piece?

It’s interesting to consider what people were wearing in our neighborhood back then. A lot of the men’s designs are still wearable today and we are now starting a men’s collection based on what we did for “Mercy Street.” We plan to expand on those designs of hats and caps for our own clientele.

“Mercy Street” premieres on PBS Sunday night at 10 p.m.