The Walking Dead's Costume Designer on Dressing Women for World's End

Life during a zombie apocalypse can get pretty grim. Between roving bands of undead walkers trying to snack on your grey matter and feral humans roasting each other into lunch meat, there’s precious little time to think about how you actually look. Eulyn Womble, the Costume Designer for The Walking Dead, is charged with creating unique character statements out of clothing that has to appear weathered or scavenged.

Womble’s designs have to make Michonne appear the epitome of badassery, while allowing Beth to still retains a hint of innocence. From The Governor’s iconic leather jacket (and matching eye patch) to Carol’s Rambo-esque poncho, every single garment and accessory is faded, stitched or soaked in gooey-looking substances to appear authentic.

They say that on All Hallows Eve, the membrane between the world of the living and dead becomes blurred. In honor of the spookiest time of year, I had a conversation with Womble about the style and culture and strong female personalities behind The Walking Dead. [If you’re not caught up with the most recent episode—”Strangers,” season five, episode two—be forewarned there are SPOILERS AHEAD!]

Eulyn, your hands are stained red. Should I worry?

Oh, it’s just another day on the set of The Walking Dead. And it’s just some makeup stuff. I’ll wash it off later with shaving cream.

Your job is to convey the story of post-apocalypse, but the survival situations on The Walking Dead are increasingly dire. How can you continue to add points of interest to the costumes when life for the characters has so obviously deteriorated?

I have to work harder to make a statement quickly. We all get the scripts and every eight days we shoot a new episode. So for instance, we started at 5:14 yesterday, and kept shooting all day.

We didn’t have a lot of time at Terminus, I’m still amazed how we were able to tell that large of a story in only an hour. I worked with the signs on the walls, they told part of the story. I used color, browns and blues—earth and sky—and I tried to make the texture of the costumes a pattern instead of using actual patterns. I tried to tell a bigger story with all of the costumes.

Even if it’s in small ways, things change. I think I can talk about this now—especially with Daryl—we call it Frankensteining on the set. So Norman [Reedus, who plays Daryl] might say, “Can you Frankenstein my pants?” If you need a sleeve or glove, we pick up one more and then just sew it on. The costumes are evolving. Or at least I hope they’re evolving. It’s still too close right now to regular life. It’s going take at least ten to 20, 30, 40 years for it to completely devolve, and then evolve again.

In a similar vein, when the surviving cast members are so obviously beaten down by circumstance, how can you convey that they’re even interested in their clothing at all? Are they?

I think Michonne’s boots with the studs sum it all up. She’s always able to kick the crap out of something. As girls we’re not as strong as boys, but we’re able to kick, and I think that’s what her boots represent. Her boots will be able to protect maybe not in the real world. She is sexy and wears her clothing close to her body—not to attract anyone, but because it’s easier to fight and run, and because that way zombies can’t grab her.

Also, everybody has their jobs, and I think that shows in their clothing. Everyone’s clothing represents where they are now. Beth isn’t a natural guard, so she does what she is best at.

Daryl can’t help but be a rock star. Michonne Has an “M” necklace—it’s her emblem. I like to think it was a gift from her boyfriend. It’s like Superman’s ‘S’ in my mind.

Rick stole the jacket from a guy he killed, probably because he liked it, but he also needed it. I think you have to be cooler and cooler when you have nothing and have to make do with what you have. If the jeans rip we just fix it. We turn horse blankets into ponchos. My own upbringing didn’t have a lot of money. I would buy cheap things and make them fabulous—people thought they were designer.

The women of The Walking Dead have had to become strong, tough survivors. Do you think they way that they dress or present themselves can inspire modern women to be that way, too? (Aside from Michonne’s katana, of course!)

It absolutely can, and it has: Carol has the hashtag #TeamCarolBoots. Women feel absolutely inspired when they put those boots on. I met someone at a Walker Stalker con wearing similar boots and she told me her story. Carol’s boots represent her. I did the bottom half tough and the top half soft—she’s a teacher, and she still has to protect. I love her story. She’s quite the force to be reckoned with. From her husband beating her up to her saving the group from certain death.

I don’t want to overlook Maggie just because she’s pretty. She believes in love, but she can stick up for herself. She made us realize not to mess with with an angry woman. That might be a spoiler, but it was in the trailer, so I don’t feel too bad sharing it: Get ready for some tough women on the show.

But you know we have a hell of a tough woman on our show, [producer] Gale Anne Hurd- she’s incredible and she’s our leader. She’s the shit. [laughs] That’s so American of me to say, but she is.

Do you think there’s any of Gale Ann Hurd in Carol? I’m convinced there is.

I don’t know this for a fact, but when she’s listening to the scripts being pitched, I feel that she makes sure that women are well represented and we have female directors as well. You see the tough women on screen, but we have some pretty tough women behind the scenes.

The show is definitely going down a dark path. Can you talk about how, or if, it affects your mood to work on such a high intensity show? Do you have nightmares? I did, after the opening scene.

No. I don’t. I see it for what it is. If it feels true for the story, I feel it’s okay. I like it if it makes me feel something. If it doesn’t make me feel anything, I’m scared of what the fans might think.

I’ve been watching it from the beginning. I thought people were going to stop watching after Lizzie got shot. But [filming the “Strangers” episode], I couldn’t be on set watching Bob. I’m a vegetarian and don’t eat meat. It was necessary for the story and you get past it. But when I get home, I’m happy. We’ve gone past every boundary and I think people enjoy it.

But honestly, after the end of the season, I’m going to need a big fat break.

Did you ever think you’d work on a show as popular as The Walking Dead? How do you deal with your own growing fame and popularity?

I enjoy the attention sometimes. We seek external validation. I feel for the longest time costume designers, and our craft as a whole, have been overlooked and I want to put us back on the map the way that Edith Head once represented an industry. We’re not personal shoppers (not that personal shoppers don’t have their place), but it’s a great feeling to be acknowledged for my work. In the past, people had no idea of what I look like or sound like. People like what they see and sometimes they don’t and that’s okay too.

My parents didn’t want me to do it. I studied accounting. It feels especially good, because my work is good. I’m a mixed race kid from South Africa during apartheid days. For those kids to see where I am now, it amazes me. We’re not encouraged to be artists. They tell us to be steady job. I’m an artist and I have a steady job.

Rachel Weingarten is a lifestyle writer and columnist and native of Brooklyn. She’s also a noted and quoted style expert, personal brand consultant, and former celebrity makeup artist. Rachel is the author of three nonfiction books, including Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year (Fall River Press). For more about Rachel, visit her online or tweet with her @rachelcw.

Images via AMC

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