Station Eleven Costume Designer Helen Huang on Creating the Traveling Symphony’s Costumes

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In HBO Max‘s Station Eleven viewers are taken into a world radically altered by a devastating flu pandemic, one that wipes out most of the world’s population and, two decades after the collapse of civilization as we knew it, follows the story of those who survived and have built new lives and communities, specifically that of Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), a performer in a traveling group of actors and musicians who bring the works of Shakespeare to this new world. While the powerhouse performances by Davis and the other actors bringing Station Eleven, adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel of the same name, to life are a huge component of the storytelling, so are the costumes. In Station Eleven, the costumes worn by the various characters in the series all create a portrait of their own, especially those worn as costumes by the Traveling Symphony for their performances. 

In Station Eleven, audiences briefly get to see contemporary theatrical costumes in the show’s “pre-pandemic” performance of King Lear, and they are in stark contrast to the future costumes that the Symphony puts together for their performances in the “post-pan” world. Costume designer Helen Huang told that it was important to separate the audience from the European tradition of theater costume for the future looks in how they created the future for the series.

“With the future costumes, one of the biggest things that I did think about was I want to separate the audience from the European tradition of theater costume, especially in referencing Shakespeare,” Huang said. “That’s a big goal and expand our world and think about if they are just creating art and anything is possible, what does that look like How do you make a Hamlet, a Claudius, a Gertrude, people who are nobility look like nobility without attaching it to European ideas of costumes.”

Huang also spoke about how the background of the members of the Traveling Symphony factored into things.

“The other layers that we were thinking about was the people in the Traveling Symphony, the people that are making these costumes aren’t necessarily people from a traditional theater background,” she said. “They are people who have been through a traumatic experience, have found the Traveling Symphony as their family, as a way of an outlet. But they don’t necessarily have an attachment to the way theater is supposed to look. The other thing is they might not have the capabilities to make things exactly perfect on the scene and cut patterns that could fit the body because they don’t have the skills to do that.”

Huang said that this led to the use of a lot of found objects and interesting uses for other objects, such as the Hamlet costume made out of puffer coats, but then she revealed that the real-world pandemic also influenced the costuming of the show.

“Because of the pandemic, we were shooting up in Canada and everything was closed,” Huang said. “The only places we had access to was vintage stores that had barrels and barrels of vintage clothing, So, we did have to source from that to make these costumes. All the headdresses are actually from dumpster dives… Claudius’ crown is made out of wires. Gertrude’s crown is made out of cardboard and symbols and different found objects have been painted to look like decorative art. So, it was a lot that went into those costumes. Obviously, there was a lot of trial and error around everything, but at the end I think what we got was something that had a very found and also foreign but familiar quality because a lot of things used in it were things that exist in this world.”


Station Eleven is now streaming on HBO Max with new episodes arriving on Thursdays.

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