Interview with Joanna Eatwell, Costume Designer for 'The State'

Video highlights from The State

Director of Photography for 'The State', Joanna Eatwell details the process behind creating accurate costumes for the show, and the challenges that arose.

How did you research for the costumes?

I think depending on the job I do, whether it’s period, present, contemporary or uniforms, from Wolf Hall to this project, the approach is always the same; it’s to understand the place, the time in which people exist, what makes it practical and what makes it real for them. Because we’re not really making costumes, we’re telling stories, and a lot of mistakes happen with period costume when it becomes just pretty or picturesque. The clothes people wore – whether Tudor times for Wolf Hall or in Syria for this production -- were practical, they were logical and they always fit within the society that existed.

This was actually quite a difficult project to research because initially it seemed like there was a lot of information out there. We spent two or three weeks just watching footage online. But then you start to realise that a lot of what’s out there is propaganda, so it becomes a challenge to get beyond that. For example, everything you see all men. You don’t see any women on the streets, and you’re not allowed to photograph women – so that made it quite difficult for us.

We visited a lot of shops to source the women’s costumes. We felt a bit self-conscious at first, but once people realised you’re there to spend money, it was fine. But there were one or two occasions that we went in, and we were obviously looking at the more ‘devotee’ or the more extreme end - the full black cover, the gloves etc. My supervisor and I were asked if we were planning on traveling…

How did you create the costumes?

I think so far no one has actually analysed what it is that these people wear. On first glance, we just thought they’re a bunch of people in stolen uniforms from all over. But when we actually started to look, there was a real uniformity. When these guys from England, Belgium, Australia, or America, wherever, go and join up, they’re quickly stripped of their own identity, put into these training outfits, and then graduate into the black uniforms. 

We tried to source a type of Aghani shirt that’s very particular to ISIS Mujahedeen in Syria. We managed to track one down from an obscure collector, and once we knew what the fabric was like, we could use it as our pattern. Then we managed to trace one manufacturer to a particular market on the Turkish border with Syria, but we could never have got them out of Turkey so we had to look at other options.  We ended up sourcing the particular type of ripstop cotton from America and then having it printed with a particular type of camouflage used by ISIS. Alongside camouflage, we created the black Afghani-style uniforms you see online in both battle and when the ISIS fighters are on parades with their flags and vehicles.

Were the women’s costumes a particular focus?

The women’s costumes are very powerful and took as much research as the men’s. We sourced a lot of options and then brought them together and looked at how ISIS interprets the costume because it’s almost completely different to the UK for example.

We tried to create the costumes so that even though they are all dressed the same, you instantly know who’s who as they all wear it differently. All the women, you know who they are, even though essentially they’re all dressed in black but there are minute details - every niqab is different for example - so there’s lots and lots of detail in there, which people won’t necessarily pick up on immediately, but it is information which tell them who is who as they start to recognise the silhouette and the smaller details. 

What’s it like working with Peter and the other crew – you’ve all worked together before?

Well I like working with Peter because he’s incredibly interested in what I do. He shares my interest in texture, colour and fabric. He gives me free reign as long as I can talk about it, justify it, be excited.

I’ve worked with Pat Campbell, our production designer, quite a few times and I think what we both share is a love of grubbiness, the grubbiness of life. We talk a lot, share images and have a sort of short hand in terms of colour, ageing and texture.

I think depending on the job I do, whether it is period, present, contemporary, uniforms, Wolf Hall, whatever, the approach is always the same; it’s to understand the place, the time that people exist in, what makes it practical, what makes it real for them. Because we’re not really making costumes, we’re telling stories, and a lot of mistakes happen with period costume when it becomes just pretty or picturesque. The clothes people wore – whether Tudor times for Wolf Hall or in Syria for this production were practical, they were logical and they

The State premieres on Wednesday 23rd of August at 8.30pm on National Geographic.

Header Image: Joanna Eatwell, Costume Designer for 'The State'. Photograph from Channel 4. 

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