“What We Do in the Shadows” Costume Designer Laura Montgomery on Dressing Vampires in Flux
The undead roommates of What We Do in the Shadows embarked on journeys of rebirth in season 4 – some more literally than others – that included remodeling, reincarnating, and remarrying. All these new endeavors gave Emmy-winning costume designer Laura Montgomery an opportunity to redefine the rules of vampire fashion.
For hundreds of years, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Nandor (Kayvan Novak) have been sporting outfits from the eras they’ve loved experiencing the most. “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh vampires, I’m not really into vampires.’ Well, the show isn’t really about vampires,” Montgomery explained. “Even if you’re not into that, you’ll still like the show because they make it really relatable. It’s what happens to people. Humans get stuck in the period in which they felt their best.”
Couple Nadja and Laszlo have mutually influenced each other’s style. Montgomery pegs Nadja’s origin in the 1600s, but she has adopted her husband’s Victorian flair. Nandor is the oldest, hailing from the 1490s, with a notable Persian influence.
“As much as possible, I try to use that as my guiding light and starting off point,” Montgomery noted. “Maybe stretching the imagination a bit, maybe they still have clothes from that era, but they live today. So, it gives us the flexibility to incorporate modern pieces that they could have taken from victims – or who knows where they’re getting their clothes – but that is something that I have to think about. It gives you flexibility because it’s period, but it’s a lot of periods, and it’s also not period, so it’s really fun to design.”
Unique to the show is a different kind of vampire who gains his strength not from feeding on human blood but on their energy. Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) drains his victims by being tedious and dull.
“He was a little bit nebulous. All we knew about him was that he was beige, boring,” Montgomery admitted. “Then in season 3, when he had his 100th birthday, we found out what his era was, so he became 1940s era.”
Colin Robinson may thrive off being monotonous, but his story took a wild turn. The group discovered that “energy vampires” have an expiration date of a century. After his sudden death, Laszlo discovered an infant rising from Colin Robinson’s corpse. Suddenly, there was a – rapidly growing – child to care for. Montgomery drew inspiration from her own young sons when designing the reborn Colin Robinson’s wardrobe.
“Especially before Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) came onto the scene, [child Colin] is living this unfettered life with no parent,” Montgomery observed. “So how is he dressing himself? Where is he getting his clothes from? Probably a little bit from Laszlo’s closet, maybe picking it up from victims in the house. He’s kind of left to dress himself on his own. So, I just looked at what my own kids do. They wear a lot of bathrobes, so child Colin often has a lot of bathrobes on over his clothes. Clothes on backward. There’s one scene where he’s wearing one of Laszlo’s waistcoats. He has swim goggles around his neck. These are just things my own kids would do to make costumes or put together things that you wouldn’t think of. I tried to think of what a kid would do.”
As any parent knows, kids outgrow clothes incredibly fast. Energy vampires apparently mature even faster. Colin Robinson flew through the toddler and teenage stages back to adulthood while he was still trying to fit in undersized attire. From a costume perspective, the gag wouldn’t work to just put actor Mark Proksch in a child’s suit. It needed to fit well enough that he could put it on but still appear as if the measurements were off.
“To make the grownup version, it was a matter of how do we still make it look like a child size, but it’s being worn by an adult body?” Montgomery explained. “He would realistically never be able to fit into it. It was about fudging the proportions. Being able to get his shoulders into it but then making it proportionally even shorter so it looked like he had tried to squeeze himself into this too-small tuxedo. Even with the shoes, we made a shoe with the back folded down so he could step into it, but we hid an elastic across the back, so it was almost like a mule with a strap across the back, and then we covered it with a sock. The shoe was actually a little bit bigger than the child’s shoe, but it looked like he had tried to stuff his feet into the kid’s shoes.”
Nandor, by contrast, is always perfectly tailored. The former Ottoman warrior is perpetually draped in lavish furs, cloaks, and intricate embroidery. Montgomery and her team outdid themselves to top his extravagant closet for a very special event.
“We got to have a lot of fun with Nandor’s wedding look because the focus in that episode was really not on the bride. It was all about him,” Montgomery laughed. “We got to put most of our resources and most of our bling in his wedding look, which of course, he has the look for the ceremony, which included this gold velvet cape trimmed in jewels with a really long train. He was the one with the train, not the bride. Then the cape comes off for the reception, and he has a beautiful jacket with a low neckline that we haven’t done on him before. Custom belt, custom boots, a custom hat. We got to really make him special for his wedding day.”
Nadja started the season with a surprise return home from England. Like many overeager European vacationers, she came back with new fashions from her travels.
“Short of coming back wearing a Union Jack, how does your clothing say, ‘I spent the summer in London’?” Montgomery wondered. “Then there were practical considerations too, because whatever we made, we had to make at least two of because when she first comes in, she falls through the floor into a pool, so it had to be something that could be rigged for the stunt to fall and also get soaking wet.”
Montgomery looked to classic British designers for inspiration. A tartan pattern from the late Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty book caught her attention. Her team was able to source something similar, but the fabric needed a custom alteration for both Nadja and her possessed doll.
“I had someone who was working as a fabric broker in New York who ended up finding us this beautiful tartan that was almost right, but I really wanted a specific looking one that I had seen in the McQueen book, which was red and black and had this yellow kind of gold stripe running through it,” Montgomery described. “She found one that was a similar scale, and it had the red and black, but it didn’t have the gold. What we ended up doing was sewing a gold ribbon on to add the gold element of the stripe. Before we could even cut the dresses, we had to basically make the fabric by sewing the ribbon on to make the stripe. Then we could make the dresses. Then, of course, we had to do the doll’s dress which was on a smaller scale. Instead of a ribbon, it had a little yellow stitching line.”
Strapped for cash after the responsible Colin Robinson departed, which left the housemates’ finances in a bind, Nadja proposes a new business. She enthusiastically plunges into renovations to open a vampire nightclub.
“We didn’t want our vampires to feel out of place,” Montgomery noted. “If it all looked like a sexy, goth nightclub, then our vampires looking so Victorian and historic would seem out of place. So, we tried to do a lot of 90s club-wear influence and 2000s raver influence.”
Of course, the main cast have rich and lengthy sagas, but Montgomery said that everyone on screen has a past. Day players and background actors all have a history with clues that come through in their clothing.
“I have an amazing background coordinator, Jill Lerner,” Montgomery said. “We would look at the faces and be like, okay, this vampire could be 300 years old, so we’ll dress them like this. I just love assigning backstories to people in the background and that helps to inform how they’re going to dress.”
What We Do in the Shadows season 4 is now streaming on Hulu.
Featured image: “WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” — Pictured (L-R): Natasia Demetriou as Nadja. CR: Pari Dukovic/FX