FX’s “Great Expectations” turned to Gray Gardens for Miss Havisham

Costume designer Verity Hawkes breaks down what sets Olivia Coleman’s version of the iconic Dickens character apart.

Filmmakers have been adapting Charles Dickens for decades—there have been nearly 20 screen adaptations of his Great Expectations alone since 1917. This is a new Miss Havisham who has been collecting dusty wedding presents and emotionally traumatizing children every six years for over a century. This presents a new challenge with each new iteration of the story: How do you make your version of “Great Expectations” visually distinct, especially given that Dickens’ prose never turns more purple than when describing the oblivious, twitchy bride?

The solution that Verity Hawkes, costume designer for the new BBC and FX limited series, found was to screw up most of the adaptations. “I wanted to push it a little bit and not do museum pieces,” Hawkes told IndieWire about the show’s costumes, particularly Olivia Colman’s Miss Havisham. While the rest of the characters wear a (relatively) more modern Georgian style, Miss Havisham wanders the dusty, empty rooms that evoke the Regency style of the original novel’s setting and place her in a much more distant past.

“I wanted (with Estella and Miss Havisham) to have a ‘Grey Gardens’ feel to them,” Hawkes said. Hawkes wore older clothes from the Empire line, hinting that Havisham shares her older clothes with Estella, all part of an effort to recreate her maiden self and wreak vengeance on men. “They are these isolated women with their own world view. He and Estella share the clothes and everything.

'GREAT EXPECTATIONS' - Episode 3 - Pictured (L-R): Olivia Colman as 'Miss Havisham', Shalom Brune-Franklin as 'Estella'.  CR: Miya Mizuno/FX

“Great Expectation”

Miya Mizuno/FX

The overall design of Miss Havisham’s house also follows the Gray Gardens aesthetic, with a tree creeping in behind the broken windows and a sense of resumption as moss creeps around the corners. A sense of encroaching rot also influenced Havisham’s appearance, as opposed to the cobwebbed, dusty look that most adaptations went for. Hawkes and his team wanted to bring out all the layers of the character, the woman she was and what time has done to her, by creating pieces that look both beautiful and bad, rather than highbrow horror.

“I knew I didn’t want a dusty wedding dress,” Hawkes said. “And there is this artist, Kathleen Ryan, who recreates mold with semi-precious stones and creates these sculptures made of fruits and objects. And I was always fascinated by them, how they made mold look beautiful. So (the process of dressing Havisham) was an exploration of mold and the beauty of mold.”

“Great Expectations” isn’t the only recent series to find a macabre, tragic beauty in the bruise-colored patterns of mold. But in order for Hawkes and his team to have the canvas to play out the wedding dress deterioration, they first had to create a lavish statement that suggests the character grew up by accident.

'GREAT EXPECTATIONS' - Part 2 - Pictured (L-R): Olivia Colman as 'Miss Havisham', Tom Sweet as "Young Pip" CR: Miya Mizuno/FX

“Great Expectation”

Miya Mizuno/FX

“I knew I wanted to get all the Chinese symbols because his family made their money from the opium trade. So her headdress is a Chinese wedding headdress,” Hawkes said. “The veil and train have Chinese motifs of birds and flowers. The front of her dress features a replica of a Chinese silk panel with all the embroidery done by our fabulous artisans. It’s all different weights of silk, and the netting is a very fine silk – although it looks quite different by the time it’s gone through all the breaking down processes.”

A slightly more deteriorated, rotting version of the dress also fit Colman’s interpretation of the character. “You wanted to make it damp and moldy and rotten because it was rotten,” Hawkes said. “Damn man.” This kind of dank, sleazy nature has crept into the house and crept into it.”

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