Desperate times have a way of pressuring innovation to the surface, a fact made clear in the new Netflix series “Transatlantic,” a historical drama about how prominent European Jewish and anti-Nazi artists and intellectuals creatively sought escape with the help of a private American relief organization, the Emergency Rescue Committee.
The series is adapted from “The Flight Portfolio,” Julie Orringer’s 2019 novel about American journalist Varian Fry and his work with the group in Marseille, France, more than 80 years ago.
From 1940 to 1941, Fry — played by Cory Michael Smith — and Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, played by Gillian Jacobs, helped nearly 2,000 people escape France and the Nazis, including artists Marc Chagall, André Breton, Max Ernst, economist Albert Hirschman, poet Walter Mehring, philosophers Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin and writer Heinrich Mann, who relocated to Los Angeles.
British costume designer Justine Seymour had almost overwhelming amounts of material to help her illuminate the characters and their fates. Some of the clothes show a clear lineage to military uniforms and the dreamlike Surrealist art prominent in the period. More influence came from right here in L.A.
“Generally speaking, at that time, people were looking toward Hollywood for inspiration. It was the Golden Age of American cinema, and that was influencing American fashion,” Seymour said. “And ‘Superman’ had come out in the ’30s and that drove the look of the ’40s with the exaggerated shoulder, baggy pants and cinched waist. I think that was inspired by Clark Kent.”
The look and feel of the era swerved toward escapism, but Seymour’s research was more grounded, helped by the many memoirs and historical documents that vividly brought the subjects’ plight to life.
“If I’m to be honest, I do actually weep when I’m doing my research. It’s very sad, the things I have to research,” said Seymour, speaking from Berlin, where she is often based. Two weeks after “Transatlantic” production began in early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and renewed the emphasis on the horrors of war and the status of refugees.
In that context, it can seem jarring to see Holocaust-era characters dressed extravagantly, while others had few possessions beyond the clothes on their backs, but as Seymour explained, “Europe at that time was a place of extreme contradictions.”
Further, Winger wanted to avoid the look of a period drama. “She wanted it to look like regular people who happened to be living 80 years ago,” Seymour said. “I actually am a purist. I try to keep it as real as I can. If anything is exaggerated, it is only because the character would have done it themselves.”
Fry detailed his experiences and wardrobe in books. “He actually had a list of what was in his suitcase,” Seymour said. “That was like gold for me. He was a Brooks Brothers man. I wanted to lean into the fact that he was a very honorable man and his wardrobe didn’t stray.”
Gold, the Chicago heiress who helped fund the refugee committee, was partial to couture, including Surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who famously collaborated with artists such as Salvador Dali. “I bought many of Mary Jayne’s clothes at antique markets and cut them to make them fit her perfectly, so they were of that time but unique to her,” Seymour said.
For Gold, the designer employed Schiaparelli signatures such as cartoonish appliques, outlandish accessories, vivid prints and even the iconic upside-down shoe hat, this time remade in papier-mâché by Marseille milliners. Seymour also made a “faux fur” coat from pressed velvet to honor Jacobs’ refusal to wear real fur.
“There is no way an heiress of that time didn’t have a mink coat,” Seymour said. Men of the era also wore fur, a telling plot point when a wealthy businessman refugee employs his massive fur as camouflage.
“I had to make [the coat] because of the storyline where he had these pockets and had hid all his jewels and his entire wealth and the odd sausage in there for him to eat,” Seymour said. The look was based on a photo of French artist Marcel Duchamp “in this ridiculous, yeti-like coat.”
Clothing has an important subtext in the series in which Seymour illustrates how crucially it served its wearers. An opening scene shows Gold swapping her designer dress with a refugee’s dirty shirtwaist to allow the woman to blend more easily into society. The young, underfed Hirschman’s baggy pants and worn leather jacket demonstrate his rebel and refugee status. A rabbi drowns when he can’t shed his heavy coat, one of his few remaining possessions and perhaps his only shelter.
Clothes were often subterfuge. Fry’s impeccable tailoring deflected suspicion from his rebel actions. Glamorous British spy Margaux, a fictional character based on Josephine Baker, was the epitome of elegant ’40s power dressing with her sharp skirt suits, golden brooches and fur stoles.
“I used Josephine Baker, because she was fabulous and amazing and a spy. She was so fabulous and ‘out there,’ so who would ever think she was ever doing anything untoward?”
Clothes became symbols of oppression and artistic expression at a party scene, the most elaborate undertaking for Seymour in the series, requiring 120 costumes. Artists, writers and even arts patron Peggy Guggenheim had taken shelter at a Marseilla villa while the others awaited visas. To help endure the slow grind of bureaucracy, they celebrated the birthday of Surrealist painter and Guggenheim’s future husband Ernst. They made art and costumes from what was at hand — newspapers, doll heads, chicken feathers and fans.
Guggenheim donned a crown rimmed with forks, an allusion to the uselessness of cutlery in a time of little food. Mary Jane wore a corset made of leather gloves, a Schiaparelli signature that Seymour saw referenced in modern collections by Martin Margiela, Dolce & Gabbana and Diane von Furstenberg. She also used Ernst’s frequent symbol and alter ego, the Loplop bird, to inspire feathered costumes and capes for the party. To costume Breton, one of the Surrealist movement’s founders, Seymour re-created a Man Ray photo of the artist wearing goggles and a rectangle of paper framing his face.
In making the innovative costumes, Seymour shared a little of her characters’ experiences of making art, being creative and employing escapism, even if there was darkness all around.