Free Reign: Costume Designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack Blends History & Haute Couture

Celina Sinden as Greer, Anna Popplewell as Lola and Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots

Celina Sinden as Greer, Anna Popplewell as Lola and Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots

Meredith Markworth-Pollack

Meredith Markworth-Pollack

The CW has a long string of hits on its hands, with shows such as the Vampire Diaries and Hart of Dixie earning legions of rabid fans thanks to slick production, complex story lines and always-attractive casts. Reign, one of the network’s newest additions, follows the travails of Mary, Queen of Scots, as she acclimates to life at court in France. Naturally, Queen Mary has to navigate through love triangles (with half-brothers, no less), backstabbing and political power plays. And while the show may take a few liberties with historical accuracy, the cast’s wardrobe is also a study in the art of creative license.

Instead of pulling looks straight out of tapestries and oil paintings, costume designer Meredith Markwork-Pollack (who also worked on the CW’s Hart of Dixie and as Eric Daman’s assistant on Gossip Girl) pulls inspiration from modern designers and brands — from Alexander McQueen to Free People — to give the show’s characters a unique blend of modern fashion and historical elements. We sat down with Markworth-Pollack to discuss the challenges of combining haute couture inspiration with 16th century tradition, how she gives Mary and her ladies a cool, contemporary look, and how you can loosen up and play with your own wardrobe to create an utterly regal style all your own!

Fashion Trends Daily: Reign is such a lush, opulent show. Where do you take liberties with history and how do you decide what to make more modern?

Meredith Markworth-Pollack: It was the initial concept of the creators to establish a contemporary, bohemian feel to the costumes. Given the demographic of the CW network, and the general modern tone of the show, we all agreed we should just go for it. It became apparent right away in my fittings that Mary and her ladies in waiting were the ones to play around with contemporary designs. It fit for them and I knew our young female viewers would be watching them for their style, let’s say over our men or Queen Catherine.

Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots

Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots

FTD: The CW is known for really stylish shows and the most striking thing about the Reign costumes is that they’re not 100% historical. What aspects of the costumes do you have — excuse the term — free reign over and what do you keep more accurate?

MMP: There’s a fine line. We work really hard to not have the modernness of the costumes take you out of the moment. The palette, silhouettes, and and structure of these pieces are very important. We have very few “rules” with the contemporary elements but anything short is out the door, we do keep long hems. The fabrics are also very important to me, especially with the overly sensitized HD element on TV. I stay away from anything too synthetic or bright. I like a soft, muted palette.

FTD: What designers are your favorites for the show?

MMP: When I began pulling tears and making mood-boards for the characters, Alexander McQueen became a go to for Queen Mary. The opulence, the strength, and the historical references are just ever-flowing in McQueen. I rent and purchase pieces from the collections.

FTD: Any other designers?

MMP: Designers like Dolce & Gabbana have models in beaded chainmail! Marchesa, Reem Acra, Naeem Khan and Monique Lhuillier also really embrace this. Temperley London is another designer I’m constantly shopping for. Her pieces are feminine, delicate, and vintage inspired which works well for Mary and her ladies. Free People as well has been a big go to — I will usually take one of their pieces and tweak it slightly to make it work for the show, like add a long skirt under a short dress, or cut a dress into a top. 

Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots and Manolo Cardona as Tomas

Adelaide Kane as Mary, Queen of Scots and Manolo Cardona as Tomas

FTD: The fact that you have to customize or modify designer creations is really interesting, and it gives the show a unique feel. Are there any looks that really stand out to you?

MMP: My personal favorite look is Mary’s dress she wears in the third episode when she’s dancing with Thomas, the Prince of Portugal. If found a very small piece of a beaded and embellished Indian fabric in black, rose gold, and gold. We made a high neck sleeveless bodice with a tulle ruff and detached arm bands. I love how strong and commanding this piece is on Mary. Also a great reference to the historical element but with a fresh twist.

FTD: Fans of television, and the CW especially, look to their favorite characters’ wardrobes for inspiration. While people might not be dressing in floor-length gowns, what can they take away from the looks you’ve created for Reign?

MMP: The response I’ve gotten from the fans is truly inspiring. They’re constantly reaching out to us on social media asking us how they can create the look, or where they can get the pieces. And although we use quite a bit of custom and designer pieces that are out of their reach, we also integrate off-the-rack items and tons of vintage which anyone can source.

FTD: Can you give us a few tips from the costume department?

MMP: I tell them when trying to create a Reign look, first of all, to think outside the box. If you find a dress in a thrift store, what you see is not what you get. You can make it into a top, bejewel it, or use the embroidery for another piece. We do this every day on Reign. We even re-work designer pieces to make them fit for the show. There are no rules. It’s also about taking risks and experimenting — throw on a corset and see how it makes you feel.

Caitlin Stasey as Kenna

Caitlin Stasey as Kenna

FTD: We can’t talk royal fashion without mentioning crowns. The headpieces and accessories on Reign are amazing. Do you get those custom made, too?

MMP: Accessories are a huge part of the look on Reign. Mary alone has over 40 headpieces — and those are just ones that have made it to camera. I keep a very populated stock of jewelry and hair accessories for all the girls. I source quite a bit of the vintage pieces in Toronto, where we shoot. There is a vibrant vintage scene there and I have many vendors hunting for me.

Celina Sinden as Greer, Anna Popplewell as Lola and Caitlin Stasey as Kenna

Celina Sinden as Greer, Anna Popplewell as Lola and Caitlin Stasey as Kenna

FTD: Those finishing touches really stand out, especially for fashion junkies like us. Where do you get accessories and extras that fit in with the feel of the show?

MMP: The Outnet, BHLDN, and Shopbop are go-to’s for accessories. I have several relationships with headpiece designers and we are constantly swapping out samples with them. Amanda Judge, Jennifer Behr, and Deborah Moreland just to name a few. Again, the historical element of the accessories isn’t as important for us as the general tone of them. I want to make sure they compliment the look, not distract from it.

FTD: As you know, the theme of the Met Gala this year is Charles James, and he’s nothing if not a gown maestro. Are you excited to see the dresses?

MMP: I have never been so into gowns as I am now working on Reign, so yes I’m excited to see all the various shapes and colors that show up. I immediately think of Zac Posen and his vintage inspired gowns that have appearing on the red carpet the past couple years. I’m hugely fond of his silhouettes on women.

Shop our favorite Reign inspired looks:
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Images courtesy Matchbook and the CW

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Author:Christopher Luu for Fashion Trends Daily

Christopher Luu is a Fashion Trends Daily Senior Writer and Menswear Editor.