Marco Polo (2014-2016)


We have touched on the costumes in Marco Polo (2014-2016) a few years back, but we’ve never really dug into them in any meaningful way. The promotional material for the show fell very hard on the side of “Game of Thrones minus the dragons” so I wasn’t much inclined to watch it until I was persuaded to sit down and give it a go recently, by my all-things-Mongol-loving boyfriend.

Let’s just get this out of the way, upfront: The promotional material doesn’t do the level of accuracy and thought show put into the history justice. And contrary to the perception that this was going to be fairly minimal on the costume content, Marco Polo actually delivers a lot of costume eye candy.

Promo image that made the rounds when the show debuted. You’d have a hard time distinguishing any of this from Game of Thrones.

I found the fact that, while the show is told through the eyes of the Venetian “explorer” Marco Polo, it does not fall into the “white guy shows up and teaches the savages how to be civilized” trope that, even to this day, gets a lot of traction in these biopics about Europeans coming into contact with non-European cultures. If anything, the show immediately makes it clear that Kublai Khan’s Mongolian court is made up of a mix of cultures and ethnicities, and when Marco is effectively taken hostage in a trade deal gone sour, his perspective is just one of many the Great Khan comes to rely on. The real drama is the precarious tension between the Mongols and the Song Dynasty, which is about to erupt into the sort of blood bath that military historians still love discussing, 800 years later. Toss some forbidden love story elements into the mix, a dash of martial arts, and some really stunning costuming, and it’s an entertaining watch.

My favorite scenes are the ones that take place in Kublai Kahn’s court. The representation of at least four distinct cultures is evident in this photo: Islamic, Chinese, Mongolian, and Hindu.

Costume designer, Jo Korer, who was a costume supervisor on historical productions like John Adams (2008) and The Duchess (2008), took several trips to Mongolia in preparation for designing the costumes for Marco Polo. She worked with a historian to strike a balance between historical accuracy (always difficult when so little of the material history of these cultures exists) and what “reads” on screen as plausible, yet pleasing to modern sensibilities. I think that she achieved that balance pretty well, all things considered.

Benedict Wong (right) as Kublai Khan was a great casting choice. I also loved the subtle Chinese elements that were worked into his costumes, showing how his own desire to conquer the Chinese also led him to adopt elements of their culture. It’s something that gets remarked upon quite a bit in the show; Kublai’s family and their supporters grumble that he’s losing touch with his Mongolian identity.

Some of the strongest costuming in the show is on the less elaborate clothing of the non-nobles.

All in all, I think this is a good watch if you’re feeling like some eye candy (and believe me, there’s a lot of eye candy) and some cool costumes from an area and era we don’t often see in Western film.


Have you seen Marco Polo on Netflix?


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

6 Responses

  1. Jillian

    I was on the fence about this show, but I trust your judgement on things like this. I’ll probably give it a watch now, thanks!

  2. hsc

    The stills you post look fantastic, and I’m really impressed with your description. Benedict Wong is a plus.

    But I have to ask before jumping into this (and this is, alas, all too often a consideration with Netflix productions these days):

    Does the cancellation after two seasons leave a lot of unresolved issues at the end– or does it work as a still-satisfying viewing, plot-wise?


    • ruby

      MASSIVE cliffhanger at the end of s2 we will never, ever see resolved. A good 1/2-2/3 of the characters are left in the lurch.

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I’ll watch but later. Conserving money due to rotator cuff surgery recovery and pt

  4. Saraquill

    If your boyfriend is into all things Mongol, I’m guessing you’ve also listened to The Hu?

  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    I watched a few episodes when it was released, and I just couldn’t get into it. As you say, the look of the show is beautiful and varied, but to me the actor cast as Marco Polo was not charismatic enough to pull off that role. Also, I agree with you that the “white guy teaches the savages” trope was largely absent. I always planned to return to it someday because it was well-done despite my feeling “meh” about Marco. Thanks for giving this show a nudge!


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