Following the Underground Railroad on WGN


The second season of Underground (2016-) premieres on WGN America on March 8, 2017, and this Civil War drama about the Underground Railroad will introduce actual historical figures like Harriet Tubman (played by Aisha Hinds) and an appearance of Frederick Douglass (played by John Legend). So it’s about time we reviewed the first season.

I admit I was dubious about the costumes going in because some not-so-great photos had come up in searches, and we’d used them for Snark Week (the hair! the fit! urgh). But in context, these things are far less noticeable (OK, except Elizabeth’s hair, it’s still totally new wave 1980s). The storyline is compelling, the acting is top-notch, and the costumes are not egregiously inaccurate as to be distracting. Everything looks generally right and not jarring.

Underground (2016)

In this still, it looks like the skirt worn by Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) has an elastic or drawstring waist, because it’s bunched up and gaps. But I didn’t notice that onscreen.

Underground (2016)

Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) generally wears some of the most historically accurate clothes, but her hairstyle doesn’t work IMO.

Underground (2016)

As the field boss, Cato (Alano Miller) gets better clothes than the other slaves.

Underground (2016)

The fancy party scenes look OK (tho’ please let that be hook-and-eye closure, not a zipper up the back of that silver dress in the center), but it’s the hair that’s the most inaccurate.

What stands out more glaringly is the modern music, especially since it’s not as deeply and consistently woven into the show like in Peaky Blinders (2013) or Copper (2012). Just here and there, scenes will be underscored with pop/hip-hop tunes, and it feels unexpected. This is mixed in with traditional gospel music, which is, of course, more appropriate. John Legend selected much of the music for the series, and, according to interviews, the mix of modern and period music is on purpose to ‘grab a younger audience.’ Sure, I guess, I just wish it had been done more thoroughly. Go big or go home, you know?

None of these nitpicks are enough to avoid the show because the series is compelling. The entwined storylines of the enslaved peoples, the masters, the abolitionists, and the slave traders are complicated and believable. Most of the attention is on the characters who are enslaved, those in the big house and those in the field, and the deeply twisted system that forces them into factions. It’s faintly like the worst office politics you can imagine, where some folks are sucking up to the boss to get crumbs of attention, while others are plotting revenge. Ultimately, it’s about survival and escape. This is an action-adventure series as much as a historical costume show — we are following the main characters on the run for their lives.

Underground (2016)

Costumes in Underground

Sure, we’ve snarked Underground‘s costumes, and then I’ve said they’re passable within the series, but that’s not unusual. This is a basic-cable TV series, clearly not a big-budget production, and not everything worn onscreen is going to be super historically accurate. Assembled all together, however, the picture works for 1850s Georgia. Costume designer Karyn Wagner (who studied art history at UC Davis!) researched the era to get inspiration for Underground‘s look, specifically citing daguerreotypes in the book Dressed for the Photographer. However, she and the producers also wanted the look to be relatable to modern audiences:

“On Underground I really modernized the 1850s. I wanted the characters to be very, very accessible, so I incorporated more modern fabrics. After long discussions with the showrunners and the director and the production designer, we hit upon this narrow bandwidth, if you will, where everything references the period, but we’ve taken it to a place that may never have existed. You can’t know for sure because nobody’s seen the inside of every single household in 1857, but it seems unlikely that some of these things actually existed in the form that we made them. But we didn’t go too far off topic, again, so as to be distracting.”

Underground (2016)

Ernestine (Amirah Vann) and the other house slaves wear colors that blend in with the wallpaper to emphasize that they were considered “things” and not real human beings.

Wagner notes in an other interview that the modern aesthetic comes out particularly in the colors schemes:

“Each group had its own color palette, the northerners had darker colors, sort of more patriotic colors, but also those were sort of inspired by Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten, and then the southerners were from Dior in the ’50s, I looked at Versace from the ’80s, I looked at things from the turn of the century, you know, all much later than our era, but trying to imbue each costume with a sense of its own place in our universe in our galaxy.”

Underground (2016)

Again, the hair could be more historically accurate, as seen on the lady of the house, Suzannah (Andrea Frankle).

Underground (2016)

One other small quibble is that the field slaves’ clothes (and when they’re running away) could use more distressing. Everything looks very clean and new. But it’s clear that Karyn Wagner didn’t have the resources to create those effects in the tight timelines of a TV production.

She further discusses the difficulty of making over 7,000 costume pieces for the season with a small, relatively unskilled labor pool in Baton Rouge, Florida, under the fast-paced conditions of a TV production, in this video.




Will you be tuning in to Underground‘s season 2?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

9 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    No, because I don’t think it will play in France… And I don’t have Netflix and such.

    On another note, me likey the ball pic. Trying to sew a ball gown from that era (not easy), and the bodice looks a lot like that peach gown… Will have to hunt some more piccies!

    I have questions about the black gown next to it: That looks very “Claire Outlanderish”, if you don’t mind me saying so. Also, nobody sneezes or there’s gonna be an incident! *cackles*

  2. ladylavinia1932

    The hairstyles for women (especially the white women) in this series is very off. And judging from the images I have seen, nothing has changed. Don’t get me wrong. I love the series. But . . . there were a few historical inaccuracies . . . especially the hairstyles.

    Yes, but I’m trying to find season I at library.

    Do you have Netflix? Or perhaps you can make a search online for full length episodes.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yeah, the hair is definitely the weakest point. Can’t tell if it’s bec. they didn’t have the budget or they made a choice to look more modern.

  3. ladylavinia1932

    One other small quibble is that the field slaves’ clothes (and when they’re running away) could use more distressing. Everything looks very clean and new. But it’s clear that Karyn Wagner didn’t have the resources to create those effects in the tight timelines of a TV production.

    Their clothes didn’t look clean to me.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Well, consider something like 12 Years a Slave or Beloved — the field slaves & runaway slaves in those film productions had clothes that looked looked much more grimy & worn down. I get it, this is a TV production with much tighter deadlines, & fabric distressing is an advanced skill that takes time (in the video, the costume designer talks about using what sound like home seamstresses to get the job done).

  4. Susan Pola

    Just finished watching season 1 on DVD. Besides Elizabeth’s black gown worn to the Governor’s Ball and her Green dress worn at the party at her brother-in-law’s plantation being beautiful and a bit off and jarring. Costume designer stated that she wanted a Dior feel to Elizabeth’s wardrobe (shades of Claire Fraser), I found the costumes were in keeping with 1857 fashions.
    What really struck me was how powerful the show was. The acting was topnotch, especially Journee’s and Aldis’ (I loved his geeky role in Leverage), but his Noah showed his power as an actor.
    Can’t wait for season 2.

  5. ladylavinia1932

    For Season 2, the series went off the radar in regard to historical accuracy. And I’m not just talking about about costumes and hair styles.