Annie Symons is an Emmy- and BAFTA-nominated costume designer who has outfitted characters on TV shows and films including the BBC’s Great Expectations and The Crimson Petal and The White. She’s now dressing the cast of the new Starz show Da Vinci’s Demons, a drama that probes the artist and inventor Leonardo’s fascinating life in 15th century Florence. Symons spoke with TIME about how she brings Renaissance Italy to life onscreen.
How did you research the costumes from this era?
This is pre-photography, so paintings are the primary source, and sculpture. It being the Renaissance, the painting is very informed and detailed, but subject to an artist’s eye, and certainly not the eye of someone who makes things. Logically, things don’t work on the picture plane the way they would in real life, so it’s quite a puzzle. I cast a net far and wide, because the [directive] was to contemporize it and make people look sexy. I looked at many sources, some of whom were contemporary fashion designers, and tried to make a synthesis of shapes that remained loyal to the period, but also flattered and redefined history.
Do you inject any modern touches into the costumes?
Plenty. The menswear in High Renaissance Italy is quite challenging, so I put all the men in leather trousers and made them feel sexy and strong. The topcoats were modified and adapted from Renaissance shapes, but simplified. What Da Vinci himself wears, it’s kind of ubiquitous: a leather jacket. I’ve drawn on it and painted on it, so he’s scribbled on his arm. Laura Haddock’s character [Lucrezia Donati] is like a trapped bird, so I used a lot of wings and cages as symbols and motifs in her costume, as well as using multiple layers to indicate how she literally moves between all these worlds. Clarice Orsini, who is the first woman of the Medici, obviously had to look extremely wealthy and poised. I looked at Balenciaga and Dior and tried to modernize—I went slightly later in the Renaissance to give her that really sculpted couture look.
What are some of the challenges you faced in dressing the cast?
The challenges in this were how to define a piece of history as something believable and approachable for a young audience—to not alienate the audience by putting costume on that was too rigid or formal, unless it needed to be. Keeping up with the gore and keeping up with the blood is always a challenge. We’d have to quickly duplicate a principal costume which we’d only had one of.
Who is your favorite character to dress?
I enjoyed them all individually. You’ve got three very strong, very different-looking leading women. And the men were all very different, but with less variables. I quite liked Giuliano Medici, who’s played by Tom Bateman. I nodded towards a lot of motifs from Versace—this bling, this over the top, ostentatious Florentine design, and covered him in gold and big printed shirts.
How did you get started in costume design?
My mother and my grandmother were incredibly well-dressed. I was flipping through Vogues before I could read, really. My mom made all my clothes and my grandmother did embroidery, and I used to copy stuff from the TV for my dolls when I was little. When I was at school, we were taken on a school trip to the local theater. I looked ‘round the wardrobe department and I literally fell in love with it. The woman who was the wardrobe mistress there is still one of my closest friends. It was kismet, really!