Have you seen anything so full of splendor?
No, we’re not talking about that surprise Game of Thrones cameo. We’re talking, of course, about the effortlessly chic costumes that are gracing our screens each week in Westworld’s third season.
With this new season taking fans into yet another new world — the real world set in 2052, that is — co-creators and executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy recruited a new series costume designer, Shay Cunliffe, to bring this futuristic fashion to life.
We at ET have been lusting over Westworld’s sophisticated and sleek new looks, but we were particularly stunned by Dolores’ (Evan Rachel Wood) black-to-gold transformation dress from the season 3 premiere – so we called up Cunliffe to find out exactly how she pulled off this fashion metamorphosis.
“I think even at my job interview with Jonah, we discussed futuristic clothes and he mentioned right then that he loved the idea that future clothes were more than just clothing,” Cunliffe recalls. “He mentioned how much he loved clothes that could actually turn into something else. That’s a passion I also shared with him from long ago. I started in the theater and theater involved a lot of super quick changes, running off stage and returning.”
Cunliffe says that her “long-standing passion” for quick-change costumes combined with Nolan’s adoration for practical effects is what sparked the idea for Dolores’ now-iconic party entrance from the season 3 premiere.
“It’s not enough that the dress transforms, but it had to go from two dresses that look good and plausible on her, in their own right, and could be stand-alone costumes,” she explains. “I also knew it needed to have fabric that would hang just the way we wanted under a gold gown. It’s very important that it be a fabric that can roll up easily and not get stuck on itself. We right away began making prototypes which we tested on a mannequin and got Jonah to come in and see it.”
In the scene, Dolores is strutting through the crowd at a high-end party while wearing a chic, little black dress. Seconds later, and without breaking her stride, Dolores makes one swift tug and the dress magically transitions into a floor-length, shimmering gold gown.
“It’s essentially one dress that’s two dresses, obviously. And the gold dress is rolled up inside the black dress,” Cunliffe says, adding that she and her seamstress went through “a couple prototypes” and “experimented with how to fold up [the fabric] origami-style” before they settled on the final look.
“It was a huge relief!” she exclaims.
“The whole dress is not sewn together but held together with snaps, little tiny snaps. So the one pull releases snaps and the rest just takes care of itself,” she says. “I think it creates more of a shock, wearing a long gown from a very short one.”
Cunliffe revealed that she had to coach Wood on how to confidently pull at the fabric to unleash the transformation. “It worked like a charm in all our fittings,” she dishes. “Once we made the final dress up, we did a couple little practice fittings with her walking and looking straight forward and having faith that this dress will always do what you want it to do.”
When it came to the day of filming the big reveal in front of the cameras, Cunliffe was pleased to see that the dress “worked perfectly” on the very first take.
“It was my favorite moment on a film set because the guys on the set all assumed it would be a special effect, that she was probably just wearing a dress to mark the point. The special effects guys didn’t realize that they didn’t have to do anything about this dress,” she says. “And the whole crew erupted in applause! It was just a great moment. I never had that [happen on-set] before on a costume.”
“That was my favorite costume I’ve ever done,” she happily shares.
Cunliffe added that it only took three takes for them to get the moment right on-screen — but one of those takes will definitely make it into the Westworld blooper reel!
“In the second take, [Evan] comes to the top of the stairs and does it, but I think she lost confidence in how she has to be forceful when she pulls the neckline and it didn’t work,” she recalls with a laugh. “The top of the dress just flopped down and stayed there around her chest. It was actually a great moment of hilarity.”
As for the rest of Dolores’ fashion-forward pieces in season 3? Cunliffe revealed that it was a “tall order” to create a brand-new wardrobe for a character who has spent the majority of the first two seasons wearing the exact same light blue dress.
“You know, I hadn’t done the first two seasons [of Westworld] so I hadn’t related at all to the western,” she says. “And it was a little nerve-wracking. Jonah had said, ‘I absolutely don’t want this to look like Star Trek.'”
“This is taking place 30 years in the future and I’m still wearing things from 30 years ago, frankly,” Cunliffe says. “And when you look back, it’s not so very different. It’s often in small touches. So we didn’t want to do some way out there, totally distracting costumes. We wanted a sense of futurism and a sense that clothes are now smart clothes with hidden properties.”
“Westworld is an incredibly active show, so a huge part of the process was making sure we had costumes that could really kick a**,” Cunliffe continues. “She starts out in these kind of sexy ankle boots with a heel and I felt a bit bad about that because in my dreams in the future, women don’t feel obligated to wear those kind of shoes if they don’t want to.”
“And the triumph came about in the middle of this season. I get her into some real tough, flat boots and I thought, ‘Well, at least there’s that victory.’ Let’s not make Evan run around in little high heels anymore,” she says with a chuckle.
As an internationally recognized costume designer, Cunliffe has been designing for various high-profile film and television projects since 1984, with highlights including Fifty Shades Freed (2018), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.