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May 24, 2021

'Mare of Easttown' costume designer talks Kate Winslet's 'security blanket' and storytelling through fashion

Meghan Kasperlik, whose credits include 'American Hustle' and 'The Dark Knight Rises,' gives the series' characters regional authenticity through her choices of clothing

TV Mare of Easttown
Mare Jacket Kasperlik Michele K. Short/HBO

Kate Winslet's Filson winter jacket functions as a 'security blanket' for Mare Sheehan in HBO's 'Mare of Easttown,' according to series costume designer Meghan Kasperlik.

The hard-won realism of HBO's hit detective drama "Mare of Easttown" speaks to a lot more than its painstaking Delco accents.

Every detail of the show's production, from Mare's musty Ocean City sweatshirt to the Philadelphia Eagles upholstered chair in Kenny McMenamin's living room, was handpicked to give the series its vivid and evocative edge.

On the morning Mare delivers Kenny the news that his daughter was murdered, it's hard not to picture all the Sundays Kenny got drunk and clutched the arms of that chair during tense fourth quarters of Eagles games. The sense that he might have taken it out on Erin when things didn't end well is palpable.

And as Mare watches the foreshadowing of family drama in that explosive moment, she's cloaked in the same old Filson jacket that epitomizes her stoicism as an investigator. 

These intimate marks of storytelling reveal how important it was for writer Brad Ingelsby and his crew to layer the presence of Easttown into the show's plot, making the community's domestic rhythm the heartbeat of the series. 

It was Ingelsby, a Berwyn, Chester County native, who suggested to costume designer Meghan Kasperlik that she spend time people-watching at Wawa to do research for the show. Parts of the series were filmed in 2019 before the pandemic. The cast and crew reconvened in 2020 and completed the production under the constraints of Pennsylvania's health and safety protocols, shooting at Philly-area locations, including Coatesville, Chadds Ford, Phoenixville, Wallingford, Springfield and several Philadelphia neighborhoods. 

Mare Billy JohnMichele K. Short/HBO

Billy and John Ross, played by Robert Tann and Joe Tippell, sit in the living room of their cousin, Kenny McMenamin, played by Patrick Murney, as he learns of the death of his daughter, Erin.

Before joining "Mare of Easttown," Kasperlik's last TV project was HBO's "Watchmen" mini-series, an ornate superhero action-drama that sits on the other end of the spectrum in terms of design. That series, set in Tulsa, Okla., was actually filmed in Atlanta.

"Going back to something that was really community driven and authentic was of interest to me, and completely the opposite of what I did for 'Watchmen,'" Kasperlik said. "I thought, if Kate Winslet is going to do this project, there has to be something special about it."

Kasperlik's costume design credits include work on major films from "The Dark Knight Rises" and "American Hustle" to "Ocean's Eight" and "Fahrenheit 451."

Kasperlik Headshot MareCourtesy/for PhillyVoice

Meghan Kasperlik.

She knew of Ingelsby's connection to Pennsylvania through his work co-writing "Out of the Furnace," a 2013 crime drama set around Pittsburgh. It reminded her of her own work on the gritty indie film "Little Accidents," set in a West Virginia coal mining town.

Kasperlik has lived in New York City for years, formerly working in fashion PR and styling before she landed a production role under Patricia Field, the costume designer for "Sex and the City." She grew up in the area of Grand Rapids, Mich., and explained that she came to "Mare of Easttown" knowing a thing or two about the anti-aesthetic of cold weather, hardworking communities.

"I felt like temperature-wise, climate, the working class setting – it was all similar to where I grew up," Kasperlik said of Philly's western suburbs. "If someone was in construction or they worked at the local pub, or they coached the little league soccer team, they always had a logo on."

Two Philadelphia-area buyers helped Kasperlik acquire many of the distinctive articles of clothing seen throughout the series, from certain band T-shirts to prints that pay homage to local businesses.

"A big thing with TV is getting the clearances to make sure that we're permitted to use a lot of the logos," Kasperlik said. "You never can have anyone who is committing a crime or is a suspect wear something that maybe shows the brand in a poor light."

Take the character of Dylan Hinchey, Erin's ex-boyfriend and a prime suspect in her murder. He appears in scenes wearing a number of different of band shirts, like Korn and the lesser-known King's Destroyer, a New York band Kasperlik knows and got their blessing to include in the show. He also sports a Kung Fu Necktie hoodie in the penultimate episode when he's interviewed by Mare and Chief Carter, giving a nod to the Fishtown bar and music venue. 

"I figured this is a kid who's probably listening to a multitude of music and just maybe a little bit off-brand," Kasperlik said. "It's not necessarily what's the most trendy. It's just stuff that he might have liked and picked up along the way."

Then there's the Dave Matthews Band T-shirt worn by Mare's closest friend, Lori Ross. The shirt recently fueled a Reddit fan theory that Lori is somehow connected to Erin's murder. The body on the graphic tee resembles the position in which Erin's body was found in Creedham Creek. 

You're not supposed to see Kate Winslet. You're supposed to see Mare. That was a big storytelling point within the costumes and the hair and makeup – to not make anyone think that's Kate Winslet." – Meghan Kasperlik, "Mare of Easttown" costume designer

"I have not seen that one," Kasperlik said. "That's really interesting. I think with this project, I've thought a lot about how excited people are about the details that go into everything, and that people are noticing them. I have to remind myself that people will see the details. They'll want to talk about the details. I have to push myself to continue to put my full attention into all of that in future projects."

Nowhere is the show's costume and makeup work more impressive than on its star actress, Kate Winslet, who has spoken candidly about how Mare Sheehan is a "hot mess" and "doesn't give a s*** what she looks like." Winslet even told Indiewire that she's personally a lot more like Mare, in real life, than she is the dazzling characters she's played in other films.

Kasperlik found the test of dressing Winslet a rare, rewarding opportunity to bring a tough character like Mare to life, leaving just enough room for beauty to shine through her personal resignation.

"Kate is really, really lovely and amazing – and such a collaborator," Kasperlik said. "She normally plays someone who's a little more glamorous and put together, so when people are talking about, 'Oh, she's Kate Winslet, she doesn't look good,' it's really that she's playing a very down-to-earth, blue-collar, normal person. She's a stunningly beautiful woman and so to kind of take her down and make her look like your average person instead of a movie star is always a great challenge."

Most days, Winslet would show up to work in jeans and a T-shirt – sometimes sweatpants, why not? Hairstylist Lawrence Davis reportedly told the show's cast to bring their best bed head to the set each day, defeating the purpose of delicate grooming. The intent for Mare was generally the opposite. 

"We didn't always put the most flattering stuff on her, and that was kind of the point to make her look maybe a little heavier, a little more real – not like a movie star and more like your average person who doesn't tailor their clothes," Kasperlik said. "When I do shows like 'Watchmen,' you want everything to be very tailored, but the whole point of 'Mare' was to make everybody look like maybe they just pick their clothes up off the floor and think to themselves they have one more day until they have to wash it. It's more like how a lot of us just throw something on in the morning and go."

Kasperlik was particularly attached to the symbolism of Mare's beat-up Filson jacket, the one that probably reeks of Fruity Pebbles, or whatever vape flavor Mare prefers.

"I very much did not want there to be multiple coats," Kasperlik said. "I think a lot of times on TV, you see a lot of changes, especially with an actress like Kate. But this is her security blanket. We need to have the Filson jacket. It has to go in each scene because this is what she wears as her detective jacket."

Some costume design details, like little rips in clothing, play a subtle but important role in character development and performance. It goes deeper than many viewers realize.

Winslet Mare OCMichele K. Short/HBO

Kate Winset wears an Ocean City sweatshirt in a scene of 'Mare of Easttown.'

"Actors notice that and it helps them build their character," Kasperlik said. "They know that even if the viewer doesn't see the rips or the tears or the aging that was done in a costume, the actor knows that it's there. Costume design is storytelling. If you think about it, you see the actor on camera with their costume on. You're not supposed to see Kate Winslet. You're supposed to see Mare. That was a big storytelling point within the costumes and the hair and makeup – to not make anyone think that's Kate Winslet. So much of a character's development happens in the fitting room."

Kasperlik said she chose to give Mare an Ocean City sweatshirt because of a beach scene that was deleted from the script. The crew was supposed to film at the Jersey Shore, but when the pandemic complicated the production, the scene was chopped. With one visual cue, the sweatshirt became a telling part of Mare's character, showing viewers who she is and where she's been.

"It was never scripted that Mare was going to put on an Ocean City sweatshirt," Kasperlik said. "I decided that if that's a point from her childhood that she would go to Ocean City, she needs to have an Ocean City sweatshirt."

Elsewhere on the series, Kasperlik said she especially enjoyed picking outfits for characters like Siobhan Sheehan and Jess Riley, Erin's secretive best friend, who wears a Spyro video game T-shirt in one scene. 

Mare Jess SpyroMichele K. Short/HBO

Jess Riley, played by Ruby Cruz, wears a Spyro T-shirt in 'Mare of Easttown.'

"I really like Siobhan's character," Kasperlik said. "I think the teens have some really interesting prints and T-shirts on, and that was a nice way of showing a little pop of color and hope in a drab time."

Mare SiobhanMichele K. Short/HBO

Siobhan Sheehan, played by Angouri Rice, was among the 'Mare of Easttown' characters who had a more lively set of outfits.

While working on "Mare of Easttown," Kasperlik said she drew a lot of inspiration from the Philadelphia area, taking time to visit as many places as she could.

Before the pandemic, she stayed in Old City and fell in love with the boutique and spirits shop Art in the Age. She raved about the breadth of Philadelphia's cuisine. 

During the pandemic phase of the production, Kasperlik rented a house in Ardmore and said she spent a lot of her spare time hiking. 

The region's fascination with "Mare of Easttown" has not been lost on Kasperlik and her colleagues. She feels the show's appeal has been much wider, in part, because the lifestyle depicted in Easttown oddly reflects the stressful, homebound age of COVID-19. Attitudes and standards have shifted in ways that expose a more truthful view of the human struggle to put on some real pants. 

"The community within Philadelphia has taken interest, but I also think that we're so used to seeing glossy, really glamorous things," Kasperlik said. "The fact that we're showing a real community having real hardship, and that it came out during this post-pandemic period, it just shows the audience real people. Unlike other shows that are all about the fashion or location, I think everyone is relating to people wearing their sweatpants out of the house. The aesthetic of what the houses look like in the show and what the people look like – it's pretty real. That's resonating. Who knew that the pandemic style would be Easttown?"