Cape Town - The Walking Dead horror-series is one of the most watched television shows around the world. Now in its fifth season, the gritty drama has had fans hooked from the beginning, not just because of its gripping storylines, but because of how realistic the zombies look.
Based on a black-and-white American comic book series by Robert Kirkman, the drama portrays life following a zombie apocalypse. A group of survivors are constantly on the move fighting slow-moving zombies who spread their disease as they attack the living with a simple bite and in some cases just a scratch.
Though TWD is an American-based production, South African fans will be pleased to know the show’s costume designer was born and raised in Cape Town.
Eulyn Hufkie-Womble has been with the series for all five seasons, and says a lot of thought goes into each “walker”, and that the dishevelled clothes tells a character’s back story.
Her creative process includes doing a character study before creating each costume. “I give them a back story when I put their costumes together. How did they die? How long have they been dead? Who was this person before the apocalypse? Who have they become and what is their mental state?”
Hufkie-Womble also describes how the remaining humans are characterised by their clothes. She says that with the Daryl Dixon character, the wings on the back of his leather jacket work well as his armour.
Meanwhile, “Michonne dresses as a warrior on purpose and she chooses what she wears. Rick wears whatever T-shirt he can find”, she explains.
“The actors are quite good about keeping up with their costumes. They turn into their characters when they wear their costumes,” she says.
“I do a lot of research and the design sometimes comes from strange and even dark places. Like researching the Great Depression or war or poverty has brought me to tears. I feel that our show sends a strong message about survival and I try to make the clothing as real as possible.
“The young girls are my favourite (to dress). They grew up in the apocalypse, so they were not bogged down with gender roles. They wore boys’ clothing but then tied it into a cute knot on the side. Those little details make a good costume.”
Hufkie-Womble worked as a model and first got a taste of the film industry while working on commercial productions in Cape Town
“When I was a model, I asked a designer who had dressed me to give me a chance to do what she did. I knew that I couldn’t model forever and although I’d studied accounting, I wasn’t interested in being an accountant,” she says.
So she started out as a set runner “I organised hangers into piles, carried rails, made coffee and got to see how it all worked. I loved it. I knew immediately that this was where I belonged.”
Hufkie-Womble now lives in the US and was in Cape Town for a short visit. “I try to visit home once a year. Besides missing my family, I really miss the food. Somedays, I could kill for a sugar bean salome from Cozy Corner,” she says.
“I try not to watch other shows when I’m working as I don’t want to be inspired by other people’s work. I try to create from my own imagination. The clothes have to be comfortable and practical, I suppose, with a good pair of boots, – clothing that serves as armour or could be used as a weapon. But our show runner, Scott Gimple, has the final say on who wears what,” she explains.
Her typical days starts early with a cup of coffee. “Background artists line up to get their costumes before they head to make up. I make sure that their costumes make sense and that my crew working with ‘walkers’ (zombies) is running smoothly. This is before I head to the principal cast where I am on standby for any discussions with actors or problems that may occur before heading to set. The days are long,” she says.
A new script is furnished every seven days, explains Hufkie-Womble. “If new characters are introduced, that means that there will be a costume change. I get a breakdown from my costume supervisor and I start putting the outfits together, print pictures and create a feeler board. I ensure that the group looks cohesive and that the colours don’t clash or no two characters are in the same colour,” she says.
There is a lot of fake blood in the series, so they have to wash the clothes every day, says Hufkie-Womble.
“I have an amazing and talented crew who are also polite and nice to work with. I am blessed. I dress all the lead actors, dayplayers (extras) and I oversee everything. We also have a large cast of actors and huge amounts of background actors. No costume goes to camera if I haven’t approved it – undies included. Undergarments play a huge roll in the fit of the costume,” she says.
“I love so many things about my job. It’s amazing to be paid to shop, draw, paint and create.”
Knowing that millions of people watch the show and even admire her work is sometimes scary and even nerve-wracking, says Hufkie-Womble.
“When people like my work, I feel proud.
“I always stand behind my design choices, but it’s easier when my work is well received.
“I try to learn from the criticism, but one really can’t take the negativity too seriously. With clothing, everyone has an opinion.”
And dressing the stars is not always glamorous. “ I’m usually covered in fake blood, paint, dirt and it’s hot and sweaty in the summer in Georgia summer (where the fifth season was filmed).
“I jump in with my crew and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. My nails break from the chemicals in certain products,” she says.
Her advice to aspiring costume designers: “You have to love it. It’s not easy as you leave your heart on the screen sometimes, but it’s rewarding so keep at it.
“Understanding clothing and character study is very important, but also study business or accounting. The film industry is a business and managing money is also part of a costume designer’s job.”
* The post-apocalyptic drama series, developed by Frank Darabont, has won two Emmys for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup.