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‘Manhunt’ Costume Designer Katie Irish Took a Bold Approach to Dressing the Victorian Period

At the end of her costume pitch deck for “Manhunt,” costume designer Katie Irish offered a bold proposal.

“The thing that occurred to me is that so often when we watch these period pieces, they all seem sepia-toned. That’s not the reality of what it looked like,” says Irish. “Given the advances that had happened in technology, everyone was mad for color. They loved it,” she adds. “And so I put a note on there that was like, I know that this is how this period has typically been presented, but just to make you aware, we can go as bold as you want.”

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The Apple TV+ series recounts Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent 10-day search for his killer, John Wilkes Booth. The story is centered on U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Tobias Menzies, who leads the charge to find Booth. While some of the historical characters depicted on screen have long-standing visual precedent — most viewers are able to conjure an image of Lincoln, for example — others are less immediately distinct.

“There were two separate camps of people,” says Irish. “There were the people that were iconic. For that, my main challenge was: I need this person to be human, not a symbol,” she adds. “And then there were people who I had never heard of, who were huge players in this story. And so then discovering who they were was also a really interesting task.”

A self-described “research nerd and geek,” Irish rooted her process in history but was willing to tweak details in support of the overall visual story. “We’re not doing a reenactment and we’re not doing an actual historical document of ‘this is exactly how it happened.’ It is historical fiction. And so we do take a couple of licenses.”

Irish dressed Booth, whose outfit on the night of Lincoln’s murder was well-documented, in an all-black ensemble with a gray hat and riding boots. “[Booth] spends 90 percent of the show in that one look,” says Irish.

Staying true to that overall look, she played with texture within his darker color palette. She also contrasted Booth’s costumes with the lighter palette of his accomplice and frequent scene partner, David Herold, for visual variation. Booth (played by Anthony Boyle) is on the run for much of the series, movement that is marked by degradation in his costumes.

“You get all the beautiful costumes from the tailors and then my lead distressor would be like, OK, so this one — we need to have a tear in the pant from where mud cut off the boot, and cut up the pant leg a little bit,” she says. “We knew we were going to need a lot of multiples. Going through the swamp, breaking his leg, sweat, dirt — we made 15 of that outfit.”

A still from "Manhunt."
Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth, and Will Harrison as accomplice David Herold, in a still from “Manhunt.”

With a male-dominated cast, Irish used visual cues for the viewer to distinguish who’s who in each scene, and uses color in her designs to mark alliances between characters. “Everyone is wearing a suit; everyone has a vest, a shirt, some kind of tie, some jacket and some pants. But it’s finding the individual choices within there that really bring a character alive,” she adds. “How can you always find Stanton? He always has that gray top hat that has sheen on it. How can you always find [Thomas] Eckert? Eckert’s top hat is a little tall; it’s a little ‘Gangs of New York’ inspired. [Sanford] Conover, who is the spy, literally changes hats throughout.”

She worked closely with a team of milliners, and also leaned into accessories and details with coded meanings. Irish looked to acrostic jewelry for Stanton’s wife, Ellen Stanton, that paid homage to the character’s late child; a flower associated with a pompous demeanor was chosen for an embroidery pattern for Andrew Johnson, and Edwin Stanton’s costumes often included wolf imagery.

“Lincoln calls [Stanton] Mars, who is the god of war, and the animal associated with Mars is a wolf. And so he has a little pocket watch fob that has a wolf on it and we have buttons on one of the vests that are custom that have wolves on them,” she says. “It’s not even necessarily about being Easter eggs, but about telling the actors, this is what this means. And it helps them so often with their internal journey.”

Irish recalls an early costume fitting with Menzies when she walked him through her research. “He looked at me and he said, ‘I trust you. Let’s dive into this,'” she says.

“There’s no better feeling than watching an actor start to transform before your eyes based upon something they’ve put on that you have designed,” Irish continues. “Watching it start to affect how they stand, if their walk changes a little bit, and to see in their eyes as they’re starting to make calculations and changes about who their character is, informed by something that I have done.”

A still from "Manhunt."
Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, in a still from “Manhunt.”

Launch Gallery: A Closer Look at the Costumes of 'Manhunt' on Apple TV+

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