Altered Carbon's Costume Designer Talks About Designing Gods and Fetishizing Superheroes

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Making Altered Carbon was no easy feat, by any means, and that includes in the costume department. Over 2,000 actors and extras were featured on the series, with up to 600 unique costumes that ran the gamut from near-celestial beings to synth fight club owners. In this interview with io9, costume designer Ann Foley talks about how they made a series set hundreds of years in the future feel relatable, except for those who saw themselves as more-than-human.

The Netflix and Skydance series is about a man named Takeshi Kovacs (played variously by Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, and Byron Mann) who wakes up hundreds of years after his death to a world where the human consciousness has been digitized and people move between bodies at will. Even though it takes place 300 years in the future, for the most part people dress pretty similarly to how they do now (you especially see this with the Bay City Police Department). Foley said there were some subtle changes to indicate that it’s the future, like unique shirt collars and higher waistbands on pants. But she said they wanted to keep most of the Grounders, well, grounded, to make them more relatable.


“I think that it was really important to keep it grounded and make it recognizable,” Foley said. “We were trying to steer clear of going too crazy, like a Star Wars universe, because Bay City was San Francisco. It’s not otherworldly.”

However, much like everything else in Altered Carbon, those rules don’t apply to the Meths (wealthy people who’ve lived for hundreds of years thanks to technology). Foley said a lot of steps were taken to make sure the Meths look disconnected from the rest of humanity—the biggest example being the use of natural fibers, as in Altered Carbon’s world they are extremely rare and expensive. And of course, some of their outfits reflect ancient Greco-Roman gods, a purposeful nod to their godlike status. Foley explained how she incorporated both the past and future to showcase their immortality, but also said each Meth’s wardrobe has its own purpose. Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) exudes power, while his wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman) is all about control... through any means necessary.

“Miriam is always about controlling every situation that she’s in, and so depending on the scene, depending on what’s going on, she’s always trying to control. Everything she’s wearing, she’s wearing to control that situation,” Foley said. “You will see [that] in certain scenes, like when she shows up at Kovac’s hotel to seduce him, that dress is completely sheer. And it has a silver shimmer to it, because I wanted it to seem like she was shimmering, sort of glowing.”


The other characters who seem exempt from the futuro-normal dress code are the decidedly non-human ones. Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner) and the rest of his AI comrades were given very flamboyant and garish costumes designed to reflect their roles in the world. Since all of them are the AI embodiments of hotels, brothels, and other establishments, their clothes reflect this. And even when they are in synthetic bodies, they still play their parts. Foley said her favorite memory designing a costume for the show was making the outfit for Carnage (Matt Frewer), the synth who runs the underground fight club, because of how much she got to play around with the design.


“It was my first synth I really had to do, and it was really really fun because we just put him in completely weird unusual fabrics and just made this really great costume, and gave him this gold ceramic bowtie and he had this fabulous wig on. I’ve never had so much fun in a fitting in my entire life,” Foley said.


One such synth, in a sense, is Lizzie Elliott (Hayley Law), the girl-turned-killer who transfers her human consciousness into a synthetic body during the final episode of the season so she can save a group of sex workers from Head in the Clouds. Lizzie, who spends the season recovering from the trauma of losing her unborn child, is essentially reborn into this synthetic body, appropriating some of the elite club’s bondage gear in her new role as a spirit of vengeance. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis said she wanted to explore the overlap “between what we put on female superheroes and the place it usually intersects with [fetishism],” something Foley confirmed.

“Those were the two notes I got from Laeta: ‘This is what I want to convey.’ I hit the ground running with those notes. What you saw was the final product of that,” Foley said. “Lizzie is so strong at this point, she’s come out the other end, and now she’s incredibly strong. And we wanted her to feel like a superhero.”


While fetishism is very empowering, it also can run the risk of exploitation under the wrong circumstances. In order to make sure Lizzie’s wardrobe, as well as the other sex workers, didn’t actively showcase their bodies as eye candy, Foley said she worked with Kalogridis and the individual actresses to make sure their comfort levels were respected—especially with Law, who was playing a teenager. When it came to nudity, she said the showmakers didn’t avoid it, given how bodies are treated in the world of Altered Carbon, but said they didn’t feature nudity unless it mattered to the scene.

“When it comes to the nudity in our world it goes back to the idea that the body is a sleeve and a sleeve can be interchanged,” explained Foley. “And a sleeve almost becomes like a dress. In that sense, nudity isn’t really an issue like it is in our contemporary society. We didn’t shy away from it, but if it wasn’t necessary to the scene then we didn’t do it.”


Altered Carbon is currently available on Netflix.