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How Elle Fanning Went From Saint Petersburg to Plainville Through Costume Design


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“The way Elle transforms like that is incredible,” says The Girl From Plainville costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier. Just two weeks after wrapping season two of the historical comedy The Great, Fanning pivoted from 18th century Imperial Russian regalia, by Sharon Long, into the oversized T-shirts and printed leggings of a suburban Massachusetts teenager dealing with body-image issues and alienation from her peers.

“When we did our first fitting, it made me sigh [with] relief because the costumes were there and I could start to feel glimmers of Michelle,” says Fanning, who is an executive producer on both Hulu series.

Her portrayal of Michelle Carter, who was convicted in 2019 of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging “texting suicide,” as sensationalized by the media, reveals layers of a troubled 17-year-old struggling with mental health.

For authenticity, Gordon-Crozier fell into an “internet hole” studying images of Carter, circa 2014 and during the trial, and noticed that she repeatedly wore a White House Black Market puffy coat in white that previously belonged to her mother, Gail (Cara Buono). Based on the more mature labels of other pieces in Carter’s trial attire, including a floral blouse from Loft, Gordon-Crozier surmised she must have borrowed much of her courtroom wardrobe from her mom.

Turning the discovery into subtle character-building, Gordon-Crozier peppered in “little nuances” of Michelle emulating the outfits of her friends, who eventually testify against her. “She’s a bit of a lost girl and maybe didn’t really have her own sense of style,” says Gordon-Crozier.

Michelle’s adoption of her mom’s and friends’ style presented a performance-informing opportunity for Fanning. “The shell of a person she probably is at that point … like, she’s not even thinking about [what to wear],” says Fanning. “Someone else is really telling her everything to do at that point in her life. She’s losing all control.”

Meanwhile, in portraying Russia’s longest-ruling female monarch in season two of The Great, Fanning explores a different mother-daughter dynamic. After a successful coup against her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), Catherine strives to modernize Russia with her ambitious progressive policies while juggling power plays in her personal life, including craving the approval of her calculating mom, Joanna (Gillian Anderson).

“She’s reverting to a toddler,” says Long, referring to a watercolor floral silk gown, which the newly crowned Empress Catherine wears to her baby shower. Christened the “Monet Robe,” the soft palette and silhouette, with delicate pleats, contrasts with Joanna’s “harsh colors” and strongly defined sculptural shapes.

Long enjoyed creative license, reflecting creator Tony McNamara’s irreverently anachronistic tone and dialogue. Like Catherine’s vision for Russia, Long modernized a sarafan, the traditional Russian folk pinafore, which Catherine the Great revived and popularized to promote national pride. Alongside close discussions with Fanning and McNamara, Long drew from contemporary references, including opulent ’90s Christian Lacroix.

The busy actress and producer just returned for season three of The Great to reinhabit Catherine in the next stage of her reign, as well as her corseted finery by Long. “I felt like I lost her, but right when you go back into the costume fitting, it’s like, ‘Oh! There she is,’ ” says Fanning. “It’s like she never left me.”

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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