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By some accounts, Nancy Montgomery wore a dress to kill for.
The real-life trial of Grace Marks and James McDermott, two domestic servants accused of murdering their employer and his housekeeper/mistress, sparked a media frenzy in 19th-century Canada. Between its scandalous set-up (both the victims and the defendants were romantically involved) and its whiff of subversive class warfare, it’s little wonder why the trial drew so many spectators that some worried the courtroom floor would collapse.
Most curious to the trial’s observers, however, was the fact that the teenage Marks took the stand wearing a dress stolen from the deceased. Did Grace Marks kill Nancy Montgomery in part because she coveted her clothing and other finery? Did she rob a dead woman in order to appear decently dressed? These and many other perplexing questions surrounding the case were the basis of the Margaret Atwood novel Alias Grace and its recent Netflix adaptation, which stars Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin as Marks and Montgomery, respectively.
Period pieces can be tricky to pull off, even one about a case as well-documented as this double-homicide mystery. “If you Google ‘Grace Marks,’ the only picture we have of her is that stencil drawing made during the trial,” says Simonetta Mariano, who designed the costumes for Alias Grace. “You see her wearing a bonnet, and the artist was probably not used to drawing clothing or fabric, so it’s difficult to figure out the ruffles around her face.”
Even though that bonnet was the only existing clue about Marks’s court attire, Mariano had to fight to include it in the series. Director Mary Harron wanted to keep the images “extremely simple,” and the hat was quite literally the opposite of no-frills. Mariano conceded to removing distracting details on certain looks (“sometimes five minutes before going on camera, tearing off all the ribbons on the hats,” she says), but fought Harron on Marks’s bonnet. “I said, ‘I think the only chance for you to have something that looks like it belongs to Grace in her story is that bonnet, and you have to reproduce it,’” Mariano remembers. “And with the help of the producers, we kind of convinced her.”
Marks pairs the hat with Montgomery’s dress, which neither fits nor flatters her figure. “I did that on purpose,” Mariano explains. “Some people will think, ‘Oh, it’s a bad fitting,’ but it was important that it did not fit. She stole a dress that did not belong to her.”
What’s more, Grace didn’t even steal the whole dress: She wears it with her own simple chemisette (an undershirt popular during the 19th century) instead of Montgomery’s structured, collared version. The overall effect is that of an unsophisticated pauper playing dress-up, making Marks appear even more out of place.
Incidentally, Montgomery would’ve also seemed out of place in that dress. Millennial pink might be ubiquitous today, but in the 1840s, it wasn’t quite so common. “When I read the script, I was like, ‘Pink, really?’” Mariano remembers. “But this was something that was in the book, in the script, and it was very important to the story, so I could not say, ‘Why are we going pink? It should be more red.’” In the mid-19th century, pink was more of an accent color used for trim and accessories — parasols, fans, ribbons — and rarely for a day dress.
Montgomery, however, was not a woman who abided by social norms. She was having an affair with her wealthy employer, after all, despite not sharing his social standing. This alone would’ve labeled her an outcast, so her embrace of pink makes sense. And later on, the standout hue serves a practical purpose by helping the authorities find and arrest Marks. “That dress had to be a statement,” Mariano says.
Pink can be tricky on camera, though, and particularly in the sunlight, which can lend it a bleached-out look. The last thing Mariano wanted was a bubblegum pink, so she tested 20 different shades on an outside picnic table — some warmer, some colder, some more washed, some more saturated — before settling on a softly washed peony pink. She needed to create five versions of the dress, which required 40 yards of fabric. “I found a lot of fabrics: silk shantung, silk, cotton, cotton blends. And every time, it felt too shiny, too luxurious,” she says. Ultimately, Mariano settled on a fabric that wasn’t actually meant for dressmaking, but for quilting.
“I told my team, ‘Listen, why don’t we go to Fabricland?’” Mariano says. “It’s a chain of stores here in Canada, a very commercial fabric store, nothing fancy. But if we found one fabric we liked, we could call all the Fabriclands and then be able to get the quantity we wanted.” They settled upon a subtly striped beige fabric and dyed it peony pink. “It’s a very, very cheap fabric,” she laughs. “$4.99 a meter.”
Mariano was equally resourceful when it came to creating Mary Whitney’s (Rebecca Liddiard) red petticoat, which was made from a Zara bedcover. “Dye it, put in a few hand stitches, trim it with ribbon, and there you go!” the designer laughs.
The other pink dress Montgomery wears in the series, a colorful plaid look striped with yellow and green, was inspired by a pattern Mariano discovered while doing her pre-show Victorian research. A few days after putting it on her mood board, the designer discovered an identical fabric at a shop in Toronto. “When that happened, it was like a sign,” she says. “Okay, I have to do this fabric. I have to do this dress!’”
Dresses like these can easily take a full week to make, according to Mariano, and would have cost the equivalent of $1,000 at least. “A maid like Grace would have needed to work for a couple of months to save enough money to buy the fabric alone,” she explains. “And she probably would have to ask her friend to make it. She couldn’t afford a tailor.”
Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix.