Tom Pye On Creating The Historical (Yet Fantasy-Driven) Costumes For Renegade Nell

By Charlie Colville

2 months ago

Magical misdemeanours go far in this upcoming series

What’s better than a period drama? A fantasy period drama, of course. We chat with Tom Pye, the costume designer behind new Disney+ show Renegade Nell, ahead of the series‘ UK premiere.

Costume Designer Tom Pye On Creating The World Of Renegade Nell

‘This is not a period drama you think you’ve seen before,’ warns Tom. ‘Expect the unexpected.’

By now, you likely will have seen advertisements for new Disney+ show Renegade Nell on one screen or another, and from trailers you might have gathered that it’s a historical drama – but, as Tom said, it’s not your typical period piece. A whirlwind blend of highwaymen, murder and magic make Renegade Nell a series you’ll want to bookmark, binge and, probably, watch again. If not for the fast paced story, then at least for the glorious costumes.

Written by Sally Wainwright (Happy ValleyGentleman Jack), the show follows Nell Jackson (played by Derry Girls alum Louisa Harland) who, on being framed for murder, finds herself on the run – and, with a little help from magical spirit Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed), becomes the most elusive highwaywoman in 18th century England.

Louisa Harland as Nell in The Ballad Of Renegade Nell

Louisa Harland as Nell in Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

It’s a pretty epic tale – one that needed a pretty epic team to bring it to the screen – which is why the show’s producers brought costume designer Tom Pye into the fold. Having previously worked with Sally on Gentleman Jack, Tom is considered rather well-versed in period costume – but Renegade Nell was a whole new era to discover for the designer. ‘I feel like I can’t really know a period too well, whether it’s fantasy or not,’ he tells us. ‘That’s why I start by doing a lot of research with any project. It’s a way for me to widen my visual vocabulary for a specific moment in time. I’ll try and learn everything I possibly can about that period, and then it becomes a bit of a store – somewhere to go to when I’m thinking about a character or a sleeve or a detail.

‘But Renegade Nell was tricky because there’s not much left clothing-wise from 1705,’ Tom adds. ‘There’s only five dresses in the world that exist from that time. One of them happens to be in Shropshire, so I went to see it in person. I was kind of blown away by it. It was an incredible thing; bright lime green, with the most enormous, bizarre floral pattern on it.’

‘Bizarre’ is probably one of the best descriptors when it comes to fashion during this era; this was a time when women still wore brightly coloured bustles and petticoats, men pulled on stockings and breeches, and nobles donned fanciful, full-bottomed wigs. It’s the show’s resident baddie, Thomas (Jake Dunn), who perhaps best represents the flamboyant extravagance of 18th century England –so much so, that even Nell dubs him ‘a useless pile of ribbons’ early on in the show. ‘We definitely took a note of that comment,’ laughs Tom. ‘That’s completely correct for the fashion of this time. The upper classes were just dripping in ribbons – on the breeches, on the cuffs, on the lapels. It was a status symbol, a sign of the upper class. Basically, Nell’s saying he’s an upper class toff.

Jake Dunn as Thomas in Renegade Nell

Jake Dunn as Thomas in Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

‘[The fashion] was really exciting though because it meant both the men and the women were interesting to look at and interesting to dress – particularly Thomas. He’s such a terrible character, but so flamboyant in his dress. The Earl of Poynton [Adrian Lester] as well. These not so nice men actually have very flamboyant ways to dress which keeps them very interesting.’

But what makes Renegade Nell that little more ‘bizarre’ is the added element of fantasy. The typically unseen characters from folklore sit front and centre alongside their ‘real’ counterparts, giving the show a much more playfully vibrant take on the past. ‘The basis of each design was in real, believable costume,’ Tom says. ‘But then in the case of Billy Blind I decided that he needed to be completely other, and so I looked at much earlier modes of dress – about 100 years earlier, so more Elizabethan – as well as folklore elements. His costume is covered in insects and flowers and all sorts of embroidery detail, sort of leaning into Green Man imagery.’

An ancient figure in British folklore, the Green Man is symbolic of the cycle of life, death and rebirth – in other words, new beginnings – and is often depicted swathed in leaves and foliage. ‘There was so much detail in that costume,’ recounts Tom. ‘It was probably the one that took us the longest to make, as there was several layers of dyeing and painting, cutting and embroidering, and then adding other bits. It went through about three different people before it was ready.’

Nick Mohammed as Billy Blind in Renegade Nell

Nick Mohammed as Billy Blind in Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

And then there’s Nell herself. The show’s heroine – or rather, antiheroine. She’s a bit of a difficult one to work out, and is shrouded in mystery from the very first episode (and not least because she shows off her newly bestowed magical powers in a dramatic fight scene). ‘She’s a funny one, actually,’ agrees Tom. ‘We meet her coming back from the from the war of Spanish Succession, and she’s obviously picked up a uniform from somewhere. When I was first designing this costume, I took myself off to the National Army Museum in Stevenage, and had a really good rummage there. They had this exquisite red jacket that I took a lot of cues from. She wears this with a battered old tricorn hat with feathers that have seen better days, as well as a roll rag around her neck.

‘Nell was also really unusual as a character because she never wore her own clothes. Not once,’ continues Tom. ‘Everything you see her in during the first couple of episodes is stuff that she found on the battlefield, and at home she wears her mother’s clothes. Once she goes on the run, she becomes a true magpie and starts picking up all kinds of clothing. She’s always in disguise, really, so we never really know who she is – although we do get a sense of her character through these “borrowed” items and the way she wears other people’s clothes.’

(L to R) Bo Bragason as Roxy Jackson, Florence Keen as George Jackson and Louisa Harland as Nell Jackson

(L to R) Bo Bragason as Roxy, Florence Keen as George and Louisa Harland as Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

Another detail that sings out is Nell’s ability to switch seamlessly between men’s and women’s attire. ‘At first, she’s wearing men’s clothes because it would’ve been the only safe way to travel – woman couldn’t really be travelling across Europe by herself, without dressing as a man,’ explains Tom. ‘But then it becomes a really fun game of playing with gender. Sometimes she dresses as a woman, sometimes she dresses as a man – and it kind of flips back and forth right up until the final episode. It’s part of her character, to be gender fluid. She doesn’t really follow any binary, she’s too cool for that.’ It’s also no doubt that these chameleon-like tendencies help make Nell such a skilled highwaywoman, lending her the ability to camouflage and flaunt her identity as needed.

And speaking of highwaymen and highwaywomen, Tom also tells us he did his fair share of true crime research for the show – especially when it came to refining the character of Charles Devereux (Frank Dillane), aka, renowned highwayman Isambard Tulley. ‘There were so many highwaymen to take inspiration from, and the character of Tulley comes up quite a lot – these middle-class gentlemen that dressed up as highwaymen and were really flamboyant,’ says Tom. ‘They were often ladies’ men. There was one that, when he was caught, had lots of lady visitors in the prison trying to save him. It became quite a trope, and I tried to look at as many of these men (and women) as I could while doing my research.

‘I took little elements from each of them – but they were all quite well dressed, which was an interesting find,’ he muses. ‘I suppose they wanted the people they were hijacking to know when it was a highwayman moment. They see the costume more than the person, which made it easier for them to slip away after the crime.’

Frank Dillane as Charles Devereux/Isambard Tulley

Frank Dillane as Charles Devereux/Isambard Tulley (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

And with Renegade Nell being dubbed a historical adventure, you can expect plenty of action throughout the show. Creating costumes for the character’s stunts was another challenge that Tom relished in while working on the show: ‘This show is a lot more action packed compared to previous projects I’ve worked on – and there’s a whole new world of complication if you’re doing period costume because people don’t usually, you know, tear around the countryside and get into fights.

‘Most of the characters in Renegade Nell either jump on a horse or get into a fight – and a lot of them do both – which meant we needed doubles and triples of costumes,’ Tom continues. ‘We’d make clean and dirty versions of one costume for a riding double, a fight double and the actor. It can be six or seven costumes by the time you’ve completed a scene for one character. That was a whole new complication, but I loved it.’

All this is to say that Renegade Nell will surely rise to meet any expectations you might have for the period genre – and then some. ‘It takes a small town to get these things on stage,’ says Tom, and the work that went into every element of the series comes across in the fantastic quality of the acting, the world-building, the stunts and, of course, the costumes.


You can see Tom Pye’s work in action by streaming Renegade Nell on Disney+ from 29 March 2024.

Images courtesy of Disney+