Star Crossed Horses

Once Upon a Time’s Allisa Swanson Talks Costume Design

A chat with Allisa Swanson, costume designer extraordinaire, who has worked on The 100 and Once Upon Time, the series finale of which airs May 18th.

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By: Star Crossed Horses |

Allisa Swanson is a costume designer for The 100, Once Upon a Time, When Calls the Heart and many other Vancouver-filmed productions. I was able to sit down and chat with her at the Northern FanCon in Prince George.

1. How did you become a costume designer?

There are multiple avenues to becoming a costume designer. I wanted to become a costume designer, so I went to university for it, got a degree, went home to Vancouver, and did my research on how to get into the union, pursued that. Did my interview, got in, and proceeded to work in the costume industry.

I know other people who have worked in retail, sort of like at Mark’s Work Wearhouse and who have seen shoppers come in, and have asked the shoppers how to get in, and they’ve gotten in that way, because somebody needed an extra hand, and that person was available and offered their services.

Some people fall into it, some people choose and make their path.

2. Tell us about the process from script to finished product.

I get the script, read the script, I break down the script. I figure out what I think the characters need to be wearing, depending on the season, depending on action that they’re doing, depending on things that are going to happen to them in the script; depending on what I want the costume to say about their character, or what I don’t want it to say about their character.

If it’s a contemporary show, I’ll do character boards and show it to the producers and the director, and get their feedback. If it’s a build show, like The 100 or Once Upon a Time, I’d do the illustrations, and send that to whoever the deciding parties are, sometimes it’s studio, some times it’s producers, some times it’s directors, and get feedback on that and then go back to the drawing board.

Then, I either have them made, or shop the looks that I’m looking for, put them together, have fittings with the actors, then we go through the other process of sending out all those pictures to the producers, to have the feedback, and then we tweak as we go along.

3. What was your favourite costume to create? Your most complicated?

I do not have a favourite, though I really enjoyed creating the nymph costumes that we did for episode 7 and 19 in Once Upon a Time; because they were so different than anything else that had been done, or that we had done on Once Upon a Time up to that point.

One of the most complicated costumes that I made was earlier in my career, it was for Knights of Bloodsteel, and it was for a goblin by the name of Orion. She was a bartendress. I designed this kind of leather coat dress, that wrapped around her and buttoned up the front but left her midsection open, where she wore a corset … she had sleeves, but the corset and the sleeves were interchangeable so you could change her outfit just by changing those out. Because it was out of leather, the skirt had to all be pieced. It was coming up with a design and a pattern to piece the skirt.

4. What can fans expect from the season finale of Once Upon a Time?

A lot. There’s a lot of story packed into the finale. Lots of things tied up – not everything. But there is definitely some closure … I think the producers and the writers, Adam and Eddie, especially, did a really interesting job in closing out the show. I think fans should be very excited about the way it ends. I think they ended it really well.

5. What advice do you have for those wanting to become a costume designer?

Lots of things. No. 1, check yourself first. You’ve got to work long hours, you won’t have much of a home life, you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of life to be a costume designer. It’s nothing to enter into lightly. Once you’re in, it’s very difficult to get out. You have to make sure that you really want it.

On the other hand, we’re really looking for skilled people right now – and not just can you sew; but can you follow direction, can you follow systems, because a lot of what we do needs to follow a system, otherwise things just don’t get to camera. As creative as we are, it’s creative within the system. You need to be able to take criticism; you need to be able to take constructive criticism, and feedback, and learn from that and grow with it.

You also have to be self-motivated. Sometimes you’re given very few directions and you just have to go, because people don’t have the time. You can’t take offense; you cannot be delicate in this industry. Everything is done so speedily and so spur of the moment that when people are critiquing stuff, they don’t pat you on the back first and then critique your stuff – they just tell you what you don’t like, so you can fix it and get on with it. At the end of the day, it’s business. You have to be able to go into it that way, even though most creatives have ego, which is why we’re creative – you still have to check that at the door just to get the project done. You absolutely have to be a team player.

6. You’ve worked on so many genre shows – Once Upon a Time, The 100 – what is your favourite genre to work with, or your favourite time period?

I love fantasy. I really enjoy the fantasy of Once Upon a Time, where there was no time period, I could make it up. I could make stuff up, I could mix genres together, I could do something that wasn’t any genre in particular. I like that, and I like futuristic type stuff for the same reason. I love period pieces, but you’re still in a box. You have to make it look like it’s of that period; you have to do the proper pleating, you have to do the proper sleeve length … all of that stuff, which is it’s own sense of fun, but I find it more creative when you don’t have those constraints and you could literally do anything.

7. What is the difference between costuming someone on the ground, and someone who rides?

First off, you have to make sure they have the proper footwear. So for Octavia in The 100, we always needed to make sure she was wearing proper riding boots with heels, because you cannot ride a horse if you do not have enough of a heel. Same with Once Upon a Time, we have lots of characters on horses and we have to make sure there’s enough heel on the boot. Adult Henry, there was a scene where we actually had his shoes sent to the shoe guy to have an extra half an inch on his heel, so that the cool boots that we wanted to use would work for him riding on the horse.

Beyond that, we also have to make sure that the pants that they’re wearing when they get on the horse are not too low, because if you do, then you get that whole crack thing happening, and it’s uncomfortable to get on the horse unless your pants are high enough, so we have to take that into consideration.

There should be stretch in the pants, so they have enough room to move – and when I did When Calls the Heart, Season 2, Elizabeth’s character had to get on a horse, so we gave her one of those split pants that people were starting to wear in the early 1900s, around 1910. It was a skirt that would do up, but then you’d unbutton it, pull the flap back and it turned into split pants.

8. Do you have any experience with horses yourself?

I do. Not great experience … I used to trail ride all the time, when I was young – it was my favourite thing to do. When I was a little bit older, in my early 20s, I actually went to a horse riding camp, so I know how to stay on a horse properly. I don’t get to ride nearly as much as I’d like to, and it’s only ever been for fun.

9. Tell us about the costumes that you have created for those who ride.

Echo for The 100, we did her; we did Gaia, and interestingly enough, when I designed Gaia’s outfit, I designed it as a long tunic, but I put slits on the side so it would be easier for her to straddle a horse. One of our directors at the time thought she should be in a short tunic, so it’s easier for her to ride the horse, and the other producer said it had to be long … We went back and forth in the fittings, short and long, short and long. Even when I originally designed it, it had slits all the way up to the top of the hip, so that she could get her legs over the horse. Rowan rode a horse, adult Henry rode a horse, some other characters in other movies that I’ve done rode a horse … I once had James Callis on a horse in armour; that was interesting, because we had to help him get on the horse. It was a big armoured body suit. Just like back in the days when they did jousting, they needed their squires to help them get on the horse. It was the same kind of deal.

10. Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories regarding horses?

We had an instance where one of our horses ran away … it ended up in Londsale, on Londsale Avenue, at a café. Something spooked the horse, and the horse just took off and went for a wander, and ended up outside of a café.