‘The Gilded Age’ Hairstyling Head on Crafting Period-True ‘Dos: “I’m Constantly Chasing After Wigs”


en Sean Flanigan joined The Gilded Age as the hairstyling department head in its first season, he drew inspiration directly from the real-life, late 19th century New York figures that influenced the HBO period drama, like Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) and Alva Vanderbilt, after whom Carrie Coon’s character, Bertha Russell, is fashioned.

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“We follow the lead of the writers as a guideline of where to go and then as we research, we can play around with it,” says Flanigan. “It’s such a pretty, romantic period. There’s lots of history and very elaborate sorts of hairstyles that were designed.”

Flanigan chatted with THR about what it takes to re-create those historic looks (hint: lots of wigs) and giving each female castmember her own signature style.

Going into season two, was there anything you wanted to switch up?

It’s hard because, historically, the styles are established, so we’re kind of pigeonholed into a specific look for this period. We’re not really going to the fantasy side. That’s where Bridgerton falls in — and their work is stunning. They’re more playing around with styles and elaborate theatrical looks. We’re trying to keep it more natural and in the right period.

The Russells have a distinct look from the other wealthy families. How did you decide the direction?

We’ve designed new money and old money to have a different feel. Carrie’s much more sleek, so I took some nods from other periods and twisted it a bit to give it a little more polish. Then you have Agnes van Rhijn [Christine Baranski] and that side who’s old money and they’re very traditional but still fun and styled.

There’s a notable difference between Agnes and her sister, Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), too.

Agnes is the one who had the money, so she got styled a little bit more. Ada was much more simple, so we kept her very classic, because she’s the spinster — or was. In season two, obviously, there was the wedding, but she married a minister, so we still kept it very clean and simple.

Ada unexpectedly comes into some money in the season-two finale. Will that play into her styling going forward?

I can’t say anything! We’re prepping now actually, and we start filming July 8.

How much does shooting in New York in the summer affect you?

It can be brutal. We shoot in Troy and Albany. Last summer we were up there, and it was hot. Poor Denée Benton [Peggy Scott]. She was sweating like crazy one day because she was in this corset and wearing wool and one of the directors was calling me saying, “Sean, she’s sweating, she’s dripping! I’m like, “What do you want me to do?” (Laughs.)

Are there any special considerations with some of your stars, like Nixon and now Coon, being on two shows at the same time?

No, because they’re all in wigs so they can do whatever they want on their other shows. We had to have wigs because the period calls for such long hair. Women had really long hair then, and they still added pieces on top of it. Most women today don’t have the length of hair this period requires.

How many wigs are you creating each season?

Every time you see a woman on camera, there’s a wig, even my guest cast. You may get an actress that’ll come in for one episode and we’ll have to wig her because they just don’t have the hair. I’m constantly chasing after wigs and pulling from my stock and running to the shops that build wigs. I rent from them sometimes, and they’ll send me a dozen wigs and I’ll try all of them on one girl to see which one fits, and then we have to tweak and adjust.

Does anyone take longer in the chair than others?

We’ve got it down to a science because we’ve been doing it for a while now. Usually, the actress will come in and we prep their hair under wig caps and then send them to makeup. They come back and then we put the wigs on and everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so easy.” This period’s hard, though, because you can’t pre-style the wigs too much because the sides need to be so tight. Marian Brook’s [Louisa Jacobson] hair, for instance, is very sleek. To do that, I can’t put the wig on [a mannequin] and have it ready to go. I have to style it on her and smooth and tighten. I can get Kelli O’Hara [Aurora Fane] and Christine done in 30 minutes now. Continuity, having to remember what we did and match it at any time, is the real problem.

There’s a big delineation between the upstairs and downstairs cast. How do you approach that from a styling perspective?

All those girls are wigged as well, but we don’t overstyle them. There’ll be a French twist, a knot or a bun, but that’s as far as we go with them because they’d be doing their own hair and they’re working. We kept Mrs. Bauer [Kristine Nielsen] a little frizzy because she’s a cook.

Any unique hair challenges?

Last season, one of the women that got cast had locs, which made a wig impossible. So we cut the wig down the back center, put it on her, and then pulled her locs up through the middle of the wig and piled them into the shape we wanted the bun to be. Then, using her hair as the base padding, we laid down additional wig hair on top and styled over it. There are things you can do, but it’s tricky. I love the challenge of having to think outside the box.

You’ve done a lot of period work. What do you love about this time?

This period is so much fun because you have to do the research, and there’s so much wig work going on … It’s so funny to see Christine or Kelli or Denée in their sweatpants and their sunglasses with their wigs on [before we shoot], but then when you see them get into the gowns and onto the set, it’s just, oh my gosh, it’s magical.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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