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Tuesday 11 March 2014

Costumes and design in NBC's Hannibal, Part 1.

I probably should've been writing about the costumes of Hannibal from the very start, but I confess to feeling a little overwhelmed. The quality of the costume design (and set design, and food design, and soundtrack...) in Hannibal is so incredible that not only does every episode deserve its own post, but lots of other people have already been analysing it since day one. Is there even room for another reviewer? But as luck would have it, I just moved in with someone who has never seen the show, and we decided to watch season 1 from the beginning. I can now verify that it's one of those rare TV shows whose rich detail means that it actually improves when you watch it for a second time.
In "Aperitif," Hannibal's costumes are far more varied than in later episodes, mostly because he's wearing a kind of everyday camouflage half the time. A more literal version of what Bedelia du Maurier refers to as his "people suit," if you will.

At home and in his own office, we see Hannibal in his typical uniform of luxurious three-piece suits. But whenever he has to go to the FBI, he wears what basically amounts to normal-person drag: a scruffy blazer, brown sweater, and unbuttoned shirt. The colours complement each other, but it isn't the kind of daring fashion choice we see him making in most other scenarios. I suspect this was him testing the waters at the FBI, attempting to fade into the background until he's scoped things out. Hannibal doesn't actually make much effort to disguise his eccentricities in day-to-day life, but he does ease people into them. That's how he gets away with making so many cannibalism puns during his dinner parties, I suppose. But while Hannibal's uncharacteristically scruffy FBI outfit was something I noticed when I first watched this episode, the moment that I found most visually arresting this time round was his first appearance onscreen.
The first thing we see from Hannibal Lecter is his hands, cutting into some meat as he eats alone in the dark of his house. Virtually all reviews of Hannibal comment on the way the show concentrates on the journey rather than the inevitable outcome of Hannibal's arrest and incarceration. We know that Hannibal is a cannibal, and the writers know that we know. There's very little suspense in that regard. So the show can cheerful jump-cut from Will Graham saying, face twisted into a grimace, "He's eating them!" to a lingering shot of Hannibal tucking into his first sumptuous meal of the series. We're all in on the joke, which makes Hannibal's frequent "I'm having an old friend for dinner," puns all the more delicious.

This introductory shot of Hannibal uses a darker and more muted colour palette than any other scene in the episode. It's almost like we're viewing him through smoke, or through the glaze of an antique oil painting. This is Hannibal at his most satanic, with the shadows accentuating the planes and hollows of Mads Mikkelsen's skull. Plus -- dare I say it -- Hannibal's hair is kind of edging into Hitler territory here. His suit, shirt and tie are all similar shades of murky brown, with the overall effect looking rather similar to the poster for the original Hannibal movie.
There's a very noticeable contrast between this and the daytime suit he wears in the next scene. When Jack Crawford visits Hannibal's office, Hannibal is dressed like a spring sunrise. His collar is as wide as you can get, his white-gold necktie is almost cravat-like in proportion, and his suit may be the palest he wears in the entire series. He's also very pleased to see Jack, almost eager to confront the possibility that he might be under investigation by the FBI. Comparing the Hannibal we see at the beginning of season 2, I found it striking how much the Hannibal of "Aperitif" is craving the stimulation of interesting human contact. He's not "lonely" in the usual sense of the word, but there's a certain ritualised boredom to that first scene where we see him cooking and eating alone. Soon enough, he will discover that manipulating Will Graham and his colleagues is far more entertaining than sitting home alone, or listening to all those Franklyn-ish patients whine about their lives.
This is also our first look at the marvel that is Hannibal's office. Blood-red walls, gorgeous furniture, a collection of slyly meaningful pictures (next to Will at the top of the ladder is a framed photo of human ears), and those hilarious surgeon's-pole curtains. Hannibal has read and white striped barber/surgeon's pole curtains in his office. I can't get over this. However, my favourite aspect of the office set is the second-storey walkway.
Hannibal isn't the kind of show where people stand around quipping at each other or exchanging expository dialogue. Any conversation that includes Hannibal Lecter is more like a teasing exchange between predator and prey, or perhaps a duel. The therapist's office set is perfect to facilitate this kind of scene, particularly when it's with Will Graham.

A lot of viewers have picked up on the way Will and Hannibal's chairs move closer and closer together as the series progresses, but to me the most effective detail in "Aperitif" is the way Will immediately makes for the upstairs walkway. Not only does this allow him to avoid the awkwardness of a traditional face-to-face conversation, but it also highlights Hannibal's predatorial role. Although Hannibal, looking up to watch Will, is technically in what might be interpreted as a submissive position, he's actually more like a cheetah waiting in the long grass. Twitchy, frenetically nervous Will Graham scurries around upstairs like a frightened squirrel, while Hannibal expends almost no energy at all, just turning slightly from his position in the middle of the office, keeping his eyes on the prize.

Hannibal is a multisensory experience. Hannibal Lecter himself is gifted with very acute senses and a love of luxury, and the show caters to these characteristics by forcing the audience to identify with them. The visual language of Hannibal is unusually rich and complex for what seems on the surface to be a network TV crime show, but we are also gifted with a sumptious feast of sounds, tastes and smells to experience alongside the visual design. In a typical horror show the audience would expect to hear some suspenseful music in the background and see a few gruesome murders, but Hannibal requires a far more creative view. The costume and set designers have to achieve Hannibal's own level of aesthetic snobbery -- plus, of course, anyone who's seen Pushing Daisies will already be aware of showrunner Bryan Fuller's love of colour.

It's not uncommon to see a procedural crime drama where every single character is outfitted in generic neutral-toned leather jackets and suits. Which is, you know, not totally unrealistic. But I enjoy the fact that in Hannibal, the FBI characters are effectively dressed like the cast of a crime procedural... while everyone else has a very distinctive sense of style. Even Alana and Will, the two characters who bridge the gap between the FBI and civilian life, have very individual fashion tastes, with Alana wearing all those colourful wrap dresses, and Will wearing wrinkled khakis and flannel shirts practically every single day.

The strength of Hannibal's costume design is that you can easily imagine how and why each character dresses the way they do. Hannibal is obviously the focal point (and should be, because one of his central characteristics is a love of style and beauty), but side characters like Abigail Hobbs and Freddie Lounds are never neglected. But considering how many words have just been eaten up by looking at Hannibal's costumes in the very first episode, I think the other characters will have to be discussed in a later post.

Continued in Part 2.


  1. I am ridiculously psyched that you are writing about Hannibal. I love this show SO MUCH and now I can point at your posts as a way to explain it to my friends who can't handle the gore enough to watch it with me. :D

  2. A long-time lurker in your blog, I have to tell you how overjoyed I am that you are watching Hannibal and blogging about it. This show needs every pair of eyes and every voice it can get. I only discovered it a few weeks ago myself and I was hooked so fast I'm still reeling. Eagerly waiting for part 2!

  3. I LOVE Hannibal and I wish it got better ratings. :(( Glad you're enjoying the reviews so far! :)

  4. I went back and looked at my first post when I was writing this one and decided not to link it because my first impressions of the pilot episode were soooo wrong. I can't believe there was a time when I didn't 100% love every aspect of this show, haha. But I'm so glad even my vague enthusiasm in that post was enough to make you watch the show! :DD glad you're enjoying the blog!

  5. Carmen Sandiego18 March 2014 at 23:00

    This is wonderful. Between this and Janice Poon's blog (she is the food designer for "Hannibal") it's like birthday presents for all of us Fannibals.

  6. WOW this is wonderful, I look forward to reading the rest of these :D

  7. there are several more posts already! :)

  8. I just DON'T watch horror movies or shows, but I was actually tempted by this one because of Mads Mikkelson & the ever dreamy Hugh Dancy. This post makes me wonder if I should break my rule and watch a show that appeals to me for all the wrong reasons...

  9. I absolutely LOVE when intelligent reviewers unpack the symbolism and meaning of impeccably constructed shows like Hannibal. Beautiful written and I can't wait to continue reading. Thanks for writing this!

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  11. I am a firm disliker of all things horror but this show truly stands out. It's a psychological thriller; not a horror per se, although some scenes (mostly season 1) has some elements of horror. I watch this show for the beautiful portrayal of a brilliant fictional psychopath. And it does get better as every episode progresses. This is a show of class and stylized execution. Waiting patiently for season 3

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  13. I just finished the Netflix series, "Hannibal" he is the best dressed actor that I've seen in the movies. The wardrobe of James Bond could only compare, but James would not be as compelling as that of Hannibal. Bond's clothing didn't appeal to me, unnoticeable.

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