How the Elaborate Historical Costumes of Seqalu: Formosa 1867 was re-imagined
Remaking Period Drama Costumes / Behind the scenes
“It’s quite difficult to picture the contour of Taiwan 154 years ago. The re-imagination indeed involved a great deal of research and investigation…” -Amber Yao, costume designer
Recalling her first encounter with the Seqalu project, Amber Yao (姚君), the costume designer, said that its complexity had set the bar high. Featuring the story of power struggles among the Southern Paiwan, the Hoklo, the Hakka, the Pingpu indigenous, the Qing army and various Western forces, the historical background of Seqalu: Formosa 1867 is notoriously complex.
To ensure the design closely represents the world of 1867, Yao remembered that the preliminary exchange of ideas with the director Tsao Jui-Yuan took more than a month. Tsao often emphasized the executive details of the costumes with high realism. Thus, to fully embody each character’s actual presence, she even took a solid course on the history of Eastern and Western fashion.
Restoring black-and-white images to color and visualize historical fabrics
Historical referencing for designing indigenous costumes of the 19th century was met with many challenges. Apart from consulting numerous literature and historical materials, Yao also visited the elders of the Paiwan tribes.
Through oral history along with clothes and accessories treasured by the elders, the historical context of Taiwan in 1867 is unveiled.
However, historical images are all black and white, so Yao had to consult historical materials as the foundation to source fabrics with similar characteristics, and then created the hues suitable for the time.
Yao referred to the technique of plant-derived dyes, sourced rough cotton and apou cloths, and fabricated new materials with similar texture but various shades. She then toned down the original saturation and brightness through professional washing methods and special treatments.
A final touch of manual rubbing was added to produce the worn-out fabric details. These attentive procedures recreate the color and texture in line with not only the times but also the living standards of the people.
Unexpected failures during the remake of historical fabrics.
Despite all the care and preparations, an unexpected challenge still occurred. A few days before the fitting, the color of Tiap-Moe’s indigenous costume was altered from blue to turquoise after the laundering process of enzyme wash.
Director Tsao joked about its unintentional pretty hue, but Yao insisted on adopting the specific color of Paiwan clothing. After the fitting, she remade the fabric, a remarkable artwork shown in the pilot trailer.
Actors’ personal charm met with archetypes of the age
The foundation of the historical characters was gradually pictured after fieldwork. Amber Yao then penetrated the actors’ personal charm and took the sparks to the next level.
For example, in a historical photo of 1869, William Alexander Pickering, born in the UK, wears a kilt. In Seqalu: Formosa 1867, Pickering is portrayed as a carefree character who forms acquaintances with various ethnic groups, so Yao hoped that the actor Andrew Chau could grow long hair and wear a kilt. The unique British fashion indeed meets the anticipated aesthetic ideal.
Charles W. Le Gendre is another example of re-imagining real historical figures. Amber Yao had no desire to transform the actor Fabio Grangeon into the historical Le Gendre, but to fashion a vivid character embodying Grangeon’s true nature.
She first deconstructed Grangeon’s mild elegance, and asked him to grow a full beard. But she also wanted to emphasize the dashing aura of Western men in the 19th century. A tall hat and a neat suit thus become Le Gendre’s signature look. Grangeon’s interpretation also has his unique take, without violating the historical background of Western culture.
Director Tsao favors reproduction armors of the Qing Dynasty.
What impressed Amber Yao most was General Liu Ming-Deng’s armor. She found the reference through a museum archive but the piece was unavailable to rent, so a remake was commissioned. At first, she was worried about the manufacturing challenges the armor master would face. But the experienced master sewed each piece of embroidery to the armor with a modern electric device.
Looking at the final artwork with python patterns all over the shoulder pads, front-and-back body pieces, armpit pads, and Jockstraps, as well as some parts inserted with silver rivets, Yao felt deeply moved and amazed at her participation of such an elaborate costume project.
Whenever there was a suitable scene, Director Tsao would ask the general to wear the armor as a majestic display of the Qing armed force. Huang Chien-Wei, who plays Liu Ming-Deng, also felt the imposing manner in the armor.
Indigenous embroidery demands elaborate craft.
As for the indigenous costumes, challenges were beyond measure. Class division and related practices were strictly observed in the Paiwan society, and their embroidery art often symbolizes the power structure. However, the actual meanings of those symbols are hard to comprehend.
Amber Yao thus was particularly grateful for the assistance of designers of Southern Paiwan origin as it took nearly three or four months to complete this relatively large project, including the contours and embroidery of the 25 sets of Paiwan costumes.
The U.S. military uniforms that had come across the ocean mark another challenge. With the help of her American friends, Amber Yao rented these samples from costume companies in Hollywood. She then identified the texture and details of the materials, drafted the pattern and reproduced the piece.
Buttons and epaulettes demand intensive work and special manual care, so even though historical materials after the American Civil War remain relatively intact, reproductions of these period pieces still need much attentive treatment.
A story of the most challenging times presenting a narrative closest to Taiwanese history
During the interview, the challenge in the creative process of fashioning Seqalu was often understated. Yet, Yao also affirmed with a smile that if she had to experience the process once again, she might still feel quite timid.
“I’m a bit sorry to say so, especially for the director perhaps, but, when the production was delayed by many out-of-control factors, it did grant us a little more time to prepare and adjust.” Yao considered this extended production period to be a blessing in disguise.
For Amber Yao, Seqalu: Formosa 1867 is like a constellation of many short productions with a solid, united worldview. During the creative process of costume making, Yao had experienced lives of different ethnic groups and various historic moments, which empowered her with a sense of mission.
Creative projects with similar themes of the same era might be scarce in the future, but she still hopes to grasp the opportunity and lead the audience back to 1867, to understand the history of Taiwan, and appreciate the beauty of Taiwanese period drama.
Watch Seqalu: Formosa 1867 Online (4K Ultra HD):
Original text from dramago.
Interview and notes by Lulu Chang
Edits by Chu Yu-An
Translation by Maggie Sur-Han Chang
Editorial review by Whitney Hung
Proofread by Yang Lee