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Music for this Post: All the Rowboats by Regina Spektor

In July 7th’s post, I ranted about the design work on Victor Frankenstein’s role in Penny Dreadful. I was struck by the detail I noted in his costumes and sets. Those pieces so clearly communicated the underpinnings of his character: a punk genius unable to move beyond the past.

What’s been impressed on me so much in watching this show is the movement of past to present. Creator John Logan cites his inspiration for the show as the enduring relevance of these classic characters. Why are we still talking about these archaic tropes almost 200 years later? What is relevant about the past, why is Penny exciting?

In looking at the costume and set design for another character, Dorian Gray, I again found an answer. If Victor appears pulled from the past, fighting toward the present, Dorian is already halfway into the future. In this post, I’ll look into  the subtle (and not too subtle) visual treats that make up this character’s significance here…

Dorian Gray is, in Logan’s words, “a man who lives out of time”. His immortality, his beauty and body unchanged and unblemished for eternity, it’s all reflected in the visual cues that surround him on the show.

His costumes, for a start, are like a bright pink spotlight on the endless infinity spiral of his life. Frankly, he barely fits into the Victorian period on the show, and that’s the best part.

Its clear just by looking at him that he’s already far ahead of anything his peers could imagine. His closet must resemble a rock star’s. He sports copious jewelry, sparkling scarves, and eschews neckties almost completely. At one point, leather pants make an appearance; that was a very nice episode…

Dorian’s dress sense really suggests that eternity which defines him, almost as if he can see the future coming straight for him.

This is also very apparent in the gorgeous set pieces designed for his humble little urban mansion. Glossy blacks and faint golds dominate the space here, and everything appears like a mirror reflecting a cool emptiness. What really makes these sets pop is the minimalism: again, within the Victorian context, it stands out vividly. Sharp angles and a scarcity of furniture are definitively out-of-place amongst the opulence and pomp of the 19th century aesthetic. Dorian’s home belongs in the 1920’s, the only contradiction here being the curious number of paintings filling up the walls…another wink and nod to fans of the original tale.

With all these overlapping aesthetic types, Dorian himself becomes a walking contradiction. He’s a boy destined to grow older than nature ever intended, a figurehead of Victorian opulence who dresses like a glam rock frontman. I think this is why he speaks so much to that resonant quality of the show: his whole world is constantly being tugged between present and future, just as so many of us these days are caught between learning from the past and readying ourselves for the future already arriving.

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