Costume Designer Jennifer Haffenden on Keeping Actors Warm through the Canadian Winter

13 January 2021
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Although the temperatures and volume of snowfall differ wildly across the country, winter is a central part of the Canadian national identity. (Those situated further to the north enjoy making fun of Vancouverites, but several months of endless cold rain is just as miserable as sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow.) As an immigrant, I arrived in Canada, on a warm spring day, and I couldn’t imagine what the fuss was about. Before we left the U.K., a friend gave me a pair of beautiful hand-knit mittens, a cheerful yellow with embroidered flowers. “Those should get you through the worst of the legendary Canadian winters.” A kind thought, but by mid-November I was starting to feel the limitations of the lightweight synthetic yarn. The first time I heard Quebec folk singer Gilles Vigneault’s classic “Mon pays c’est l’hiver,” (which translates to “My Country, It’s Winter”) I didn’t really get it. By the first January in my new home, I started to get a sense of what he meant – and I agreed.

Another core facet of the Canadian national identity, though an admittedly more recent development, is television production. Every Canadian enjoys the particular frisson of spotting familiar locations when watching a movie or TV show that’s set in the U.S. “Why did that New York City taxi just drive past my bank branch?” Since the 1980s, thousands of movies and TV shows have been made here in Canada, with Canadian talent.

That ever-present winter weather presents many challenges for the crews that work on these projects, and costuming is a huge piece of it.

I’m a big fan of the show Wynonna Earp. It’s a playful mix of cop show, comedy, fantasy, supernatural thriller and romance, with strong female leads and a great sense of style. The show is filmed outside of Calgary, Alberta, and the first few seasons were filmed during the winter. Very obviously. There’s snow on the ground for many of the outdoor scenes – often it’s even actively snowing.

I love clothes, and good costumes are always part of the pleasure I take from watching a show. What I noticed about Wynnona Earp in particular was the balance it struck between acknowledging the realities of the climate and environment of the setting, and the styling of the characters. That’s real weather, and they need to dress for it, but the characters aren’t so bundled in winter coats that you can’t tell who they are, but nor are they dressed inappropriately for the weather. (We Canadians can always tell when a movie is made in California and the actors are only pretending to be cold.) The show knows it’s winter, and lets the characters dress for it.

I recently had the chance to chat by email with Wynnona Earp’s costume designer, Jennifer Haffenden, about the work she and her team do on the show.

A dream job

Kate Atherley: Being a TV costume designer sounds like a dream job! How did you get into this line of work? Being a TV costume designer sounds like a dream job! How did you get into this line of work?

Jennifer Haffenden: I’ve wanted to be a costume designer since I was four, inspired by a distant relative, costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden, who won a couple of Oscars in the 1960s. I started sewing in elementary school, but my mom didn’t want me using the sewing machine, so I’d safety-pin garments together on the inside if I didn’t have time to hand sew them. Unbelievably, my mom let me wear these accidentally punk outfits to school. I found an old beginner’s knitting book when I was in Grade 3 and, with a red polyester ball of yarn plus a couple pencil crayons, my knitting adventures began! I was thrilled to be allowed on the sewing machine in Grade 6 and got real knitting needles for my 12th birthday. I later studied Fashion Design at Ryerson University and started volunteering on indie film sets while in Toronto to gain film industry experience before moving back to Calgary. Shortly after I returned home, I landed my first paying costume department gig as Truck Costumer – a team member responsible for getting the actors’ outfits prepped – on a Disney series. I’ve worked at every position in the costume department over the years, which I feel has made me a better designer and team leader because I have experience with all the steps of “how the sausage is made!”

KA: I guess you’ve experienced all sorts of weather in your work?

JH: Yes! We have tricks up our sleeves to keep cast cold or warm, and with warm Chinook winds rolling through Alberta on the regular during winter, we could face parka weather in the morning and enjoy shorts weather by the afternoon. During summer shoots, we stock up on actor-comfort items like cooling towels and have handheld fans and ice packs close by. If an actor is in a multi-layer costume in hot weather, we may remove any parts of clothing that aren’t visible… if a shirt is worn under a jacket, we might remove the sleeves, and even the back!

The parka was in the car…

KA: Shooting in Alberta in the winter must be a challenge. How do you approach dressing your actors for nasty weather while still making sure their character style comes through?

JH: Without fail, every producer stresses during prep that they don’t want the project to become the “parka show.” If the actors are dressed in parkas, their range of motion is curtailed, the sound department is thwarted by the noisy nylon fabric and – even with a variety of amazing outerwear styles out there – parkas prevent detailed character style from shining through. However, actor safety comes first and my costume department needs to be prepared to provide heavier jacket options, hat options, glove options, and footwear options if the weather ends up being -40 C and the body-conscious mid-weight jacket (even with under layers) and cute fashion boots we planned to use are abandoned for the moment.

It gets trickier when we’ve already established “the look” in a previously shot scene when the weather was milder. My Set Supervisor needs to come up with a plausible way for the actor to suddenly wear warmer clothes without completely ruining continuity. We use, “the parka was in the car!” justification a lot when working out these issues with the Continuity Supervisor.

KA: I imagine this is different than a show where the weather is part of the story? If a show is about winter sports, then the weather is a character and it’s okay that everyone is dressed for it. You must be working against it, at times?

JH: Yes, it seems we rarely play “winter for winter.” It’s such a breeze to dress actors when we do! One of my favourite movie projects was about an Everest expedition. The cast was in heaven because they could wear alllll the layers. Not only was this project amazingly painless for the actors (especially while wearing their Mountain Hardwear “Absolute Zero” suits, which look like a cross between a sleeping bag and a onesie, filled with the finest, lightest, and warmest down), but infinitely helpful for me. When researching how actual Everest climbers dress for each level of their ascent I learned optimal ways to keep people warm. For example, down and merino triumph over even the most advanced technical synthetics for utmost warmth and comfort. Also, multiple thin layers work better to trap warm air than fewer thick layers. We encourage actors to change into fresh socks and base layers at lunch and to use hand, toe and body warmers before they start to get cold. We have been known to “wallpaper” an actor with body warmers, sticking these to their base layers everywhere we can hide them. Sometimes complete body-warmer wallpapering isn’t possible or necessary, but we always make sure to put body warmers on the lower back (over the kidneys), and one at the nape of the neck. These spots seem to be key in keeping the core warm. Many historical garments from a variety of cultures include versions of kidney or lower-torso warmers. The Japanese haramaki (“belly warmer”) has made something of a comeback lately, and Uniqlo sells a modern version.

KA: Tell us about things you do to make sure your actors are warm even if they look like they’re lightly dressed.

JH: It’s all about what’s hidden underneath! Regardless of whether a show has a larger or smaller budget, buying or renting the best quality “warm-up” supplies we can makes a huge difference. We offer actors a variety of silk and merino under layers when setting costumes in their trailers. They layer up with sometimes three sets of under layers before they get their costumes on. Once they are in wardrobe, my Truck Costumer cuts away any areas of the under layers that are visible. With some especially skimpy costumes, this makes for some really amusing Swiss cheese-looking under layers at the end of the day. We make sure to serge the cut-out edges before the garments are worn again, so that the holes don’t grow endlessly bigger as the shoot goes on. We also offer low-profile down vests actors can wear invisibly under their open jackets.

Chill Cheaters are amazing secret weapons. These are fitted, windproof, waterproof and thin one- or two-piece drysuit-looking garments that are much easier to hide than wetsuits. These can be dyed to match skin tones of actors, and are cut away where necessary. On Season 3 of “Wynonna Earp,” (our hero) Wynonna was on the side of a cliff in an evening gown that consisted of black mesh with a few feathers. The actor, Melanie Scrofano, wore a Chill Cheater underneath that had the sleeves, v-neck and v-back cut away, but it still provided a surprising amount of wind protection and warmth. Naturally, my Set Supervisor took care to have warmers, a down coat and other warmup elements at the ready to supplement the Chill Cheater.

If an actor is supposed to be scantily dressed with lots of exposed skin, we custom-dye flesh-toned items, such as bodysuits, tights and dance slippers, to cover the skin during wide shots.

And the feet! Actors love Sealskinz waterproof merino- or bamboo-based socks. Even with waterproof socks, it’s best to keep feet from getting wet in the first place. If actors have to walk through snow or water for long periods of time, we Sno-Seal (beeswax waterproofing) their footwear ahead of time and give actors “boot condoms,” which are basically plastic bags worn over their socks, closed at the top with elastic. Also, rechargeable battery-operated heated insoles, shearling insoles, and charcoal foot warmers keep our talent happy.

KA: Can you share any clever tricks that actors or crew use to keep warm while waiting between takes?

JH: The Costume Set Supervisor sets the actors’ down XXL warmup parkas or down blankets near heaters so that they are toasty when the actors wrap themselves in them between takes. Also, we set up little pop-up tents with portable electric heaters for the talent as close to set as possible. The heaters are very safe but we have had a number of incidents on Alberta shows resulting from an actor standing a little too close to a heater, melting part of their boots or singeing faux fur! Electric blankets are also placed on cast chairs in the tents, plugged in and ready.  And the classic hot water bottle is a universal favourite. Because we don’t want to ruin actors’ hair, we throw on heated wrap earmuffs instead of hats (these are sometimes rechargeable battery-operated, or we sometimes put hand warmers in little pockets we build into the inside of the earmuffs) between takes. Finally, actors often combine our warm-up efforts with drinking lot of tea!

KA: I understand youre a knitter! Have you snuck any hand-knits onto the show? Do you do any other crafts?

JH: I’ve snuck a lot of hand-knits and other handcrafted items onto shows, crochet, painted and tooled leather, embroidery, felting, sashiko, shibori, beadwork, etc. I wish I had the time to make more items for the shows I’m designing but I usually need to delegate to someone local, or to my extremely talented costume crew. We have had a lot of really ambitious projects with tight timelines where I and every single person in my department were “all hands on deck” to get our various demons and fancy dresses finished in time. Last season on Wynonna Earp, we constructed a really quirky demon using materials cosplayers know well, including moldable foam, EVA foam and Worbla. We also went through lots of rubber cement to built latex garments, and bedazzled items galore! I think there are many handcrafted elements on shows I design because I’ve found “Frankensteining” items can be an effective hack to make items a little more unique. We often have very limited prep time and can’t make as many items from scratch as we’d like, so we take ready-made items and customize them with everything from embroidery to embellishing, to switching up collars and cuffs, to dyeing them using various techniques.

Recently, I’ve had time to take up my knitting needles again and am really enjoying your “Custom-Fit Hats” book! [Ed. Note: Not a solicited endorsement, promise.] Other favourite crafts these days include embroidery, visible mending, macramé, leather tooling, and weaving.

Featured photo credit Michelle Faye Fraser.

Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

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