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Artist Profile: Katie Irish on Using Costuming to Bring Humanity to ‘Manhunt’

Katie Irish, costume designer for "Manhunt."
Katie Irish, costume designer for "Manhunt." By Courtesy of Katie Irish
By Jackie Chen, Contributing Writer

Costume designer Katie Irish is the behind-the-scenes leader bringing the thrill of immersive and evocative dress to life in suspense media, where clothing not only serves as a disguise, but also gives unseen glimpses into characters’ personal lives. Known for her work on seasons four through six of FX’s “The Americans” and most recently on Apple TV+’s historical spy drama “Manhunt,” Irish said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson that her continued involvement within the spy-fi and mystery genres is “a coincidence, but a happy one.”

The opposing needs — what she described as “for theatricality or to blend in” — built into costumes in this niche constantly pose exciting challenges of finding balance among her own team, other design teams on the show, actors, and the characters she helps them embody.

While Irish’s work now frequently centers around spy dramas in film and television, she started out in the world of theater after earning a master’s degree from New York University.

“When I graduated, I worked predominantly in theater,” Irish said. “I did that for about seven years before I really began to see and understand that the way I work, the scale that I work at, really is better suited for film and television. To me, a character is comprised of a ton of small choices that we make, and it adds up to be one person.”

She pivoted to working on “The Americans” in 2013, starting as a temporary hire before being promoted to a permanent shopper for season one, assistant designer for seasons two and three, then taking over as lead designer for the rest of the show. Irish credits her work-your-way-up professional journey with allowing her to more efficiently staff teams as a department head, as her experiences help her to better understand what a job really needs to prevent overtaxation in an industry with all-encompassing tasks and long hours.

No detail is too small or intricate to be overlooked or excluded. Irish’s research process for each project aims to reveal the dynamic, perhaps even unfamiliar, reality of the time period in question.

“One of the key things about having worked in theater for so long and trained in theater is text analysis,” Irish said. Irish examines character dialogue as a starting point for effective conversations not only with actors, but also with directors about characters’ motivations and influences. Irish also frequents museum databases and archives like the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert Museum for education and inspiration, particularly after their mass digitization efforts during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Going through and finding as much pictorial, or even written, descriptions of people as we could was the starting place, always,” Irish said.

Often given only four to six weeks of prep time for projects, with “Manhunt” being no exception, Irish dove right into the personalities of the characters themselves through her research.

“It’s about finding the humanity in them because we’re not doing an expensive Halloween costume where someone is dressing up. My job as a costume designer is really to help the actor feel like they are transformed into that character,” Irish said. “And so for me, it’s finding things that make these people real.”

It was in these archives that Irish discovered details from Abraham Lincoln’s personal journals, where she learned of his fondness for a pair of embroidered goat slippers. “The whimsy of [personal details] is so touching and fantastic to think about,” Irish said. She included the slippers in the show, as well as plenty of color in her design choices.

“A lot of times, we think of this time period being fairly drab, and quite the opposite was true. There were advances in dyeing techniques” Irish said. “The White House carpet was pink and green! These kinds of exciting interchanges about how bold and honestly crazy a lot of the colors and the combinations were was really exciting.”

Her design considerations extend beyond what is historically accurate or visually appealing to also account for the rest of the show’s atmosphere and the audience’s attention. “One of the things that I learned on ‘The Americans’ and that Joe Weisberg, who was one of our showrunners, taught us is how little you actually have to do to disguise yourself,” Irish said, pointing out examples of stars who stroll around Los Angeles in just a baseball hat and sunglasses.

Practicality is also key in her designs. Irish focuses on ensuring that background actors are dressed in ways that help specific characters blend in or stand out depending on context.

“We [the production designers] always have this really ongoing and collaborative discussion about what is going to suit [a scene] and what the visuals are. It’s always everybody coming to the table and sharing as much information as we know as soon as we know it,” Irish said.

Irish embodies the ethos of interdisciplinary learning to better understand humanity across time and media. “Study anything that interests you,” she said as advice for anyone considering creative careers. She told the story of how she called her mother after getting a job on “The Americans” and asked for her own notes from a Cold War history elective she took in her first year of college.

When asked about her dream genre or period to design for, Irish said she doesn’t play favorites.

“Honestly, I’m a sucker for a really good story because as a costume designer I need — as I’m reading the script for the first time — these people to come alive off the page for me,” Irish said. “And that can be honestly any time period.”

“But I will say I have never done any sci-fi and I love sci-fi,” she said. “So, anybody who’s interested in that, I’m game.”

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