Making Mermaid Magic with Our Flag Means Death Costume Designer Gypsy Taylor

From Mermaid Stede to Calypso's birthday, Australian costume designer Gypsy Taylor discusses the best looks from OFMD season 2.

This year’s season of queer comedy series Our Flag Means Death had a lot of surprises, but perhaps chief among them was Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) as a glorious golden mermaid, plunging down into the ocean to save a drowning Ed Teach (Taika Waititi) from certain doom.

The woman behind that stunning look, as well as every other outfit in the season, is the aptly-named Gypsy Taylor. Born and raised in Australia, Taylor worked on the second season of Our Flag Means Death after crafting costumes for shows like Wellmania (the Celeste Barber Netflix series) and Poker Face (Stan’s original movie with Russell Crowe).

I spoke with her about her creation process, her biggest influences, and sperm whale teeth.

Read: Our Flag Means Death Season 2 review: Stede and Ed might work it out

Jump to:

Hi Gypsy! You’ve worked on a number of projects, but would you say Our Flag Means Death is your favourite?

Gypsy Taylor: I definitely would! I’ve done so many wonderful jobs in all different genres, but anytime a costume designer gets to do period costumes it’s even more exciting. It’s just what we live for. This show in particular, I got to do 18th century queer and punk-ified outfits, which is very much my style. I felt like I put a real unique stamp on it this season.

What were your major influences for this season?

Gypsy: I have many different influences, mostly from movies, music and other pop culture references. I got to play with that a lot in this show and really hone in on what they had touched on in season one. For instance, Spanish Jackie [played by Leslie Jones] was heavily inspired by Prince, so I got to take that to another level while also incorporating the looks of rock stars like Iggy Pop and Adam Ant. I did primarily use 1980s music, film and TV references because that’s what I’m a fan of.

Is it more difficult to design for a period piece as opposed to a modern series?

Gypsy: It’s definitely more fun. To start with something like 18th century is already so optimised and exciting for me, because the silhouettes are so grand. And when you look at fashion, there’s all sorts of beautiful embroidery and scrumptious detail that was already there in the 18th century. So I took that and went my own way with it, adding bleach and zips and even sperm whale teeth…

Sperm-whale teeth?!

Gypsy: Fake sperm whale teeth! That was for Fang’s [played by David Fane] costume, which also had fake walrus fangs on it. The idea was he’d collected all these teeth while out at sea and he’d made jewellery out of it.

Talk me through your design process, do you always start with a fully formed costume idea?

Gypsy: For sure. From when I first sit down with the script, I have a notebook next to me that I’ll scribble in, making little drawings of the characters as they’re jumping off the page and into my mind. It starts with my gut instinct as to what I think they should wear.

Then, from there, I take those sketches and go deep into research. I love looking at books and going to libraries, and of course delving into the internet. After that I’ll do a clearer sketch that I present to my director, show runner, whoever it might be at the time, and maybe bring some fabric samples or a colour reference along with a moodboard. I do that for every character and a lot of background characters, too.

I really want to talk about Mermaid Stede. How did you create something so beautiful and fully functional?

Gypsy: Yes, let’s talk about Mermaid Stede! We had thought about doing a very lifelike mermaid to begin with, similar to Daryl Hannah’s one in Splash, which is full silicone. That would have meant doing a full body sculpt with Rhys, and it was going to be really, really heavy and very, very time consuming.

I spoke with Haley Egan, the artist who helped me with the mermaid tail, and we workshopped some ideas. We only had a couple of days to shoot in the tank, so we both knew we were on borrowed time. We started with a lycra base which was light and allowed Rhys to really move. Then for the mono-fin, we bought one online that a lot of swimmers use, which we then sculpted, hand-dyed and added scales, pleated chiffon organza and glitter to. It ended up being 5 kilograms of glitter alone, so in the end it wasn’t very light!

We did a lot of weight tests to ensure Rhys could wear the tail and stay buoyant. He learnt to swim in it very quickly, actually. And then the very next day we got the shot. It was magic.

I was amazed to learn that there was no CGI involved in that look.

Gypsy: We talked about doing VFX but I knew we could pull it off practically. Personally, I love the old-school special effects of film and TV. I just think it looks better and moves more organically. Plus, Rhys was immediately up for doing the stunt himself! It would have looked so different if he were just wearing a green sock for CGI. The weight of the costume added to his embodiment of the merman, and the way the light caught all the little side fins coming off the tail was beautiful. That magic and beauty was really important to me.

Why did you decide to make his tail orange? Was there a deeper meaning behind that?

Gypsy: That was easy, because I knew that if Stede turned into a merman he would be something sweet and innocent like a goldfish. The director thought it was hilarious and approved it immediately. As it turns out, goldfish are also a good luck symbol in China, which coincidentally ties in with the introduction of Zheng Yi Sao [played by Rubio Qian] in this season.

Talk me through Zheng Yi Sao’s outfit – that Eastern style is something that’s very new for the show.

Gypsy: Right. I was so excited when they said there was going to be a badass female pirate this season. I’d never heard of her, but I listened to a pirate podcast about her and went down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole and found this one existing etching of her. I based the costume on that one silhouette. She’s wearing pants and she’s got a sword, which is not only badass but also historically accurate, according to the etching.

Zheng Yi Sao [played by Rubio Qian] in Our Flag Means Death season two. Image: Binge/HBO Max

I looked at a lot of Chinese clothing from the 18th century as well, clothes that were being imported from the Silk Road. Whenever the real Zheng was travelling, she would go through the Middle East and Africa. That expanded our options for fabrics, so when you see the red lining inside her costume, that’s actually a Moroccan fabric. Having hints of red on her costumes also linked to the set design of her ship, which became like a metaphor for the character hiding her fierce identity.

Speaking of red things, can you tell me more about Stede’s cursed coat?

Gypsy: Ah you’re picking all the good ones! With the coat, it started with knowing that the ship they had raided was a Spanish ship, which made me think of matadors. That inspired the look of the coat, with a high cut and shoulder pads, which I then added an 18th century twist to by giving it tails like a tuxedo. It’s also made up of all the things Stede has been craving since losing everything at the end of season one: velvet, silk, gold embroider and bejewelled buttons. And of course it’s red because it’s a warning.

Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet in Our Flag Means Death season two. Image: Binge/HBO Max

The last costume I want to talk about is Wee John’s drag look, Calypso.

Gypsy: Oh, isn’t he beautiful? I didn’t really know what Calypso’s birthday was going to be at the start of the production process, but I knew that Wee John [played by Kristian Nairn] was an established dressmaker and that meant it had to be a beautiful frock. In terms of the drag element, one of my heroes in life is John Waters, and I love anything of his that has the drag queen Divine in it. So I started with the Divine silhouette, making sure Wee John was padded out in this dyed-velvet dress. Then I added a seaweed feather boa, which gave the whole thing some drama. I felt that the dress itself also needed bits of algae and mould, as though it had been found under the sea where it had been lying for some time. So it has a little bit of a crust to it that’s balanced out nicely by the shiny rhinestones and abalone shells.

Kristian Nairn as Wee John/Calypso in Our Flag Means Death season two. Image: Binge/HBO Max

Funnily enough, the design for the sea witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid was inspired by Divine in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, and that in turn inspired Wee John’s Calypso look.

Which of the costumes from Our Flag Means Death season 2 do you think is most achievable for cosplayers to recreate?

Gypsy: It depends on your skill set, really. I swear to God, within one hour of those first-look photos being posted online, a fan had already made her own Anne Bonney outfit and shared it on Twitter. She had just pieced together a bunch of things like brown leather, belts, a bit of green fabric and a silver necklace from around her house. So, you don’t necessarily have to know how to sew – a hot glue gun goes a long way! You could even be Ed in his empty rice sack and cat-collar look. I feel like as long as you’ve got the silhouette down, people will recognise who you are dressing up as. The Calypso and Mermaid looks would certainly be a bit harder to pull off though!

Read: Melbourne Queer Film Fest takes a historic lens to queerness

What’s your dream costume – the one you have to make before you die?

Gypsy: Wow, that’s a really big one. I always love a project where a creature is involved. That’s probably why I loved the mermaid so much. I think the ultimate costume for me would be a Frankenstein type of thing. My dream come true would be Guillermo Del Toro giving me a call and saying ‘ we need you to design this new monster that lives in the forest’. I would love that.

Our Flag Means Death is currently streaming on Binge.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports