Catherine the Great: Maja Meschede talks costuming and Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great.. Photo: Robert Vigalsky/HBO
Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great.. Photo: Robert Vigalsky/HBO /

HBO’s latest miniseries starring Helen Mirren details the life of Catherine the Great. We chatted with costume designer Maja Meschede about her work.

Helen Mirren stars as Catherine the Great in the latest miniseries from HBO and Sky Atlantic. The series details Catherine’s reign towards the end while she was having an affair with Grigory Potemkin. But the show makes a pointed effort to highlight the real intelligence and political nuance of Catherine’s life.

It’s a stunning production with jaw-dropping costume work on the extravagant gowns and dressings of the century. We chatted with the series costume designer, Maja Meschede, about what it was like working with Helen Mirren and her inspirations for the designs.

More than 60 pieces were created for the series, and a staggering amount of work went into creating the look and feel of such a decadent era.

Hidden Remote: What initially intrigued you about working on Catherine the Great?

Maja Meschede: Basically, I got a phone call from Philip Martin, the director, whose work I admire very much. I really wanted to work with him. Also, as a costume designer, it’s intriguing to work on a show like Catherine the Great because of the Russian costumes of the 18th century. They’re so beautiful. It’s a fascinating period in history to work with.

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HR: I imagine the costumes are extravagant because it’s a period piece. How do you approach creating something like that?

MM: It’s a lot of research. It’s very important to get the historical context right. We wanted to find out the society Catherine was introduced to because she was originally from Germany, from Prussia.

Of course, I was reading about Catherine herself and her biography to find out what the characters need to portray them correctly, so the audience will understand who they are. It was fun. I went to St. Petersburg to the beautiful Hermitage museum, and I made an appointment so I could see the original dresses and some of her jewelry.

Their costumes were far more embroidered with jewelry and diamonds they’d find in the rivers of Russia. They’re decadent.

HR: What was it like working with Helen Mirren? I know she was also an executive producer. Did you guys get to collaborate at all?

MM: I started my research, and then I had meetings with Helen. We talked about how she wanted to portray Catherine in terms of her costume and what was important to her. Whenever she had noted something was very important, or she wanted a specific color in a particular scene, we would change that. For one scene, I had a gown in mind, but Helen suggested a banya, which is more like a dressing gown, to be a bit more private.

She was very helpful and so experienced and had such an intelligent approach, of course, she did, she’s Helen Mirren! So, I was grateful for any of her help she was amazing to work with.

Catherine the Great
Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great. Photo: Hal Shinnie/HBO /

HR: Do you have a favorite costume from the series?

MM: Yes! It’s actually in episode one. It’s golden, and it’s called the Nakaz dress. It’s from when she was reading the reformation of Russia. I tried to make her look like a Russian icon. It takes place in a beautiful, ancient medieval church and contains paintings of Russian figures. I wanted her to look like them, like otherworldly, bigger than life.

Sometimes we had 10 to 15 people sitting around a desk embroidering all the pearls, beads, and amber stones. It also has a little secret to it. If you look closely in the center back on the neckline, you’ll see Helen Mirren’s initials embroidered as an homage to her. You can see it in the first episode. Helen loves it; she was so excited.

HR: Were you guys influenced by any other outside sources like artwork or television series? 

MM: It was more artwork. There are so many beautiful series about Russia, but I never look at them. I try to avoid them so I can get my own view across. I mainly looked at portraits like Catherine the Great.

They all invite a lot of painters from all over like Italy because she had all these painters come to paint her, and one of my favorites was Alexander from Boston. He painted a lot of pictures of people who worked at the palace. They were a beautiful, intimate inside to life at court. These paintings were a great way to see the color palette of the time to get the message across of what it felt like during the time.

Catherine the Great
Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great. Photo: Hal Shinnie/HBO /

HR: Did you guys film on location at all?

MM: We went to St. Petersburg and filmed at different palaces like one of Peter the Great. We also had the chance to shoot in The Amber Room, a beautiful palace outside of St. Petersburg. There was a gorgeous little house that was there in the garden of the palace.

It’s a dining room on the first floor and below that is the kitchen, and then a floor for below where the staff would fix the table, and it would be lifted above so no servants would enter the dining room, so basically there was a big hole in the floor. So that was very special.

HR: What do you hope that audiences connect with the most on the show?

MM: What we all hope working on this production is that we showed  Catherine the Great as an independent and intelligent woman so that she was portrayed as one of the most successful leaders of the army, which is important because women’s position was very different in the 18th century than now.

She’s mainly portrayed, which is so wrong, as a sex addict with tons of lovers, which is not true. We really wanted her to come across as a very attentive political leader, and she was friends with Voltaire and Rosseau, French philosophers, and she supported them at some point financially, so we really wanted that side to come across.

HR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me!

MM: Thank you. I hope people watch the show and enjoy it!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Next. Wyatt Smith talks about the influences of Harriet. dark

For more information about Maja’s work on the series, check out her interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

You can currently watch episodes of Catherine the Great on HBO. New episodes air on Monday nights.