Guns, Drugs and Costumes: The World of Netflix’s ‘Narcos’

The Netflix series Narcos burst onto the small screen in August 2015, and it’s held many of us  (myself included) in rapture ever since. A crime drama with all the air of a Shakespearean tragedy, the first two series of Narcos followed the infamous Pablo Escobar as he rose from small-town smuggler to the head of a vast drug empire. It’s been, in my humble opinion, one of Netflix’s biggest successes, and while the accents haven’t always been perfect, the production design is hard to beat. The gritty and complex world of 1980’s and 1990’s Colombia is brought to life by designs that feel inherently real and lived in, and strip the glamour away from the myth of Pablo Escobar. Season 3 of the series is now available on Netflix; and we’re here to give you a spoiler free look at some of the best designs and costumes of the past 3 seasons, to get ready for Season 3 in all its brutal, bloody glory.

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I’ve learnt more Spanish from this show than I did during my GCSE’s. Sí Tata.

Narco Style

Narcos spans a wide time period; from the late 1970’s right up until 1992; with the new series moving firmly into the mid 1990’s. It can be difficult to establish a time period clearly in a short space of time, without reverting to tired tropes or stereotypes of the era, but Narcos does this beautifully. The costumes are never too much, never too ostentatious; they create and populate the world without dominating it. The costumes are a real reflection of the time and locale; and this can be a challenge when designing for a modern television audience. While the audience are aware that the show is set in the 1980’s and 1990’s, they’re also regarded as fashion’s cringeworthy eras, and call to mind visions of neon, mullets and shoulderpads. But Narcos managed to avoid this, and it’s clearly a well-designed, and superbly well researched show. They also do a great job of using costume as a means of quickly establishing and differentiating the narcos. For example, Gacha, played by Puerto Rican actor Luis Guzmán, is rarely seen without his trademark hat, colourful shirt, and white tank top, accompanied by his gold chain. And of course, his gun. Gustavo Gaviria, Pablo’s cousin and right hand man, always wears a flat cap, polo-shirt, gold chain, and aviator sunglasses.

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‘Friendly associates’. Screenshot of Narcos, (Netflix, 2015)

These small costume details help to quickly differentiate these characters in a series with a large cast, and also mirror the real people these actors are playing. The casting in this series is superb; some actors are almost impossible to differentiate from their real-life counterparts. Narcos also pays specific attention to it’s environment and locale; even though Pablo is one of the richest men in the world, they’ve ensured that accuracy wins over polish. Pablo never looks rich; he’s permanently decked out in white trainers, blue jeans and either a polo shirt or a questionable jumper, much like the iconic anchor sweatshirt of season two.

This sweater is iconic.

While one might expect the world’s most notorious drug lord to show his wealth in his clothing, it’s not true to life, and major props to costume designer Bina Daigeler, and later María Estela Fernández for choosing to stick to the history books here. When was the last time you can remember being terrified by a villain in a pair of white Nikes?

Murphy, Peña and the Police

DEA Agents Murphy and Peña are based on real-life agents of the same name, who were contributors to the show. Played expertly by Boyd Holybrook and Pedro Pascal, the agents are heavily based in reality. There’s no sense of Miami Vice glamour in their looks; they’re completely practical and period appropriate, from their mustaches right down to their lovely 1980’s cream suits worn in Season 1. Murphy and Peña play off each other in more ways that one – Peña is much edgier, more of a badboy – rarely seen without a cigarette and a pair of yellow-tinted aviators, whereas Murphy is much more of a clean-cut, All-American boy – although this is certainly more mudded by the end of the series. Holybrook and Pascal play their roles amazingly, and I’m so excited to see Peña return in Season 3.

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Honorable mention to these cowboy boots.

The uniforms of all the policemen and army personnel are also accurate to the time and place; the lead costume designer on series one had roughly 500 costumes to make to ensure that the army, narcos and surrounding characters looked straight out of 1980’s Colombia. This is no small feat; as a designer myself, the level of attention to detail in Narcos is truly admirable, and no doubt one of my favourite aspects of the series. It’s always great to see this, especially when the production is rooted in fact; and Narcos blends real photographs and footage with their own footage in a way that feels seamless, real and representative of this troubled period of Colombia’s history. 

The Women of Narcos

This deserves a separate post, and it will get one, but I couldn’t talk about Narcos without talking about its female characters. I’m going to look at two here, arguably the most important within the world of Pablo Escobar; his wife Tata and the journalist Valeria Velez, who is a fictional character loosely based on Virginia Vellejo. The world of Narcos seems to have little time for women, except those in the orbit of Escobar or the DEA’s storylines; and while at a glance this seems a little backwards, it’s true of the world of the show; both Tata and Valeria’s storylines rely on Pablo.

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A screenshot that perfectly describes Tata’s role in Season 1.

Tata and Valeria, Pablo’s wife and mistress respectively, start off completely at odds with each other; Tata is beautiful and sweet, dressed in reserved, pastel toned clothing and long, feminine dresses. Valeria, on the other hand, is hypersexualised and glamourous; decked out in short, tight skirts, boxy 80’s jackets in bright colours, and never seen without a full face of makeup. It seems like the standard wife vs mistress; duty versus desire, love versus lust. However, we see Tata transform over the trajectory of the first few seasons; her colour palette extends to warmer, brighter colours, and she starts to wear some of the more fashionable and daring styles of the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is around the time she warns Pablo not to see Valeria any longer, and around the time she fully commits herself to life as the wife of a drug lord. Tata’s clothing is representative of her agency, and as her role in the story becomes larger, she gains more agency over her appearance, and really begins to make a visual impact, mirroring her impact on the story.

Tata’s colour palette progression throughout the series.

I, for one, can’t wait to binge-watch Season 3, even though it will be missing a few familiar faces: no spoilers here though. And for those that haven’t watched it, I hope this post has helped set the scene. Narcos really is one of the hidden gems of Netflix, and after all, there’s no business like blow business.

Till next time,

Liz xo

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