Anna Baryshnikov let me in on a little secret: 1850s underpinnings are it! The actress is referring to the mostly unseen corset covers she wears for her AppleTV+ series Dickinson. The cropped cotton blouses adorned with beautiful lace detailing and oftentimes embroidered with the original owner’s initials were used as a protective layer between one’s corset and their dress. “I always felt crazy putting the costumes on top of them,” she tells me of the Victorian-era pieces. “They look so much like things being worn a ton now but a little bit better.” Baryshnikov loved the undergarments so much she asked the Dickinson costume department where she could source her own (vintage shops on Etsy, it turns out), thus earning corset covers a prime place in her everyday wardrobe.
For Baryshnikov, finding her latest fashion obsession isn’t the only great thing to come out of her time working on Dickinson. The series, now in its second season, has afforded the New York native the luxury of playing a character who is ever evolving and wonderfully absurd. As Lavinia Dickinson, the spirited younger sister of Emily Dickinson, Baryshnikov is a delight to watch—endearing, wholly relatable, and often at the forefront of some of the show’s best dance scenes. In this next chapter, we get to see an even more confident, vibrant, and compassionate side to Lavinia, making her easily one of my favorite characters on the show.
Following a binge session of season two, Baryshnikov and I partook in a casual Zoom date where we talked about everything from Lavinia's brilliant story arc to how she’s ditching her fast-fashion habit.
Lavinia really comes into her own this season, which I love. She has reclaimed her sexuality, knows what she wants, and isn’t willing to settle. In an interview you did for season one, you said you referenced Little Women’s Amy March and Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet for Lavinia. Did your references change at all for season two?
That’s a great question. One of the joys about the show is that [creator] Alena [Smith] really challenges us and has the characters change a lot. There is a different challenge with sitcoms where you are playing the same character in a ton of different situations. In this case, Alena really allowed the characters to grow a ton in the interim of the two seasons. [Going into] a second season, you feel a little bit more ownership over the character naturally. I felt I had the building blocks of Lavinia already and understood how she would respond to different things happening. Season two was such a joy because she has so much more agency and is so much more willful. I actually felt more confident in my understanding of her that I don’t even think I worked on this season quite the same way. A lot of what I was referencing was actually the through line of Lola Montez. I went down a rabbit hole of being obsessed with this woman who brought down empires with her spider dance. It’s so delicious. There was just so much on the page for me to work with that I was a little looser going into it.
Speaking of the spider dance, which is an amazing character moment for Lavinia, how did you prepare for a scene like that?
Of course, I tell everyone that I am not a trained dancer and then have the most fun of my life doing this dance scene. We had an incredible choreographer, Danny Mefford, who has a theater background, so I really felt like we spoke the same language in wanting it to be very character driven and so much more about Lavinia and how she is feeling in the moment more than any kind of stiff choreography. That moment, to me, was really about Lavinia challenging Ship to see whether or not he could handle her full self, and so I just wanted to feel as unhinged and crazy as possible.
Henry “Ship” Shipley enters the picture and creates a real struggle for Lavinia between her past and future selves. What do you like about that relationship dynamic?
Because we have this spoiler alert of knowing that Lavinia never got married or never had children, there is a version of this story in season one in which we would believe that wasn’t a choice [for her] and that she was unappealing to people or too weird or desirable somehow. This season, we got to play with how that might have been a choice and how she might have realized how much of these norms she was rejecting herself. I had a blast working with Pico [Alexander]. The Ship character, I thought, was so smartly conceived because he is this hyper-masculine character and embodies these traditional values of manhood of the 1850s, but at the same time, his language is straight off of incel Reddit threads. I mean men still speak that way. Like anything Dickinson, there was a goofiness to their dynamic, but also, it was weighted and grounded in something Alena felt very strongly about seeing.
One of my favorite episodes is seven, which features the ladies’ spa day. It’s hilarious, but there is also a very sweet moment between Lavinia and Emily. I love how their relationship has evolved between seasons as well.
That was a part of the show that I was always really drawn to. I have a sister, and I’m incredibly close with her even though we are very different. I think there is a special thing about siblings that, whether or not you would choose them otherwise, they are in your life and are sometimes the only other person who can understand where you come from. And so that relationship, there is so much to delve into. It’s such a deep relationship to play with. With that scene in the spa, specifically, when I was working on it, I was wondering, “Should this be a little sarcastic but she means it, or is it really genuine?” I ended up leaning into a more genuine moment of Lavinia wanting to shore up strength for her sister because I just thought about the moments in my life when I put all of my personal baggage aside to just tell my sister that I think she is great.
There are so many great looks in season one and season two. Do you have a favorite Lavinia fashion moment?
Jen Moeller, our costume designer, did such a beautiful job of embodying how Lavinia wants to feel wilder and more creative and more bohemian. She did a lot of headpieces with flowers [this season]. [Jen] did such a beautiful job from the beginning of the season to the end where, in the last scene, we see [Lavinia] in this floral dress that has these funkier colors. It’s not like the yellows and pastels that she starts out in. She has this huge flower piece, and it’s when she decides, despite the fact that she might not be living the life that she thought she would as a young woman, that she’s choosing herself. There’s clichés in all of it, but I thought Jen did such a beautiful job of embodying that journey.
Dickinson has been renewed for a third season. What do you hope to see for Lavinia in that next chapter?
Part of the joy of all of this is, even though we have the facts of how Lavinia’s life ended, it’s a collaboration between Alena and I to figure out how she got there. Something crucial to Lavinia’s character that I wanted to be mindful of and play a slow burn of is that she really becomes Emily’s caretaker at the end of her life and, in some ways, dedicates her life to protecting her sister and her sister’s work. I think we’re just going to keep exploring how she got there and how she and Emily continued to get close when they were incredibly different women.
What are you most looking forward to going back to filming season three later this year?
Hailee [Steinfeld] has become such a close friend, and we live across the country from one another, so I’m so excited to see her and hang out and play scenes together, even if we’re in masks between scenes. I love the cast so much, and they are such a creative, kind, and talented group of people that—the idea of spending time making something together with them again after being so alone for a lot of quarantine—I just feel so spoiled to be able to go back and do it.
Feminist revisionism is certainly having a moment with shows like Dickinson, Bridgerton, and The Great. Why do you think these narratives resonate with audiences right now?
I think something unique about Dickinson is that it’s not just a period piece with a few modern winks. It really is a hybrid of a completely modern show and a period show. Sometimes, I will have a line that I truly have to look at and decide whether or not it’s a completely irreverent modern comment or a little historical fact from the 1850s. And often, it’s both. I think that’s how it feels to be a young person right now. We are reliving so much of our history with what’s going on politically but also interpersonally. I think we are living the consequences of dynamics that were set up hundreds of years ago, and so these stories feel so relevant to our lives. What does that say about how little society has moved forward and how much we are repeating the same problems over and over again? That’s not the most uplifting answer.
I think part of what makes Dickinson a spoonful of sugar in some ways is that Alena also plays with some of the really absurd things that are similar about the 1850s and now. Even little details keep coming up. For example, I became obsessed with this photo of the real Lavinia Dickinson with a fox. She had a pet fox and was such a cooky animal person. And then on my TikTok algorithm, I started getting all of these videos of domesticated foxes! That’s just the tiniest thing, but it’s very Dickinson-ish because I think there is something ludacris about the show, especially when it comes to the combination of the two time periods.
I heard a rumor you became so obsessed with the vintage undergarments you wear on Dickinson that you sought out similar ones on Etsy. Can you tell me a little about sourcing these pieces and how you are incorporating them into your everyday wardrobe?
The dresses are made for us on the show, but under them, a lot of the undergarments we are wearing are actual vintage pieces from the time period. I became so obsessed with corset covers, which are these cropped white blouses. They look so much like things being worn a ton now but a little bit better. They have little details, like a lot of them have the person’s initials embroidered in white so you can hardly see it or really pretty lace. I started asking the costume department where they were finding them, and they sent me the vintage stores on Etsy where they found a lot of them, and they are not expensive. Often, you can find $30 ones. They go with everything—jeans and skirts. I’ve been trying to figure out how to dress more sustainably and to think about avoiding fast fashion, and this felt like such a good solution, and it actually truly changed the way that I look for clothes. It made me realize that a lot of the things I’m seeing in stores and that are popular now are re-creations of things that are already out in the world, and there are so many feasible ways to get your hands on them.
I always joke that my ideal aesthetic is like a Victorian baby going to bed. It’s ethereal and simple, but a lot of [those pieces] are made with really sturdy and great quality cotton. It jumped out at me because so much about the show is how we are reliving history, and it opened my eyes to how cyclical fashion is. I’ll see someone on the streets wearing something exactly like it, but it’s from H&M or ASOS. It is also fun to feel like you are wearing something that has had a life before you and a little bit of history.
In early December, you talked about being an emotional shopper and trying to adopt a more sustainable approach to fashion. What advice would you give to serial shoppers looking to make a change this year?
I’m coming at this from knowing that it’s something I really could improve on. The putting it on social media was almost just to hold myself accountable and to really follow through on it. Sometimes, the brands that are advertised as being sustainable are also pretty expensive, so I don’t want to just be putting forward ways that one can live sustainably that don’t actually apply to the largest group of people. Even if they sound like such simple solutions, things I have been reading about that are very undervalued are taking really good care of your clothes so they last much longer and mending your clothes. I have this stack right here of three pairs of pants. I ripped all of them in the crotch because apparently I’m always doing the splits or something. I have a date to FaceTime with my friend who is a wonderful sewer to teach me how to mend my own jeans or to take them to get mended. I’m trying to take care of the part of the brain that is always coming from the position of not having enough or wanting to be different or wanting to have more and to really appreciate the many wonderful things I already have. It’s weirdly very hard, and it’s very emotional. I sometimes get frustrated with the amount of attention and pressure put on the individual. You want the fashion industry to be regulated and to have less emissions, and there is something frustrating about that being on the individual. But again, there is the personal benefit of not getting into the mindset where I feel like a sweater is going to change my life.
Final question: 2020 was a particularly difficult year for everyone. What is your outlook starting 2021?
First of all, I think everyone should just be proud of themselves for surviving right now, and I’m definitely trying to stay in a mindset where I don’t feel like I feel pressured to have the most creatively fulfilling year of my life or the most fun year of my life because that seems like it will likely be impossible. I’m just trying to focus on gratitude and staying the course of taking care of myself and my friends and family and just trying to get through it. But as soon as I can, I have a goal to go to all of the parties—every party. I look back on any party I didn’t go to, and I’m like, “You damn fool!” I was watching the new Netflix series on Fran Lebowitz, and there is a part where she’s like, “I think fun is great. I love parties. It’s cool to say you hate parties, but I love parties.” Well Fran, I agree!
Dickinson is now streaming on AppleTV+
Photographer: Tiffany Nicholson
Stylist: Liz McClean
Hairstylist: David von Cannon
Makeup Artist: Kale Teter