Unpacking Jenna Coleman’s Chic ‘70s Style in BBC’s The Serpent.
In The Serpent, a chilling BBC crime drama, Jenna Coleman’s outfits are dripping in '70s glamour. Playing the accomplice of a notorious serial killer, Coleman's wardrobe is deceptively stylish, showing how even the most heinous criminal can hide behind a well-crafted look.
In my eyes, the ‘70s is a strong contender for the best decade in fashion. Following on from the idealism and creativity of the late ‘60s, the era popularised an eclectic range of trends—like wide-leg jeans, boho maxi dresses, colourful platform boots, halterneck jumpsuits and so on—that remain style staples today.
On top of that, the stylish decade is often referenced on the runway. Beloved brands like Celine and Gucci nod back to the ‘70s via a sea of wide-leg trousers and dagger collar jackets. Needless to say, it’s an effortlessly cool aesthetic that I can’t see going out of style anytime soon.
If you’re also a fan of ‘70s fashion, then there’s one BBC show you’ve got to see. Predominately set in Bangkok, Thailand, The Serpent is a thrilling drama based on the crimes of Charles Sobhraj. Sobhraj, as played by Tahir Rahim, was a serial killer and con man who murdered western travellers on the Asian Hippie Trail between 1975 and 1976. Posing as a gem-dealer named Alain Gautier, he targeted young, idealistic hippies who were in search of adventure, drugs and spiritual enlightenment.
The trail many adventure-thirsty hippies travelled through between 1957 and 1978. During the '70s, the majority of Sobhraj's murderous crimes took place in Thailand, Nepal and India.
The show also introduces Billy Howle as Herman Knippenberg. Working as a Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, he becomes embroiled in Sobhraj’s web of crimes after investigating the disappearance of two Dutch tourists. Determined to catch the killer, Knippenberg puts his job (and his life) at stake as he digs deeper into the case...
Alongside the gripping storyline, The Serpent features impressive costumes designed by Rachel Walsh. In particular, Jenna Coleman stuns in memorable outfits that are the epitome of ‘70s chic. Playing Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s glamorous girlfriend and accomplice, the actress dazzles in a wardrobe fit for a supermodel of the era.
After Sobhraj assigns Leclerc the alias of ‘Monique’, a French model, Leclerc uses her killer sense of style to immerse herself into this new role. Emboldened by aviator shades and sleek jumpsuits, she helps Sobhraj drug unsuspecting travellers so they could steal their money and passports.
Left: A photo of the real Marie-Andrée Leclerc taken from the book On the Trail of the Serpent (Richard Neville & Julie Clarke) Right: Charles Sobhraj pictured with Marie-Andrée.
In one scene, Leclerc saunters down the bustling streets of Hong Kong—of course, side by side with Sobhraj—in a teal trouser suit paired with tortoiseshell sunglasses. Coleman allows a slight smile to creep across her face. It’s a telling look. Before she met Sobhraj she was a quiet, self-conscious secretary from Quebec, but now she’s a part of a thrilling Bonnie and Clyde style romance. But how long can such a fantasy last?
Leclerc’s carefully crafted facade starts to crumble the deeper they get into their crimes. As Sobhraj’s murderous proclivities become more apparent, she clings onto her Monique persona to deal with the horrific weight of his actions. This interpretation is confirmed by Walsh herself. In a Vogue interview, she states how “Marie creates a false character with an iconic look, which is all a front to mask the insecurity underneath.” Moreover, Leclerc’s chic sense of style is merely a smokescreen to cover up her deep fears and anxieties.
In fact, Coleman’s nuanced performance is apt at revealing the holes in Leclerc’s facade. Now and again you’ll spot an anxious glance. Sometimes her hands will tremble as she lights another cigarette. Regardless of how much she tries to hide from the truth, it’s clear she can’t maintain the facade forever.
When creating outfits for Leclerc’s ‘Monique’ persona, Walsh put Coleman in a range of colourful yet sophisticated pieces. She wanted to avoid making her look like a ‘70s ‘flower power’ caricature; instead, aiming to achieve a dark Brigitte Bardot look. Walsh sought inspiration in the fashions made by decade-defining designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Barbara Hulanicki, and by studying the popular it-girls of the era like Marisa Berenson.
The real Leclerc adored reading Vogue Paris and Paris Match. Presumably, she would’ve kept up-to-date with current designers and it-girls through these magazines, then using what she'd seen to influence her own sense of style. To keep Leclerc’s look realistic and true to the era, Walsh created replicas of authentic 70’s garments. Alongside these replicas, she also sourced clothes from the UK and found specific pieces browsing Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak market.
Recurring pieces from Leclerc’s wardrobe include flared, high-rise jeans and a selection of psychedelic blouses and utilitarian jumpsuits. Also, when Sobhraj and Leclerc eventually end up in Paris, she dons a selection of sleek trouser suits inspired by Bianca Jagger. Other standout looks include a sumptuous, peachy silk robe which has an undeniable Hollywood quality to it, and an orange, dagger collar shirt she wears with hoop earrings.
Accessories are another key part of Leclerc’s wardrobe. Amping up the glamour of the character’s supermodel facade, Walsh accessorised the outfits with silk, geometric print headscarves and some square-framed or aviator shades. Walsh put lots of effort into these key accessories as Coleman wears a total of sunglasses throughout the show.
Although Coleman dazzles as Leclerc in The Serpent, it’s important not to get too carried away by appearances. Behind the seductive it-girl persona was a darkness that cost the lives of many. So, if you’re interested in learning more about Sobhraj and Leclerc’s reign of terror (and how they eventually got caught), it’s well worth checking out BBC’s The Serpent for yourself. But also, feel free to be inspired by Walsh’s great ‘70s costume designs as you watch.
You can stream The Serpent on iPlayer HERE.
If you’re interested in learning more about the case, I recommend you get yourself a copy of On the Trail of the Serpent by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke.