As part of SSN’s Emmy Spotlight coverage, we talked to costume designers for three of television’s most popular dramas: Jenny Gering from FX’s The Americans, Daniel Lawson from CBS’ The Good Wife, and Janie Bryant from AMC’s Mad Men, and asked about how their work contributes to the storytelling for each show and the specific challenges of dressing a cast from specific past eras.
When the FX drama The Americans premiered, one of the most talked about aspects of the show was the 1980s wardrobe on Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ spy characters Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. SSN talked to the show’s costume designer Jenny Gering to find out how she put the show’s time-specific looks together.
SSN: What was the biggest challenge during the show’s first season?
Gering: Hurricane Sandy. Creatively, there were practical challenges that came up for all of us. We were supposed to start shooting a week after Sandy hit. Nothing was damaged but the production office was four feet underwater. We had no access to vendors. In terms of making the show happen, it was a huge stumbling block.
SSN: Were any scenes particularly difficult to make wardrobe decisions for?
Gering: One action sequence where Elizabeth jumped from one car trunk to another. What could she wear that wouldn’t call attention to her on the street and then get in the trunk and then escape? It was tricky in terms of letting her move well, be anonymous looking and still period. It’s a very simple look and sometimes those require the most thought and are most challenging. I wanted to avoid the spy cliché of a black jacket.
SSN: What were/are your best research resources for 1980s wardrobe?
Gering: My mom’s closet, my childhood, and family albums. My mom would make a production out of getting ready to go out for the evening.
For the general look, it was a cross section of school yearbooks, college graduation photos, and magazines like Time, Newsweek, Esquire, and Playboy. I also used advertising from the time period: advertising is heightened reality to begin with and it helped me get a sense of what’s happening culturally. There was a much freer attitude toward sex, everything seemed looser and that translated to how people dress. Even the underwear they wore shapes how clothes lay on the body. Anything from a salad dressing ad to Paco Rabanne (cologne) print ads. The Paco Rabanne ad is a guy in a bed and it really helped set the tone for me. It’s about understanding the headspace of the characters in that time.
SSN: Did the show’s executive producers work with you regarding wardrobe and how did it help move the story?
Gering: I spoke with Joe Weisberg. I showed them how I saw Elizabeth and Philip and gave examples of where I wanted to take them. I told them 1981 was more related to the late 1970s (than the 80’s). Their only mandate was no bellbottoms. They were incredibly supportive – they let me play and experiment.
In crafting disguises for Philip and Elizabeth, it’s impossible to make Keri Russell look unattractive. Her physique is made to wear clothes. I had to use padding to pad her out. It was very difficult since we didn’t have time to use prosthetics. It was about the wigs and the clothes. I could put the dowdiest clothes on Keri and she’d look grandma chic; like the Holly Hobby dress and a huge coat in episode two – she looked great and made you want to find where you could get a coat like that. We couldn’t use vintage for action sequences because we had to have multiples. But other than that, it was predominantly vintage clothing in season one. For season two, there will be more opportunities to craft our own clothes.
SSN: Where do you shop for vintage clothing? And what’s the color palette you use?
Gering: Between Brooklyn and Manhattan, we have so many resources. We phone in a lot of things to Albany and various places that send us selections because they know what I’m looking for. On a day-to-day basis, there are so many amazing options. It depends on what I’m looking for: businesswoman, corporate, relaxed, sexy.
The colors we use are autumnal: the early 80s echoed the late 70s in some ways. We use brown, navy, very little black and grey. And we use textures like corduroy.
One major influence was Bill Kaiserman. He created the Rafael line and later designed under his own name. He was a Coty Award-winning designer and a dear friend of my parents. My mom wore only Rafael. It was timelessly designed and constructed. I wore it thirty years after my mom wore it. It was beautifully made and tailored and the clothes lasted decades. I was really inspired by my mom’s wardrobe.
SSN: When do you start working on season two?
Gering: We go back to work in mid-September. I don’t know if we’re still in 1981. Even if we are, it probably won’t be for long. Some of the trendier aspects will start to penetrate the suburban areas so we’ll see more of what people expect from the 80s: neon colors, shoulder pads, stuff like that.
SSN: How has the wardrobe design changed over this past season for the show’s main characters?
Lawson: Alicia got a promotion and was putting together more of a full outfit – an ensemble. As the season went on, the outfits became more body conscious, sexier, if you will. We were definitely playing that up over the season. We wanted to lead the audience to believe she would go off with Will. She and Peter were re-engaging in a physical relationship and we wanted to play up that sexuality – she was feeling really good about herself. Throughout the fourth season, her wardrobe became more sensual, with fabric choices and cuts. By the time we got to the last episode of the season, where she was waiting for the votes to come in, we put her in a black dress, instead of a blue or red dress, which is what people would expect. Antonio Berardi made the dress – it really hugged her body. I’m dying to know what happens next season! The stories always seems to revert back to what Alicia has going on in her life.
SSN: Which character has evolved the most, in terms of wardrobe?
Lawson: Alicia has evolved the most. Kalinda has been on quite a journey this season with her husband back in the picture and re-evaluating her standing at the firm. At the same time, Cary has had quite a journey as well: he encountered his father, he was at the state’s attorney office, and then he returned to Lockhart Gardner. Now he says he’s leaving the firm. He’s been on a personal journey (with his father) and a professional one as well. His suits reflect that: he masks a lot, particularly being a man, and he’s armored with his suits. They’re very dapper suits, ties, and pocket squares. It was nice to see through those cracks. Martin Greenfeld custom makes all of Cary’s suits. A lot of his suits have a bit of a hard finish to them; they’re not flannels or tweedy, but harder edged in finish of fabric. That goes to Cary’s armor and masking him. It’s all contemporary clothing. I have to find as many small details as I can that add up to help create a unique look for a character.
SSN: When a new character is added, like Robyn the new investigator, what is your process of integrating them into the show with wardrobe?
Lawson: I always like to speak with the Kings (executive producers Michelle and Robert King) to find out who this person is. I don’t always know when someone will continue. A character who seems like they’re going to have an arc or story, like the way Robyn was presented with messed up clothes (her baby puked on her), doesn’t always stay around. We had a lot of false cues with her. We found out she’s telling a lot of lies and that we don’t know what the truth is. I always go to our creators of the show to get information: like where the character is going, then we do research and talk to the actor about it. Basically my job is to support the story and help them tell it the best they can. I’m there to help unfold the stories, to support what everyone else is doing.
Alicia’s black dress on election night stemmed from Julianna and I talking about it. It was not created in a vacuum. We looked at different things. She said “I feel like there should be something different.”
Last season, I had a fitting with Christine Baranski for a scene where she’s at a museum on a weekend, meeting a guy she thinks is interested in her but he’s really serving her papers. I had fit her in an all black outfit with a wonderful coat and she said, “I shouldn’t be dressed all dark. I’m meeting a man, I want to flirt.” I said, “There’s going to be a lot of color around you. You’ll be the only thing in black.” I knew she would pop in there. I knew she would stand out. She told me after the episode, “You were so right.” She trusted me that I was trying to get there by a different route.
Christine’s wardrobe as Diane Lockhart is modern, architectural, and clean. There are a lot of metallic sheen pieces to it, through suits and jackets. She’s very rooted in elegant and classic.
SSN: What keeps this job interesting for you on ongoing basis?
Lawson: We have amazing actors who are always interested in trying something new. We have amazing writers who let our characters evolve as real people. There are not huge (story and character) swings so the wardrobe has to be subtle and clever. That keeps me on my toes.
CBS, the producers and all the money people allow me to continually let the wardrobe evolve and change as the characters change and that keeps it breathing and moving. I can change it moment-to-moment and story-to-story. I’m very lucky to have that situation. I’m able to put the actors in new wardrobe each episode. I repeat things from time to time. We’re always able to evolve the characters’ closets. We used so much wardrobe this year. After the episode has been shot, we hang onto wardrobe so I know not to use it or to purposely use it at certain times. I think we had 25 feet of wardrobe just for Alicia this season.
We need Alicia’s apartment and the firm to subtly change to help support the growing, living animal that is The Good Wife. It’s always morphing. I think it’s why people relate to the show. We make it honest.
Janie Bryant is the woman behind the striking period looks of Mad Men. She’s created signature looks for the entire cast and has also created special Mad Men-inspired collections for Banana Republic. We talked to Bryant about how the show’s fashions have changed as the story moved through the 1960s.
SSN: As we prepped our questions for you, we realized we might be more interested in the women’s fashion than the men: especially Joan, Peggy and Sally. Of the men, Ted Chaough stands out the most.
Bryant: And Harry!
SSN: Was the L.A. party scene one of the most fun scenes you did this season?
Bryant: The end result was fun but the creative process and getting there was a lot of pressure and very stressful. But that’s part of my process and I was very happy with how it turned out.The design for that scene is about creating an entirely different world from the one we usually see in New York.
SSN: What’s been the biggest effect on your job now that this season is later in the 1960s?
Bryant: The menswear has shifted; that’s been the biggest thing so far. Tie widths, collars, lapel widths and colors. It’s always very subtle. All the changes take time. For the women, a great example of times changing is the California party. Lotus and the hippie culture is not something we see in the office although we did see one character, Frank’s daughter, with it. My assistant designer found a cover of GQ and the same dashiki Danny was wearing at that party was on that cover.
SSN: We loved how all the post-mortems for that episode referred to Roger Sterling as Thurston Howell III (from Gilligan’s Island)
Bryant: I happen to think Roger looks very elegant. I really do love the whole yachting look. It wasn’t like he was wearing a captain’s hat. He was still classic. It was so popular during that period. I love a good double-breasted jacket.
SSN: Can we talk about the evolution of Sally’s style?
Bryant: Sally has had an interesting journey. When I first started working on her costume design, it was rooted in looking to Betty and how she would dress. Her mother is buying her clothes. Betty would buy her mini-Betty outfits. They used to have a similar color palette, but as their relationship moved along, Sally’s color palette changed to colors that are in contrast to her mother. I used a lot of oranges, greens, reds and browns – colors Betty would never wear. The design of her clothing is rooted in that east coast classic, preppy style. As her relationship has shifted with Megan, I wanted to show the influence Megan has had on Sally. Now we see her as this young, beautiful teenager, wearing dresses of the moment.
SSN: Can we talk about Peggy? What were the big notes for her this season?
Bryant: I wanted her to continue where we saw her at the end of last season. There was a whole new level of confidence where we saw her come into her own. During this season, we’ve seen her grow in terms of managing employees and Ted trying to show her how to be a better manager. That has furthered her costume design to being more professional, authoritative and serious. She’s assertive in subtle ways, but still rooted in her upbringing. I love that exterior modesty of her character.
SSN: Let’s talk about Joan. Can you talk about that vivid, wildly colorful floral dress Joan wore? Fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo noticed that Joan wore florals last season that were not nearly as vivid, like a brown dress that looked like dead flowers.
Bryant: I think the brown dress they were referring to was a wool dress that I specifically used during the Layne Price tragedy. For the episode where Joan wore the bright floral, I wanted something romantic, light and very feminine, because Joan thought she was going on a date. That was a vintage dress that was recut and redesigned. Joan has definitely had an update in her costume design. She’s had some of my favorite moments: the episode where Martin Luther King was assassinated and she wore the dress that has contrasting hounds tooth sleeves and a matching scarf. I love her in the purple skirt and ruffled blouse. Both were my original designs. I’m very specific about my color palette for her. It’s all about rich, dark, deep, beautiful jewel tones.
SSN: Have you been finding a lot of the wardrobe from vintage stores or are you making the clothes custom?
Bryant: It’s always the same process for me. All costumes are acquired. I design them and then we build them. I do rentals from costume houses and I work with vendors who send me items from around the country. I also buy a lot of vintage and re-design it for each character.
SSN: What were some of your favorite scenes to do this season?
Bryant: There are so many! The big background scenes are always a lot of pressure but it’s so rewarding. It’s very creatively satisfying to be able to see the costumes onscreen. One of my favorites was Megan in the dinner scene with Arlene and her husband. Megan is wearing a pink brocade dress with a matching coat, which we see in the taxi later that evening. I was so happy with the scene with Betty at her coming out party; she was the queen of the ball in that yellow gown. When we first see Harry ride up in the convertible in Los Angeles. Seeing Megan as her TV character’s twin Colette in her cranberry crocheted jumpsuit. And of course, the California party. I loved, loved, loved Peggy sitting on her couch at home with her cat and she’s wearing a beautiful blue and white knit skirt and top. Of course I can’t forget Joan. This has been an amazing season for Joan – it’s the first time we’ve seen her change. She became a partner, but she’s always going to maintain that hourglass silhouette. That girl knows that it’s her signature and it works for her silhouette.