Sunday, June 16, 2024

Art of Costume


The High Art of Costume Design

HBO and Max Costume Designer FYC Event
The panel conversation touched on the power of color, the show runner-costumer designer relationship, and much more. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO and Max
June 10, 2024

Last Monday, Puck and Max hosted a special event in Los Angeles to celebrate the talented costume designers behind six Emmy-eligible HBO and Max Originals series. Puck’s fashion correspondent Lauren Sherman, the author of Line Sheet, moderated the panel that included Kasia Walicka-Maimone (The Gilded Age), Kathleen Felix-Hager (Hacks), Consolata Boyle (The Regime), Christina Flannery (The Righteous Gemstones), Danny Glicker (The Sympathizer), and Giulia Moschioni (True Detective: Night Country). 

Their wide-ranging conversation touched on the power of color (and why patterns are often a no-no), the showrunner-costume designer relationship, the tension between fashion and costume design, and much, much more. The panel and this article were part of a partnership between Puck and Max; their conversation has been lightly edited and condensed. 

Lauren Sherman: Tonight, I want to talk broadly about the state of costume design. It comes up a lot in my reporting, and I would love to know all of your opinions. Consolata, on The Regime, and throughout your career, you’ve done a lot of period shows. How did you ground something that doesn’t really exist in our world anymore?

Consolata Boyle: What everybody was attempting to do with this particular show, because it’s such an extraordinary script, is to make something that’s completely recognizable, and just a tiny bit strange, so that everything is slightly off-kilter. We have to be able to imagine that this could happen, and yet there is an aura of strangeness, so that everybody has that feeling of slight jeopardy always. And with Elena [played by Kate Winslet], you never know her mood, so that all the time she creates this feeling of unease, and that I wanted to reflect in the costume. 

Christina, you’re also creating a strange reality with Righteous Gemstones. And there’s obviously a lot of humor in what you’re doing. How are you communicating that weirdness through the clothes?

Christina Flannery: I mean, we’re taking a group of people that live in this delusional, high-end world in the middle of Charleston, South Carolina, mixing together what they would want to be perceived as and the reality that they’re coming across as extremely stunted. Actually, every single one of the characters are very stunted, but they want to be perceived as like Conway Twitty, like Jesse Gemstone—this flashy, over-the-top adult. So it’s playing with who they wish that they could be.

How much are you all interacting and making these decisions with the showrunners on a granular level? Are you having meetings with them at the top of the season? 

Danny Glicker: In the case of The Sympathizer, the showrunner was director Park Chan-wook, who is a visual genius. It’s about aligning on a complete vision for the whole story that you’re telling. And more important than the impact of each costume—which is extremely important—is how you’re planting the seeds for the overall arc of the season. 

We are very fortunate because we’re working off a really beautiful, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But we knew how it was going to begin, and we knew how it was going to end, and we knew every beat in between. So a lot of it was about building the language and the motifs, just like in music, where you would create and riff on a theme for each character, then destroy or morph the theme. So in order to accomplish a level of storytelling that’s cohesive, everything has to go through the showrunner.

Is there a costume from The Sympathizer that you felt really accomplished that goal?

Danny: I think a lot of the costumes in The Sympathizer reveal themselves gradually. It would be hard for me to pick one that says everything all at once. But there’s a character in it named Man, and one of the first times we meet him, he’s in white, and then another time we see him, he’s in a clean white dental smock. And it seems very innocent, but as the piece goes on, he becomes a much more complicated person. And even the meaning of those clean, white, innocent things takes on a rather confusing subtext. 

Kathleen, for Hacks, you mentioned that Bill Blass dress in the first episode of season three, correct? When I saw that dress, my first reaction was that it must be vintage. Why go with Bill Blass? Because Bill Blass is not a couture brand now, it’s not a designer brand.

Kathleen Felix-Hager: Originally in the script, it just said Deborah [played by Jean Smart] wears an ugly dress. So that was the direction. I just searched and I found it on The RealReal, and I thought it was really ugly. It checked all the boxes for the story that needed telling. It needed to be something that Deborah would’ve had in her closet at one time that she would’ve thought was beautiful, and it had to be something that all her Yes people would say, “Oh, you look amazing in it.” The dress was embellished, we added a lot of pieces to it to accentuate how hideous it was. 

Did you do a lot of custom for Deborah’s stage stuff?

Kathleen: We did a lot of custom [for] season one. Most of her Vegas stage looks we made. I mean, contemporary is interesting because you change so much—I change sleeves and add things and take things off, and I recut things all the time. So you are recreating existing garments a lot of time.

I remember in the first season you mentioned a pair of Irene Neuwirth earrings or something. The way they dress feels of this time—do you think it’s harder to get that exactly right? Especially because L.A. is so specific.

Kathleen: I work really hard to get that tone right, especially for Ava. And our showrunners—you were talking about showrunners and how involved they are—the showrunners on Hacks are very involved, and they like to see everything and everything’s approved the night or the week before. But I have the luxury of living in L.A., and we’re filming in L.A., so there’s a lot of visuals out there in the streets that I just take my cues from.

Giulia, with True Detective: Night Country, you’re also working in contemporary, but you are working on a cop show in frigid cold in Alaska. What prep do you do for that? How do you make stuff that feels realistic and also is comfortable?

Giulia Moschioni: Well, first you do a lot of research, because even if it’s contemporary and it’s a police uniform you have to be prepared, because achieving a good result means taking care of every detail. Especially if you’re filming in Iceland, where you cannot get everything you want as if you were in America. It becomes pretty funny and exciting.

So you filmed in Iceland, but it took place in Alaska? 

Giulia: Yeah, we filmed in Iceland because it would be impossible shooting in Alaska, it’s really too cold. But we had done a lot of research, we went to Anchorage, we actually met people. We watched a lot of the TV show Alaska State Troopers, which was a very good resource. If you see just two episodes of that, you really get a feeling of how cold and how miserable it is to work in that harsh climate.

For example, Navarro, our Kali Reis, was wearing the actual parka Alaska State Troopers use. So it was a very, very warm parka. You get to know some tricks—you have to just wear wool, not cotton, no synthetic. You have to keep your head warm because the head is the first place where your warmth goes away. 

When I first saw those costumes, the first thing I thought of was Marge in Fargo because of the puffy jacket. Do you all look back at other films for inspiration? 

Giulia: Of course, but also to say, “Okay, let’s try something different.” With the uniforms, there’s really nothing much you can do. We weren’t allowed to take the official uniform, so we built it up piece by piece. They’re blue, so the police cannot be blue, so what else can it be? Brown? Green? You really don’t have a lot of choices. And another problem that we had to face was which color we’re going to use filming in the dark. I mean, Night Country was very night country. So there has been a lot of pre-work also with the director, and with the D.O.P., because you want to be sure you can see the costume onscreen.

Kasia, how realistic are you trying to be with The Gilded Age? We were talking earlier, you had 7,000 costumes last season?

Kasia Walicka-Maimone: In the second season we had, all together with all the extras, about 7,000 costumes.

So are you trying to be very true to the year it’s supposed to take place, or are you having a little more fun with it?

Kasia: It’s a big question. We always start from research. We have about 40,000 images of the period in a visual library, which covers all the museum collections, magazines of the period, paintings, photographs. The design team and I study this library religiously. Nevertheless, we created a story that is a fictional story, and had to create a world that reflects that fictional story. One emotion we were very committed to creating from this period was the emotion of crazy excitement—for the ladies of the society, the moment when they were walking out of their house, there was the phenomenon of excitement. Very early on, we decided that we are going to break some rules, but the rules had to still apply within the historical framework. And I think I definitely pushed it with colors.

Louisa Jacobson’s character, Marian, wears a bright yellow dress. Are you using color with her because she’s between the two worlds and represents something more modern? 

Kasia: I felt that with creating Marian, we know this girl grew up in the country, she grew up without a mother. She didn’t really have a strong sense of what fashion was. I feel like we all have responses to colors, and yellow felt like the color of the country. And then as she enters the world of New York, she has this innate sense of style, and she draws from both worlds and creates her own vocabulary. 

Consolata, I feel like on The Regime, color is a big part of the storytelling as well.

Consolata: I think that is very true, and maybe you also noticed that there’s very, very little pattern. It’s all strong block colors of red, blue, green, and then the more cooler whites and beiges. And that was a very conscious decision. That Elena chose colors to make a point, that everything she did has an element of performance, whether she was speaking to her people or at home or in any of her various guises, everything was thought out. 

Is there any color that’s a complete no-no? If you go on TV, you’re not supposed to wear patterns. But is there anything in what you all do that’s like, You cannot do this, you can’t break this rule because it’ll just look really bad?

Kathleen: I love color, so I don’t think there’s any rules that can’t be broken. I think they were old rules that we have been breaking for quite a while.

Giulia: With white, usually the D.O.P. is your enemy number one. For example, in True Detective, we pushed for the finale to have Jodie [Foster] wear that white parka because we said, “Hey, we might not see her.” And then after some meetings, he said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

Christina, there was a watermelon jumpsuit this past season of The Righteous Gemstones for the character Aimee-Leigh. Was that vintage?

Christina: No, we designed that… I think we made 11 of those. I found a really beautiful dress that I loved, but it had to be re-created so we could do that whole scene with the blood and the stunts. I did a crisp white because it was a night scene; I wanted Aimee-Leigh to seem like this little angelic Fourth of July delightful treat running through the crowd, getting attacked by this terrifying woman. I wanted May May’s character to seem more gritty and intimidating by comparison. But the jumpsuit was fully designed with touches of pieces I liked that I found on Etsy, little rompers for children and things like that.

Kathleen, you mentioned The RealReal, and finding that Bill Blass dress. I also have a Bill Blass dress from The RealReal that someone else paid $35 for and gave to me. We all shop on The RealReal, has that become a real resource for you for research?

Kathleen: Yeah, I started Hacks in the middle of the pandemic, so stores weren’t open. I had really limited resources at that time, so I did a lot of online shopping. The costume houses in L.A. were open, but I sourced from everywhere, and I think that’s really important. Especially for the Deborah Vance character, because she’s a collector of clothes—but I can also go to TJ Maxx and Jean Smart and be happy with that. So it’s like the high and the low mixed together. I think The RealReal has been a real find for me.

Yeah, lots of great stuff on there for way too cheap. All of you have worked with these incredible actors, but Consolata, you’ve done a lot of projects where there’s one main, really strong character. How much are you interacting with Kate on The Regime, and how much input does she have about how things should look?

Consolata: I worked very closely with Kate—she had a very strong input into everything. She’s very clear, very knowledgeable about the power of costume and what costume can do. Right from the beginning, she had a very creative input into how she wanted to present the character of Elena, and that was wonderful. 

What happens when it’s not right? How does it affect the rest of the production if the costumes aren’t in sync with the look of the set or the actors or the vision of the showrunner? 

Kathleen: I mean, if your actor doesn’t feel comfortable in the clothes, that’s not good. I try to work that stuff out in the fitting room before it even gets to camera. So if an actor’s in the fitting room, and we’re trying things on, you can tell that their body language changes when it feels right and when it doesn’t. Even if I personally like something, I don’t ever force that on them because it’s never going to feel right to them. 

Danny: I think you also have to be really careful not to fall too in love with anything. You have to be ready to know that there’s another amazing dress that you can create. Nothing feels forced, no one feels coerced, everything feels as it should. Because the actor feeling comfortable in the outfit is the most important thing, that is what’s going to make it look right.

Something that comes up in my reporting a lot is that there’s been a lot more actual fashion in film. Jonathan Anderson, the designer of Loewe, was the costume designer on Challengers. Saint Laurent produced three films at Cannes and won awards, and the costumes were done in part by Anthony Vaccarello, who worked with an on-set costume designer. What do you think about the real fashion world infiltrating more than it used to? 

Kathleen: To me, fashion and costume design are two completely different things, and each has their role. But I think the role of a costume designer is to tell the story of these characters through their clothing. So when you start working with brands, as long as it fits the story and the character, I understand that collaboration. But if you’re doing an entire movie with one brand, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me.

Kasia: I feel exactly the same. But I feel like Gilded Age is very much influenced by fashion. We all have fashion coded in our brains, we know John Galliano, we know Christian Dior, we know the excitement that fashion causes in the world. I feel like there is a continuous influence, but in the end, it all comes down to character, and whether the character calls for that influence or not.

Danny: There’s a long history of Hollywood influencing fashion and then fashion entering film production. You think of Audrey Hepburn, for example, as being a prime example of that. But I think that when it comes to pure storytelling, and the vulnerability that you’re asking of the actors and of the audience, it’s important that there is a distinction between storytelling and commerce-driven platforming of entertainment as a delivery system for fashion. We need to know what we’re watching, and we need to know when we’re being merchandised too.

Christina: I think working with an amazing fashion designer would be incredible, but I think there is sometimes a lack of cultural diversity, sizes, and even showing grit and poverty and struggle that I don’t feel that fashion can always portray. Fashion is amazing in certain circumstances and situations, but I think when you’re trying to tell really beautiful projects, like Moonlight, and all these other great narrative stories, it would be difficult to do that with fashion. 

Consolata: I think the fashion has to be completely subservient to the story and only makes sense in the context of the story. The minute you become too aware of things, I think it’s distracting, and that’s a disaster. I think that it can be controlled, it can be useful, but it has to be dealt with incredibly carefully.