Stylists’ subtleties stoke shows’ stories

Costumes and hair: Beyond glamour

If every picture tells a story, the same can be said for every hairstyle and outfit, according to this year’s crop of hair and costume Emmy nominees, who use subtle touches to advance their shows’ stories.

“Desperate Housewives'” department head hairstylist Gabor Heligenberg says, “Our characters’ lives have changed so much in the five years since we started, and we convey that in the hair.”

When Marcia Cross’ character was losing her husband, for instance, Heligenberg pulled her signature relaxed flip hairstyle into a tight bun. “Her life was in chaos, so she tried to contain her entire sense of control in that hair,” explains Heligenberg, nominated for a third time for his work on the show.

Likewise, in AMC’s 1960s Madison Avenue drama “Mad Men,” costume designer John A. Dunn planted subtle but telling flaws in the looks of the show’s usually glamorous women, an ambitious group joining a traditionally male (and notoriously cutthroat) workplace. These imperfections, he says, hint at tensions between the characters’ inner conflicts and outer facades.

Dunn purposely put Peggy Olson, the Brooklynite secretary-turned-junior copywriter played by Elisabeth Moss, in a hat that clashed ever so slightly with the rest of her outfit.

“As a costume designer, you sometimes have to fight the impulse to make someone look perfect,” says Dunn (“The Women,” “Factory Girl,” “I’m Not There”). “That hat betrayed Peggy’s vulnerability. It showed the cracks on the surface.”

Mary Ann Valdes, department head hairstylist for “Ugly Betty,” did the opposite for her lead character, giving America Ferrera’s Betty subtle layers of sophistication as the storyline progressed. For season one, she put Betty in a wig that was styled to look messy and unkempt, “with a suburban, Queens edge.” For season two, however, Betty got a slightly more brushed-out, polished look. “Even small changes like that help show Betty’s growing confidence,” Valdes says.

By comparison, “Pushing Daisies” has a storybook look to match its fantastical storyline. Costume designer Mary Vogt, nommed for the show’s pilot, set apart lead character Ned, who has the power to raise the dead with a touch, with monochromatic blacks, whites and grays. “He’s the anchor, so we showed that by keeping him nice and funereal,” she says.

The rest of the ensemble, though, got shades of lavender, green and red, “really saturated, tertiary colors, with lots of contrast,” to complement the show’s childlike, otherworldly mood, Vogt explains, adding, “The tone of this script was so colorful … we had to go in that direction.”

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