Shows set within living memory, like “Grey Gardens,” “Life on Mars” and “Mad Men,” run the risk of caricaturing the looks of their eras. In a time when ’80s parties are all the rage, for instance, how do costume designers resist the temptation to make period shows set in the recent past look like a bad themed costume party and instead look realistic and lived-in?
“My job as a costume designer is to take into account the intention of character and to tell a story with their costume,” says costume designer Katherine Bryant (“Mad Men”), who meets regularly with makeup, hair, directors, writers and actors to further refine the character’s look.
But depicting eras and individual icons with whom the public has a personal attachment “can be terrifying,” says Catherine Thomas (“Grey Gardens”). “You really have to put other people’s expectations out of your mind and find that backstory.”
For instance, in “Grey Gardens” a private Jackie Onassis was dressed with iconic sunglasses. “A pillbox hat would’ve been pure camp.”
Recent-period shows benefit rom post-photography research material, “whereas periods from way back you’re learning through art history and it’s much more interpretive,” Thomas says. Resources include Western Costume and Los Angeles public libraries, vintage catalogs, magazines, books and the Internet.
Wally Lane (“Life on Mars”) used “my college year book for reference to find photographs of just ordinary people.” He says he also paid “attention to economic and regional differences.”
Costume designers both build and buy clothes for recent eras, understanding that people’s closets have clothes from five, 10, 20 years ago, not just iconic clothing of the time. Characters also wear clothing multiple times for realism.
But even vintage clothing can look too costume party. “Maybe the clothes were never worn or just not soiled enough,” Thomas observes. So the clothes are aged using a cheese grater, sand paper etc. “Also,” he says, “be careful choosing fabrics. Especially with high def; my God, it picks up everything.”
“Mad Men” actresses wear vintage undergarments. “That’s a huge part of transporting actresses back in time and makes the clothes have period accuracy,” Bryant says.
But, Lane notes, “We’re much bigger now. The whole gym revolution didn’t happen until the late ’70s, and now people have much bigger shoulders for instance. We had to tell casting not to send certain-size people.”
It is OK to indulge in the fantasy of the era. “A specific wardrobe piece can immediately incite an emotional reaction and draw viewers into the period,” Thomas notes.
It’s just about knowing when to pull back “and when to push forward really testing limits,” says Bryant, “having experience and seeing your work on the screen through dailies.” It’s a fine line costume designers traverse to transport us back in time within our own memories while staying loyal to the characters’ journeys.