Shoulder pads and neon socks. Teased hair and baggy jeans. Rap posters and pastel colors.
A quick glance around the TV schedule these days seems like a trip with a time machine. And while shows like PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and Starz’s “Outlander” may whisk us back to a romantic past of ruffles and manners, today’s really hot shows are straight outta the grand old era of… the late 1970s to circa 1995.
Consider series like ABC’s “The Goldbergs” (set in the1980s) and “Fresh Off the Boat” (1995), FX’s “The Americans” (1983-84) and “Fargo” (1979), and Netflix’s “Narcos” (1970-86). Or short-run series and movies like FX’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” (1995) and HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” (1987-94) and “Confirmation” (1991). Even shows like AMC’s “Better Call Saul” make liberal use of Regan-era flashbacks.
On TV (and in digital) the recent past is ever-present.
Yet designing that past is a challenge for production and costume designers, considering that the era they’re trying to re-create isn’t considered very romantic or much worth remembering. “I don’t think people always consider the 1980s to be period,” says Keri Smith, “Goldbergs” costume designer. “The idea of it feels so contemporary. It’s hard to get it right.”
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Moreover, the designs themselves are polarizing. “The 1980s were a nadir of design,” says “Hero” production designer Laurence Bennett. “A lot of garish, mannered things happened. We had to make an environment that was emotionally convincing — but which doesn’t distract viewers from the story.”
“The 1990s aesthetic has been made fun of or joked about,” agrees Hope Hanafin, “Confirmation” costume designer. “We had to come up with a way to do it that was serious and reflected the actual story.”
Each designer has his or her own take on how to tame this beloved yet reviled era. Realism and kitsch avoidance are high on their lists, although both concepts are open to interpretation.
For “Hero,” Bennett was fortunate to find a Yonkers, New York, location where not much has changed. It was about choosing the right color palettes and specific decor to create the mood of the era. But it was a delicate balance. “Everyone remembers the coiled cord on their kitchen phone and avocado-colored refrigerator,” he says. “A little of that goes a long way.”
On “Boat,” production designer Liz Kay focused on changing technology, the presence of VHS tapes and rap posters in a key bedroom. But viewer familiarity with all of those elements can add speed bumps. “It feels like yesterday,” she says of 1995. →
“But it really was 20 years ago — we may have gone leaps and bounds past the 1990s in terms of technology, but we haven’t changed all that much. ”
For Hanafin, clothes reinforced the story told in “Confirmation,” centered on the congressional hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Women all wore pantyhose and skirts; no cleavage showed. Men wore formal suits. And in the case of Thomas accuser Anita Hill, every dress the real-life woman wore in public was re-created by hand.
Diana Trujillo, production designer on drug story “Narcos,” faced the challenge of connecting an American audience with the unreal world of men with more money than they knew what to do with, who copied architectural designs they loved from around the world, transforming cities in the process.
“I wanted this to look like magical realism,” she says. “Narcos have all this power and money to re-create things and make them believable — and that’s what magical realism does.”
For some of her costumes, “People vs. O.J.” costume designer Hala Bahmet shifted between the accuracy of the outfits of the period — boxy suits for women, trousers with pleats — and “symbolic” outfits, particularly while dressing Nicole Brown Simpson pal Faye Resnick.
“I put her in a 1940s women’s jacket, short and dressy,” she says. “Faye was very fashionable and different than a lot of the people we encountered — so I made that decision because it works with her personality, not because it was in the historical record.”
Understanding character is key to choosing the right era of outfits — in the case of “Fargo’s” Midwestern regular folks, costume designer Carol Case couldn’t go for the latest outfits. “It’s about what you can buy in the local store,” she said. “We didn’t want it to look like a tour of the 1970s. These are working people; the clothing is practical.”
Yet even skilled designers agree that re-creating the recent past is very difficult from reproducing the distant past. “Americans” production designer Diane Lederman got to indulge in some 1980s nostalgia when her otherwise straitlaced housewife/KGB spy character Elizabeth (Keri Russell) developed a new, hip spy persona this past season.
But availability can be a problem. “I love the ’80s, hideous trends and all,” she says about trying to pin down Mary Kay Cosmetics paraphernalia and ’80s decor. “But nobody keeps that stuff. ”
Some of them still don’t, but a well-chosen structure (such as the Pan American Building in Albuquerque, built in 1998, which retains a New Mexico ’90s vibe and is used for the law firm in “Better Call Saul”) can not only signal a bygone era — it can also speak volumes about characters.
“I was like, ‘Vince, how can you make Saul’s law firm lavender?” says production designer Tony Fanning of his conversation with “Saul” co-showrunner Vince Gilligan. “But it’s become a story point and a running joke. And if I’d asked the location manager to find this exact building, he never could have. We’ve made it work.”
Pictured above: “The Goldbergs”