‘Big Little Lies’ Costume Designer on Dressing the Affluent Characters

Many have gushed over the enviable real estate featured in HBO’s Monterey, Calif.-set miniseries “Big Little Lies.” But it’s not just expansive ocean views that offer character clues among the social strata in this sophisticated crime tale.

Costume designer Alix Friedberg’s meticulous work guides the viewer into the world of five women — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — caught up in a town where daily life is all about appearance.

“People often dismiss contemporary work in costume design, even though designers put as much research and thought into it as they would in period,” Friedberg says. She admits she was lucky that the scripts for all seven episodes were available when she started. It’s a rarity that enabled her to fully track the characters’ emotional journeys.

Friedberg also received some major pointers from director Jean-Marc Vallée.

“He made playlists for all the characters,” Friedberg recalls. “It’s such a beautiful way to get into what influences a character visually.”

Three of those characters — Madeline, Celeste, and Renata — put a great deal of emphasis on what they wear.

Friedberg dressed Madeline, with her type-A personality and unapologetic attitude, in striking colors and bold prints. Her clothes include floral dresses and a red trench coat that makes a statement. A wide range of designers were used to craft this facade: high-end labels such as Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, and Carolina Herrera, along with more accessible ones like Tory Burch and J. Crew.

“With Madeline, it was all about her portrayal of a perfect exterior,” Friedberg explains. “She’s got this competitive edge that comes out in the choices she makes with her clothes.”

With Celeste, a quieter personality stuck in an abusive marriage, Friedberg highlights a timeless simplicity that favors a tranquil, neutral palette — flowy, subtly romantic pieces combined with sharply tailored ones, all in synch with her understated elegance.

“Celeste’s style is effortless,” Friedberg says. “She’s so naturally stylish in a classic way, and has the appearance of a perfect aspirational existence.”

To build the character’s wardrobe, the go-to brands were Chloe, Max Mara, and The Row.

Friedberg defines Renata’s exquisitely sculpted, distinctly high-end looks and commanding silhouettes in three words: “Powerful, elusive, expensive.” But, she notes, the character’s softer side starts to show in later episodes as she tries to protect her daughter.

“Renata is the queen in her castle on the hill,” Friedberg notes. “We play with that a bit. Some beautiful sweaters soften the angles and help define this struggling mom desperate to stop whoever’s hurting her little girl.”

Several top labels were in play for Renata, including Stella McCartney, Gucci, Azzedine Alaïa, and Roland Mouret.

Friedberg tells of the treat she has in store for the final episode, set to air April 7, where the characters attend an Audrey Hepburn/Elvis Presley night, for which Friedberg did plenty of custom work.

“We had a blast interpreting which version of an iconic Audrey or Elvis our lead characters would portray and how far they would take it to upstage one another. Renata’s version of the ‘My Fair Lady’ ascot dress is one of my absolute favorites.”

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