It’s easy to go overboard with wild prints, bell-bottoms and platform shoes when depicting the 1970s in television and film, but costume designer Judy Gellman avoided clichés when she created the wardrobe for the cast of “American Woman.” Premiering June 7 on Paramount Network, the dramedy, set in Beverly Hills in 1975, is loosely based on the early years of co-executive producer and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kyle Richards.
“The one thing I wanted to do — as did the show’s creators — is have these clothes fade into the background. I didn’t really want to have to be like, ‘Hello, here’s all the iconic looks from the ’70s. We’re checking them all off so that you can see we’re showing you the period accurately,’ ” Gellman says. “My aim is to help the actors find their characters. It’s their job to show the audience who they are and walk [viewers] through that story.”
At the heart of “American Woman” is Alicia Silverstone as Bonnie, a character inspired by Richards’ mom, who has to find a way to support herself and her children after leaving her husband. Mena Suvari and Jennifer Bartels play her best friends, Kathleen and Diana.
“The three of them have very distinct identities, and one of the challenging things about doing a show like this was distilling the many iconic looks of the ’70s down into what was appropriate for each character,” Gellman says.
“Bonnie is a woman who has spent her adult life dressing within the respectful norms of what a pretty woman on the arm of a successful man should look like,” Gellman notes. She describes Kathleen as a Texas transplant and debutante with a sexy, playful style, and Diana as a career woman who needs to project a businesslike image.
Gellman was fanatical about finding authentic period clothing for the cast, sourcing labels like Halston, Pierre Cardin and Diane Von Furstenberg from a multitude of outlets, including private collectors, vintage shows, costume rental houses and eBay.
In some instances, the costume designer had the added challenge of quickly fulfilling a specific wardrobe need, for instance when she learned she had only 48 hours to procure an Yves Saint Laurent suit for Silverstone — one that not only fit the actress well but was appropriate for the scene and worked with the sets.
Thankfully, a private collector in San Francisco had the garment, though getting it was just the start of making it work. “Alicia was in every scene the day I got it, so I had to sneak into her trailer and get her to try it on in between everything, race it back to the tailors and have them do their magic and get it ready,” Gellman says.
Another precious find for Silverstone’s alter ego: A Pierre Cardin dress once worn by the model Twiggy in an issue of Vogue. Says Gellman: “It’s like a treasure hunt in the best way when you’re doing a period show!”