Small-Screen Outfits Burst at Seams With Big Ambition

It isn’t often that costumes get a direct shout-out in a TV show title. But then there’s Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” a singing competition series in which contestants all wore mascot-sized creature costumes, including full headpieces, to disguise themselves in front of a panel of judges.
“Singer” became broadcast’s biggest mid-season hit.

So all due credit to costume designer Marina Toybina, who translated the Korean concept series for American audiences — turning her costumes into the real stars of the show, at least until their occupants were revealed. “It’s go big or go home,” Toybina says. “Everyone’s trying to experiment with different ways of building costumes, going back to big pictures, big fabrics.”

Character outfits on TV have begun taking on bigger roles as costume designers let loose with assertive looks that not only dress actors, but enhance the overall show.

On Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” costume designer Donna Zakowska is clearly having a lot of fun with her mid-century retro looks for star Rachel Brosnahan and cohorts, fashioning colorful outfits for Season 2 visits to Paris and the Catskills of New York.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Everything’s a challenge, because we have so little time and so much of it is custom-built,” she says. “The challenge is really being able to keep up the standard of custom clothing in the time we’re in. Time is always of the essence for us.”

Zakowska also keeps in mind a broad plan for how the costumes will show Midge’s evolution. “It’s about the acceptance of her professional commitment, still in struggle with her personal life,” Zakowska says. “She has momentum, so the clothes have to have the momentum of a person who’s made a clear decision.”

Contemporary outfits may seem more mundane, but “Black-ish” (ABC) designer Michelle Cole finds ways to spice things up: In the annual Halloween episode this year, several characters emulated Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter’s “Black Panther” look. But the real standout for her was being able to dress everyone in classic Prince outfits, which the Purple One tended to have custom-made.

“It took us about two months, because we had to start early in looking for fabrics,” she says. “It was exciting, watching the process from the shoes to the printing to getting it right.”

She agrees that overall, TV is going bigger and bringing that home to audiences. “I was brought up on Cher, ‘Laugh-In’ and ‘Batman’ and I see colors getting bolder again like that,” she says. “[Zakowska] and I come from theater, so that’s part of your process. It stays with you.”

Zakowska takes credit for some of the trend, adding that a little magical realism in TV costumes is allowable these days. “Nobody wants to continue seeing all police dramas,” she says. “Film has done this to a degree, and in TV it’s still a little early in the evolution. But TV’s getting there. We’re more stylized now.”

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