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How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO’s ‘The Righteous Gemstones’

HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — draws on multiple eras and examples from the televangelist world that includes the likes of Joel Osteen, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. And their suits. 

“It was a bit of a domino effect,” says costume designer Sarah Trost, who worked with McBride on his previous HBO show, “Vice Principals,” and also costumes NBC’s “A.P. Bio.” “When I first talked to Danny, we chose to keep it conservative for everybody, but then he said he wanted his character [the eldest Gemstone son, Jesse] to be flamboyant, sort of ‘country famous,’ with his cohorts surrounding him. And I said, ‘Oh, you mean like Elvis and his Memphis Mafia.’”

That started Trost gathering books on 1960s-era Elvis as a key part of her research in creating detailed boards for each character. 

Jesse’s wife, Amber (played by Cassidy Freeman), was modeled after white, conservative, female media pundits. Designs included white or pale-colored pencil dresses with three-quarter sleeves and scoop necks. “There seems to be quite the uniform for that [person],” Trost adds, though she notes there wasn’t an individual on which the character was based. The middle child, Judy (Patterson), the only woman of Gemstone blood after Eli’s wife died, is stuck in her mother’s era, wearing “classic Chanel suits and vintage and modern St. John,” says Trost.

Devine plays youngest son Kelvin Gemstone, who represents a youthful element of the church with a bit more edge; he dresses like a Christian rocker, his signa-
ture gelled hair popping out of a beanie, even in summer. 

Goodman’s patriarch, Eli Gemstone, is an amalgamation of 20th-century televangelists across denominations. “We didn’t single out any one version of religion with him,” says Trost, who originally planned to make all Eli’s suits from scratch, but found a line at the last minute that was affordable and fit the look perfectly. “There’s Pentecostal, Baptist — so many different references for the face of televangelism. Incredibly, the look didn’t really change over 100 years. It was like a spider web of influences of different pieces of a similar religion.”

Trost is hesitant to name any of the venerable godfathers of televangelism who inspired Eli’s look, saying instead that the character is in his late 60s and looking back on who he was when he first started out. His role models would have had their heyday in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — inspiring him to emulate their conservative look. 

“Eli is ultraconservative, and even though the family makes millions, he only owns a few suit styles that I repeat throughout the season,” says Trost. “I like the carryover of his modest upbringing and that those tenets would continue throughout his life.” 

Trost’s detailed research went even further, providing a visual connection to the series’ title. During prep, she and McBride had a conversation about a vague reference in the Bible to gemstones, leading her to a reference in Exodus to 12 precious stones mounted on the breastplate of Aaron, the prophet brother of Moses.

 “There are many variants of it, and it’s 2,000 years old — in theory — but [the gems] were meant to represent different tribes or sects of the area at the time,” she says. 

Trost assigned a gem per Gemstone, based on each character’s qualities: ruby for Jesse, sapphire for Judy, diamond for Amber, beryl for Eli and jasper for Kelvin. 

“It’s not overt, but if you’re looking for it, you can see it,” she says. 

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