‘King of Staten Island’ Costume Designer Sarah Mae Burton on Creating Pete Davidson’s Look

The King of Staten Island Costume
Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures

Though “The King of Staten Island” is based in part on the real life of Pete Davidson, costume designer Sarah Mae Burton (“The Big Sick”) knew she didn’t want Davidson’s character to look like the “SNL” cast member.

“Pete has a distinctive style [“scumbro” — logos, sweats, Hawaiian shirts and neon] in the media, and we wanted to make sure we weren’t dressing him like that,” she says. 

In the Judd Apatow film, which Universal is offering on VOD on June 12, Davidson plays Scott, a young man still mourning his firefighter father, who died on the job when Scott was 7 (the same age Davidson lost his dad, a firefighter, in the 9/11 terror attacks). Scott, who still lives at home, has a bad case of arrested development and passes his time smoking weed and hanging out with his friends. His dream is to become a tattoo artist.

“He doesn’t wear super expensive things,” Burton explains. “And when he does, he might have saved up for those items.” Or, she conjectures, he might have “received a very small inheritance from his father.”

When we first encounter his character, he’s in an oversize black hoodie and driving his car. Burton’s script cue was seeing Scott in a dark place of mourning behind the wheel, with his eyes closed for a moment. Her instinct was to put him in “something comfortable and covered.” She also shopped in thrift stores and stone-washed all the clothes she bought to make them look aged and suggest “what he could afford,” she explains.

Later in the film, when Scott finally gets the chance to be a tattoo apprentice, he shows up wearing shorts and a matching tie-dye sleeveless shirt. It’s his version of showing off his tats on the job interview, Burton says.

Marisa Tomei plays Scott’s mother, Margie, a nurse who has put up with her son hanging out at home with his friends but isn’t happy about it. Her sense of style has stalled. Her kids have been her priority, and she’s exhausted from hours in the ER. “She wears the same things and hasn’t been trying,” Burton says. That is, until she meets Ray (Bill Burr), a loudmouthed firefighter she starts dating. 

As Margie begins to find herself, we see her palette change. “There’s a scene where she wears a yellow top, and it reflects this reawakening she has in dating Ray,” Burton says. The color, she says, symbolizes her newfound strength and happiness, and she wants Scott to move out. 

To dress Ray’s ex-wife Gina (Pamela Adlon), whose wardrobe is more up-to-date than Margie’s, Burton went to the mall for the character’s long, posterior-covering cardigan. “That’s what these women wear,” says the designer. “I saw it over and over with jeans or leggings.” 

In one scene, Scott attends a baseball game with Ray as a favor to his mom, but rather than wear his usual muted tones, he dresses in shorts, colorful sneakers and a loud yellow shirt with smiling red-lipped teeth all over it. “It’s everything outlandish that he owns, and he’s wearing it all at once in his effort to embarrass Ray,” Burton says.   

Still, in Burton’s discussions with Apatow and the crew, it was decided to avoid portraying Staten Island as a “No one wants to go there” cliché. “It was important to honor the world we were showing,” Burton says. “We wanted this film to seep in reality and love.”