No matter what television shows costume designers find themselves working on, their marching orders are often the same: Produce fabulous clothes in as short an amount of time as possible while working under high-pressure conditions.
And yet, they all make it look so easy, so — dare we say it? — seamless. Here, we talk to four masters of the craft and ask them to pick a standout creation from their past season and talk about its challenges. From antique wedding gowns to a beggar's togs, their choices might surprise you.
Bryant loves that sky blue micro-mini with the flowy arms that Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) wears when picking up husband Don Draper (Jon Hamm) from the Los Angeles Airport in the opener of Season 7's first half. "And it might just be my favorite 'Mad Men' costume ever," Bryant notes. "I loved everything about it, everything. And the fact that it was such an iconic moment in the show just made it even better."
Bryant had a darker blue version made for testing, and, "yes, I did know that she would drive up in a green convertible sports car, so that combination wasn't by accident." Since it was a season opener, they had the time to screen test, and series creator Matthew Weiner "really loved the light blue one, so it just confirmed my original choice," she says, explaining that she'd made the dark one because she'd had some qualms about the light fabric not popping strongly against the sunny California sky. Vintage strappy sandals and perfect period '60s jewelry snapped it all together.
"The best thing about designing for 'Mad Men,'" she answers immediately, "was being on set that day and getting to see Jessica Paré as Megan Draper get out of that car in that flowing, beautiful blue dress!"
Queen Cersei's (Lena Headey) stunning red velvet and gold-embossed "power" dress, exquisitely structured and embroidered, is Clapton's favorite series outfit. "I love the structure of Cersei's costumes and the way we use them to tell her emotional state, her attitude," Clapton says. "I love that sense of carelessness in the way she wears things."
Fit onto a corset base, the fabric was funneled up and out over the neckline, and taken around the top of the queen regent's arms. "I love the way it hovers around her shoulders," says Clapton, whose costume budget is among the larger ones for television. "It's like an armor, a shell. It implies how cold and isolated she is as a character; don't touch her. It's also an incredibly flattering line."
The embroidery is done in-house (as are most all the costumes) and had to be loud and "extremely emblematic, to underline Cersei's belief in the Lannister family strength," notes Clapton, so she prominently featured the Lannister crest of a lion and the color red with masculine metal beads and rings "as a representation of the frustration Cersei feels at the [isolated] position she's forced into."
"The challenges were the very reason I was initially so interested in wanting to design this series," says Clapton about the complexities of "Throne's" fantasy realm. "It was important to all of us that it didn't just become another fantasy show, which so often heavily rely on medieval-style costumes or costumes that make no sense, have no depth."
Lady Rose (Lily James) wears Robbins' favorite dress when the young aristocrat gets married in the Season 5 finale.
A vintage "virginal" piece, Robbins found the shimmering bridal gown when a London tailor told her about something "incredibly special" and got out a big box that had been packed away. "And when I first saw it, the hair on the back of my arms just sort of went up," Robbins says. "And to make it even better, the dress fit her like a glove. We didn't have to do very much to it at all.
"The dress had never been worn — it was probably made for somebody and then the wedding had never taken place — so all these years later, it gets its day in the sun." Luminous on top, and nearly 100 years old, it's a sumptuously beaded tulle gown. Robbins says they found an amazing creamy silk to go underneath it.
Her big "Downton" challenge is "the vast number of changes we have for the cast during the day — at that time, aristocratic women changed into seven full outfits daily — and then you look at the number of actors in the ensemble cast and it's a massive scale," she says regarding the sheer number of period costumes needed for a single shoot.
"So we do very, very quick turn-arounds, but the standards are very, very high. So, yes, I guess there's pressure, but it's no more pressure than I put on myself. And seeing things come from nothing into something — a piece of scrap or an image in my head — to having it on set, with that perfect production design and lighting, it's quite a high, and it's what spurs you on to hitting the nail on the head on the next one."
"We're storytellers," says Dresbach, "and my medium happens to be clothing. There are characters who come along that you get to really tell a story with." For Dresbach, it's Hugh Munro (Simon Meacock), a mute peddler "with maybe 20 minutes of screen time," who wears her favorite costume.
"His clothes are made of rags, literally; we found them on a fabric mill floor, wove them together and wove into them all these antique medallions and medals and badges — we had a 1950s swimming medal, one from the 1800s — around his neck and a beaten up old hat," says Dresbach, who lives with her husband, series creator Ronald Moore, in an 18th century house in Scotland while working on the series. "We painted and sanded the costume, and we spent weeks aging it. It's an art piece, an amazing thing.
"Ninety-five percent of what is on camera we've made at our shop," she says of the costumes. "We started out with a team of about 12 people, and on a good day we can be up to as high as 75. We are our own little factory, churning out 18th century costumes. We're working on Season 2 and have to make 900 extras costumes. And we have to age them, hit them with blow torches and spray machines. It's an enormous endeavor and a real joy to do this. Scotland and Scottish costume is amazing."