Television takes the spotlight starting Monday at the upfronts in New York City, when most networks will announce which shows live and die. Many decisions will hinge on issues of substance — ratings and cost and critical acclaim. But no one should discount the role that style plays in a successful show.
A lot has been written about fashion on Fox's "Glee," the CW's "Gossip Girl" and AMC's "Mad Men" — and, in truth, many of us tune in to see just what Blair Waldorf and Joan Holloway are wearing. Clothing defines the characters in these shows, just as it did in "Sex and the City." You can't imagine "Glee" and crooked cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) without her Adidas track suit, gay teen Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) without his designer outfits or guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays) without her goody-goody cardigans. Lou Eyrich's costumes for the dance sequences are brilliant — DIY riffs on looks worn by Lady Gaga and Madonna.
But those highly stylized looks won't work for most of the scripted shows on television these days. "If you dressed 'CSI,' 'The Closer' or 'Brothers and Sisters' like 'Glee,' the character would be sabotaged by the look," says Deborah Landis, founding director of the Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. So many costume designers look for the clothes to fade into the background like scenery and avoid anything too trendy that could date a show after it goes into syndication.
That doesn't mean there's nothing stylish to watch. While most outfits in contemporary shows are put together by costume designers who shop off the rack, some of the looks are inspiring enough to try at home.
CBS' "The Good Wife" features the best-dressed career women on television, beginning with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), a litigator who returns to her Chicago law firm after her husband is caught in a political sex scandal.
Costume designer Daniel Lawson, who has worked on such films as "Revolutionary Road," turns to labels such as Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani and Prada for feminine-looking but professional suits that are a striking contrast to what we saw in legal dramas in the 1980s and '90s.
Florrick wears jackets in bold red, purple and turquoise by Calvin Klein, Brioni and Max Mara. And the senior partner at the firm, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), has a collection of statement necklaces to rival the first lady's, by such designers as Kenneth Jay Lane and Pono. Political campaigner Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) is no slouch either, in slim-cut suits by Versace and Dolce & Gabbana.
The costumes on "The Good Wife" have created so much interest that Lawson has a regular "Style Watch" column at CBS.com, where he answers viewer questions about the clothes.
Lawson is also the costume designer for HBO's "noir-otic" comedy "Bored to Death," in which writer Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is nerdy cool wearing plaid jackets that look as if they could come from the L.A. menswear label Band of Outsiders.
On the other hand, the world of scripted TV does feature a disturbing number of female characters who dress inappropriately for their occupations.
The women of CBS' "CSI: Miami" fall victim to this, as does Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) on Fox's "House." (How does she sit in those tight skirts?) And Dr. Camille Soroyan in Fox's "Bones" (Tamara Taylor) treats the forensics lab like her own private catwalk.
"Producers today seem to be hung up on sex," says Mary Rose, president of the Costume Designers Guild and a Television Academy of Arts and Sciences Board of Governors member for Costume Design and Supervision. "Which is not to say it's not important, but not for a policewoman chasing criminals with her blouse unbuttoned over her cleavage and three-inch heels."
"There are many times a designer would love to have an asterisk next to their credit saying, 'Those five-inch heels were not my choice,'" Landis says, adding that a viewer "can't tell who makes those decisions."
There seem to be more well-dressed men in drama series than women. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) in FX's "Justified," based on a fictional U.S. marshal from Elmore Leonard's novels and set in rural Kentucky, is a hillbilly hipster in a cowboy hat, Western shirts and skinny ties. On "Bones," FBI agent Seeley Booth is a tough guy with a weakness for Paul Smith socks and a signature belt buckle emblazoned with the word "Cocky," both of which are actor David Boreanaz's own flourishes. Then there's the perfectly pomaded Jon Hamm in "Mad Men" and the camel coat-clad Steve Buscemi in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
Indeed, TV's sexy, new period and fantasy costume dramas are bringing to the small screen some of the most colorful and creative costumes we've seen in years, many built from scratch.
At first, there seems to be a time-space disconnect in the costumes by Michele Clapton for the epic HBO medieval series "Game of Thrones." The men in fur pelts and crudely stitched tunics have groomed beards and gelled hair, and the bleach blond damsel Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) looks like an Olsen twin in a filmy goddess gown with a metal halter neck.
But that's the point. These shows aren't history, they're fantasy. And the clothes are transporting, especially in the Starz series "Camelot," which is like the "The O.C" with swords. Emmy Award-winning costume designer Joan Bergin adds contemporary cool to the post-Roman Celtic sensibility of the show (Arthur wears one of those surfer dude string necklaces), with clothes so richly detailed they make you want to hit the pause button.
"It was quite a difficult project, because despite the fact that Arthur lived in the 6th century, most people's view of the story is highly romantic," says Bergin, who was also the costume designer for the Showtime series "The Tudors." "I had many sleepless nights trying to work out how to honor that. It's the Dark Ages, but we couldn't just put them all in boiled wool. So we used a lot of textured fabrics, to make it look like they could have made the clothes themselves."
Merlin's textured coat with thick woven leather details, worn in the "Lady of the Lake" episode, looks like something fashion designer Rodarte might cook up. Arthur's half-sister and rival Morgan (Eva Green) is a witch with one wicked wardrobe — fabulous Empire gowns, lush cloaks, gold sandals, Celtic jewelry and jeweled headbands.
And yet, no matter how sumptuous the costumes are, we all know that what is really going to keep these shows alive is how fast the characters can take them off.