Emmy-nominated costume designers on dressing characters with success
From the full-skirted polka-dot dresses of “I Love Lucy’s” Lucy Ricardo to the cone bras and figure-hugging outfits worn by the women of " Mad Men,” costumes have done as much as anything to make television memorable.
In recognition of the part clothes play, more than 75 outfits from contemporary shows, including some that are nominated this year for Emmys in costume design, are on display at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s museum and galleries in downtown Los Angeles. It’s the fifth consecutive year for the show, mounted in conjunction with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. (The academy will bestow its costume awards Aug. 21 during the 2010 Creative Arts Emmy Awards. The 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards are to be telecast live on Aug. 29.)
The free exhibit, which opened July 27 and runs through Sept. 4, also includes last year’s winner for outstanding costume design for a series, Robert Blackman for “Pushing Daisies.”
We caught up with three of the designers FIDM is featuring this year who have been nominated in the series category (there is also an award for outstanding design for a miniseries, movie or special) to find out what inspires them and what it’s like to work on their hit shows.
Joan Bergin, “The Tudors”
Bergin won Emmys for the series in 2007 and 2008 and received Irish Film & Television Academy awards in 2008 and 2009 as well. Her museum-quality costumes were featured in a Macy’s display in New York City on St. Patrick’s Day. Bergin has contributed to movies including “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “The Prestige.” She is currently working on the Starz Network production of “Camelot,” starring Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes.
Image: How many costumes did you create for the show?
JB: I kind of lost count! My workshop was actually quite small, but across the series we made about 500 costumes and rented and modified countless others.... The amount of clothes — when I look at it now, I laugh. The relevant note is that I drape onto a form like old-style couture with a goodly degree of skill. Every detail, from cloth to braid to button. The workshop [staff] tease me.... I should just put [cloth, etc.] on the actors, pins and all, without having to make it up.
Image: Which character did you design the most for?
Bergin: Anne Boleyn. Showtime let the show take its natural course. For example, Anne came as a young girl who had studied a bit of the court but was no princess. I was able to slowly build her to become this magnificent creature.
Image: The characters don’t physically age much as time progresses. The costumes are key in portraying this progression. How did you plan this out?
Bergin: I’m a great believer in research. Especially the social history around these people — it can be quite arrogant to make decisions for them. I figured, as Henry ransacked more and more churches and monasteries, he spent a lot of it on his own back and the clothes at court. I made them more opulent. As a character came more into the king’s favor, they would dress better. Not unlike nowadays, as if someone were in a rising corporate position.
Image: What a sexy set! Which male and female character was your favorite to dress?
Bergin: Well, one of the things about Jonathan Rhys-Meyers [Henry] is that he is a natural clothes horse. He was very interested in the costumes. If he hadn’t liked what I was doing it would have been agonizing. He really enjoyed the fittings and contributed. With women, it was Anne and Catherine Parr. We did magnificent jewelry for her [Anne’s] coronation scene that cost an absolute fortune. We had a bodyguard on set!
Image: But both Henry Cavill [Charles Brandon] and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are gorgeous. Did you have a favorite?
Bergin: Let’s just say I always like things complex and difficult, and Henry [Rhys-Meyers] was more … complex.
Image: The jewelry was extraordinary. Did you create that?
Bergin: I have a lovely story — I got a letter from a company in Philadelphia called Sorrelli, huge fans of the show, who sent six pieces that were perfect for the costumes. The next two years they supplied “The Tudors” with most of the jewelry. They even have “The Tudors” collection on their website (www.sorrelli.com). There was also an Italian vendor, Autore, who lent us a $40,000 pearl necklace that was used for the decapitation of Anne.
Image: Is it true that you were inspired by modern clothing for the Tudor look?
Bergin: Yes. “The Tudors” is a strange blend of trying to be as authentic as possible but with a twist. I wanted people to look at it and say, “Look how sexy and foxy,” rather than, “Oh! Who would wear that?” Balenciaga corsets and the Degas ballerinas inspired me. I also went to an auction and bought a trunk filled with fabrics collected by a woman from her travels all over the world. One of Catherine Parr’s dresses was made with a 100-year-old obi.
Image: What was it like winning your first Emmy?
Bergin: “The Tudors” was a show I originally did not want to do because I didn’t know how it could be done. I thought, “How on Earth could you do this?” And so when my name was called out, I was like one of those footballers and went, “Yes!” My friends claimed I knocked them down. I was shocked at how delighted I was. You often lack the security about what you’re doing, and it was like being reaffirmed.
Image: Have you been star-struck yet?
Bergin: I’ve worked with a lot of great people — Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep — but the first time my knees buckled was while working on “The Prestige.” It was when I met David Bowie.
Janie Bryant, “Mad Men”
Bryant, the 2005 Emmy winner for her work on “Deadwood” and 2009 Costume Designers Guild Award winner for “Mad Men,” has been credited with inspiring designers such as Michael Kors and Prada. She has played a huge role in bringing vintage back in full swing and is debuting her line “Janie Bryant Mod” on QVC this September. Her book, “The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration From the Costume Designer of Mad Men,” will be available this October.
Image: How did you get involved with “Mad Men”?
Bryant: I was in New Orleans designing a movie, and my agent called. I said I wanted to design another period show, and a week later she wanted me to see this pilot for “Mad Men.” When they shot the pilot, I’d been designing “Deadwood.” When they were gearing up for the show to go, I met Matt [Weiner, the show’s creator] and we sat for two hours, and he hired me.
Image: Is vintage/historical costume design your specialty?
Bryant: I love period design. For me, it’s all about the fantasy and the beauty of different time periods, so I gravitate toward that as opposed to contemporary.
Image: Where do you get your inspiration?
Bryant: Reading books, catalogs, old magazines, old movies, research on the Internet, research with Bobbie Garland, who runs the research library at Western Costume. I get inspiration from fabric stores or museums — I’m very visual. It’s all about seeing it.
Image: Is it true your family might have influenced some of the looks in the show?
Bryant: Totally. I’ve used things that my grandmother made, and I’ve used my mother’s things as well. For example, Roger’s daughter wore my mother’s wedding gown. Betty wears my grandmother’s aprons, because my grandmother had an apron for every single outfit or made them herself.
Image: So this really was in your blood.
Bryant: I’m from a Southern textile family. I spent my childhood in my grandfather’s sock mill.
Image: Does the cast want to keep the wardrobe, or are they thrilled to be in jeans and a T-shirt after shooting?
Bryant: (Laughing) I think they want to be contemporary.
Image: It’s understandable — nobody wants the “bullet bra” look forever!
Bryant: I don’t understand that! I love it! I think it helps accentuate the hourglass.
Image: Ahh … so do you think women today don’t have that hourglass figure that was sexy in the ‘60s?
Bryant: Of course, they do have that. I just think now everyone wants to be a stick. It’s interesting how, through different decades, people’s priorities are different. Certain shapes change and certain parts get accentuated … or not. Especially during the 1960s. That’s when the Twiggy-look happened, and people became obsessed with that stick figure. Going back to hiding the hourglass, I think men are very much the same. They want to hide their bodies as well. Guys will wear baggy jeans, baggy shorts. I mean, think about the ‘80s with “Magnum P.I.” There’s no way that you’d see a guy walking around [now] with short shorts. I think there is a definite modesty in people showing their bodies now.
Image: Do you think you’ve changed the face of vintage?
Bryant: It’s been such a part of my lifestyle since the ‘80s. I’ve just always known people who have done this too. I guess it’s become more popular since “Mad Men.” I mean, maybe. People tell me all the time, “Omigod — we’re going to a ‘Mad Men’ party!”
Image: How should someone buy vintage, since sizes are so different nowadays?
JB: Just know your bust, waist and hips. Our sizes don’t translate. Our clothing now is vanity-sized.
Image: What’s something really special you have in your closet?
Bryant: One of my favorite things I’ve had forever is a 1950s hand-painted silk bag that I found at the Salvation Army. I have an amazing YSL peasant blouse from the ‘70s that I found at a thrift store that I love. I’ve held on to that thing forever.
Image: Everyone calls you Janie. But your first name is Katherine. Just curious — why go by Janie?
Bryant: It tends to be a Southern custom. When someone says Katherine ... I know they don’t know who I am!
Image: Whom do you recognize and relate to most in the show?
Bryant: My grandparents remind me so much of the show. The three-martini lunches, the meetings, dinner parties — there definitely is that familiarity. But me….both Rachel and Betty. Especially growing up in the South, you’re expected to get married and have kids. So that’s why I say Betty. I definitely grew up with that understanding, even though there wasn’t pressure from my family — except a bit from my dad. That’s still a cultural thing too. And Rachel, because she’s this other part: a successful, independent businesswoman who has discovered who she is.
Image: Whose wardrobe do you envy from the cast?
Bryant: I love Trudy. I love Betty too. Betty because of her different parties, hostessing, petticoats, ruffles and aprons. She’s all about the ladylike look. She’s all girl. Trudy, she just has the best hats! She’s so beautiful and picture-perfect. I love her style and her suits. I think she’s a character that keeps up with fashion.
Image: What about your book?
Bryant: I am so proud of this book. I can’t even believe how it came together. I’m proud of the message that’s about getting your own personal style and becoming your own leading lady. Feel great from the inside and work outwardly. I think it’s what you tell yourself when you look in the mirror. I think it’s also about what you say to people in conversations about yourself. Find the things that make you feel special and go with that.
Lou Eyrich, “Glee”
Eyrich won a Costume Designers Guild award for “Glee,” which has garnered 19 Emmy nominations. She was behind the über-luxe looks of “Nip/Tuck” and has dressed some of the coolest crooners on the scene. (Prince is one of many on her resume.) Her quirky/cool vision for “Glee” drew the attention of Madonna and Lady Gaga when she created costumes paying homage to the divas but realized through the Eyrich eye.
Image: Congrats on having more than 4 million Facebook fans for “Glee.” Did you expect the show to be this huge?
Eyrich: Not at all. Not me. I didn’t see it coming.
Image: Why do you think it’s so popular?
Eyrich: Timing. The right time for something so upbeat, funny and original. There are also so many people I know who secretly love and loved glee club, or secretly love to sing and dance. The music is what a lot of people love about the show. Everyone can relate to something. Plus, with such a huge cast, adults can identify with adults, kids with kids.
Image: How do you create such bespoke costumes for so many characters?
Eyrich: Well, we work super-long hours. During the pilot, I worked with Ryan Murphy (the show’s creator), and we did a huge concept board for each character. Personas. Flavor boards. Like Finn is a jock. An All-American jock. Where would he shop? Old Navy, Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch. Most guys in general don’t really care where they shop. They have their look, and that’s how they dress all the time.
Image: How did you do your research for the characters?
Eyrich: I went on EBay and got yearbooks from Ohio. We also did lots of flashbacks … so I also ordered them from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But as we started going, we realized we had to elevate. Make them punchier for TV.
Image: Jane Lynch must be the most comfortable character on set.
Eyrich: She does say, “I get to come on set and put on my tracksuit.” Adidas has been very generous, but we need at least seven to nine tracksuits per episode, so we had to start custom making them.
Image: “Glee” is geek-chic. You’ve also embraced body image. A girl in a larger size looks as great as a smaller girl. How have you been so successful with this? It’s so important today with self-esteem.
Eyrich: I think a lot of it has to do with the actor and who the character is. Each person embodies their character. They just make it seem so real. Mercedes, for example, embraces diva-glam. She works it. With her, we try to punch up the gold jewelry and the bright colors. She’s not afraid to put on a pair of zebra-print pants with a purple T-shirt with a boom box on it. She’s confident.
Image: Were you inspired by anyone specifically for certain characters?
Eyrich: For Rachel, we were inspired by a couple of different ideas. One was Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club,” kinda quirky, outcast but gets the cool boy. And Tracy [the character played by Reese Witherspoon] from “Election.” A little bit of Ali McGraw from “Love Story.” Those were the three on the first concept board. Once Lea [Michele] was cast and brought in, it just really escalated from there, because she’s just so darn cute.
Image: Has the show changed your life in any way?
Eyrich: It’s made me love my craft again. It’s made me love my job. I was starting to get a bit burnt out and looking at what’s next. It’s also the cast. I love this cast; I love working with them individually. The crew is delightful, my producers … we work well together to make the best show. It pushes me to do better and to try harder — if that’s even possible! I love coming to work every day.
Image: What did it feel like to be nominated for the Emmy, and what are you thinking of wearing?
Eyrich: When I saw my name that morning, I kind of got a stomachache. First I got butterflies, because I’ve never gotten nominated, and then I was like, “Omigod, what am I going to wear?” I don’t know exactly what I’m going to wear yet, but my old assistant from “Nip/Tuck” is Mila Hermanovski who just got second place in “Project Runway,” so I might hit her up.
“Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design”; FIDM Museum and Galleries, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 623-5821; Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Free.