‘90s fashion returns in full display in FX’s ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ — and in real life
It has been a very ’90s-like 2016 in fashion — and politics. Pop stars are embracing choker necklaces as much as the cast of “Beverly Hills, 90210” did. Boutique mannequins are decked out in overalls reminiscent of early “Friends” episodes. And TV viewers have obsessively tuned into week after week to see O.J. Simpson in court on trial for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend.
The last example, of course, would be the recent Hollywood adaptation of the Simpson trial, FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Director-producer Ryan Murphy’s version of those 1990s events was brought to life by a cast that included Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. as former prosecutor Marcia Clark and Simpson, respectively.
The costumes – as high fashion as they were historically accurate – also brought an extra layer of authenticity, glamour and nostalgia to this true-crime series.
For her work on the series, costume designer Hala Bahmet received an Emmy nomination for costumes for a period/fantasy series, limited series or movie, proving that ’90s-style shoulder pads and statement ties are just as notable as the furs and armor of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” or the brocades and bow ties of “Downton Abbey” — shows whose costume designers are also nominated in the category.
Bahmet, who’s now working on NBC’s fall show “This Is Us,” gives a peek behind the curtain at how the current ’90s fashion revival got in the way of her sourcing for garments for the FX drama, the politics of power suits and more.
Fashionistas as competition
“The ’90s fashion revival actually cut into our resources quite a bit,” Bahmet says. “We’d go into a thrift store and realize they sold out of their ’90s stuff because everyone’s snapping up the vintage pieces.”
Luckily, her team was able to cast a wider net in the U.S., Canada and Europe to stock up enough of a ’90s archive to dress the 3,000-plus characters for “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” including jurors and people on the streets outside the Los Angeles courthouse.
“We, of course, also built a lot of costumes from scratch, which was essential to get the garments in the kind of quality we needed,” Bahmet explains. “A vintage garment will show some wear. Meanwhile, the dream team [the name for Simpson’s lawyers F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz and Johnnie Cochran] needed completely pristine suits.”
What we didn’t see on-screen
Some of Bahmet’s most prized work might have gone unseen to the average viewer.
“To me, the best part of costume design is not just the aesthetics or the fun of exploring another era, it’s bringing all those elements together and getting to know the character you’re dressing to create a foundation for the actor,” she says.
That meant paying attention to the small touches such as hand-engraved, monogrammed cufflinks for John Travolta, who played Shapiro. Or Bahmet having to personally select vibrant ties and pocket squares for the inimitable dresser Cochran, played by Courtney B. Vance.
The power of power suits
“Power dressing for women was specifically about becoming more sex-neutral in the workplace — and to try and level the playing field,” says Bahmet, who enjoyed exploring “the pastelization of Marcia Clark,” as the real-life Clark dubbed the media’s pressure to soften up her look.
That shift from Clark’s no-nonsense dark suits to more colorful choices is best seen in the emotional “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode of the FX show, which was specifically called out by the Television Academy for excellence.
“Despite the fact that women have adopted a uniform to move smoothly through a male-dominated workforce, we’re still hearing so much chatter about what they’re wearing,” Bahmet says.
Worth noting is that it has been 20 years since the Simpson trial. As much as things have changed for the better, many critics still obsess over fashion choices by leading women. Case in point: the oft-mentioned pantsuits of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was first lady for most of the ’90s.
“There has to be some below-the-surface misogyny that encourages people to pick apart the wardrobe of a powerful woman — where they never would for a man,” Bahmet says. “If I were going back to school now, I would do a PhD thesis on just this.”