Bob Mackie and Cher

Phyllis Diller dress by Ret Turner. Now in Smithsonian Museum. Sketch by Bob Mackie.

Sketch of a Judy Evans costume for The Golden Girls' Bea Arthur

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie

Gabriel Mann and Emily VanCamp at the Fire & Ice Party on Revenge (Carol Kaelson/ABC)

Leighton Meester as Blair and Blake Lively as Serena in Gossip Girl (Giovanni Rufino/The CW 2010)

Sketch of a Judy Evans costume for The Golden Girls' Bea Arthur


 

“The Changing Face of Modern Television: When Costume Design Costars”

By Anna Wyckoff, Spring 2012

When television usurped the place of radio, its influence rippled through every sector of society and watching became an event. Over half a century later, this archetype has been transformed. In the era of Facebook and Twitter, it is not uncommon for television viewers to experience several electronic mediums simultaneously. As a result, their attention has become fragmented. While many have bemoaned this trend as detracting from televisions’ power, in actuality the digerati have reinforced programming, opening new avenues for networks and advertisers to connect with audiences. Thus, with the omnipresence of the Internet, another metamorphosis is occurring.

Anchoring television’s staying power is its unique ability to cultivate a connection with viewers over one or more seasons. Costume Design has always supported this relationship, and in some instances, it has even played a leading role.

The Legends
Bob Mackie and Ret Turner

Television was in its infancy when Ret Turner worked his way up from dresser to designer. Live audiences fostered a sense of excitement that in Costume translated into under-dressing and quick changes. Variety shows, with their deep roots in Vaudeville, prevailed. Among hundreds of programs, Turner notably created costumes for The Andy Williams Show and Donny and Marie, while Bob Mackie designed The Carol Burnett Show and many television variety specials featuring celebrities like Mitzi Gaynor and Diana Ross, among others.

“We had three networks and a couple of local channels. It was pretty easy to grab an audience,” comments Mackie. Whether they worked separately or together, or with their frequent collaborator, the late CD Ray Agayhan, Mackie and Turner did more than captivate viewers. The costumes they created have become the stuff of legend and part of the fabric of American history. Each has garments exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum: Mackie the unforgettable curtain dress from Carol Burnett’s Went with the Wind parody and Turner, one of his extravagant Phyllis Diller masterpieces.

The duo worked together like two hands while collaborating on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Mackie costumed Cher, who could have between ten to twenty changes, and Turner designed the rest of the show, which included nearly a hundred costumes for the cast and often a “twin” look for Sonny. The timeframe was relentless, requiring every sketch to be fabricated in under a week. Looks were designed from wig to shoe and almost everything was custom made. “It had to fit, there was no alternate waiting on the rack,” shrugs Mackie.

The element of comedy necessitated that costumes negotiate a delicate balance in order to add, not subtract. Understanding how a performer moved was crucial, because often the costume informed the humor. Producers and actors completely trusted their design instincts. “Carol Burnett would come to fittings asking, ‘What do I get to wear?’” says Mackie, “And it just got more and more spectacular as we went along. Some weeks, we’d just look at each other and say, ‘Wow.’” Turner adds, “What we did then– variety with comedy and fantasy– really doesn’t exist now.” But their touchstone has always been glamour.

The Cult Favorite
Judy Evans

No one championed glamour going forward more than the late CDs Nolan Miller in Dynasty and William Travilla in Dallas and Knot’s Landing. Their costumes defined the next decade, as audiences tuning in for the melodrama also had an insatiable appetite for the exaggerated silhouettes. CD Judy Evans spearheaded many shows in the eighties, but two of the most influential stood in sharp contrast to the landscape of broad shouldered, waspwaisted suits. The first was The Golden Girls.

Not only did The Golden Girls gather critical acclaim, it beloved by a broad audience. Evans took the direction from the producers to create a vibrant look for the four mature leads, and ran with it. It was a breakthrough show, with Evans single-handedly redefining what “dressing your age” looked like. From Dorothy’s layered looks in intriguing fabrics paired with low boots and sophisticated jewelry to Blanche’s unabashed embrace of her femininity, The Golden Girls ensemble cast is considered by some to be the prototype for Sex and the City. Evans worked hard to keep the characters distinct and give them an optimistic vitality with color that suited their upbeat Florida surroundings. She chuckles, “I got an awful lot of fan mail!” The costumes, however, inspired such appreciation because they freed an entire generation to age gracefully and beautifully.

On the other end of the spectrum was the surprise hit Beauty and the Beast featuring actor Ron Pearlman as the benevolent Beast. Evan’s costumes combined present day, period, and fantasy in a nuanced, romantic, and poetic way that complemented the literary undertone of the show. She describes it as a seven-day-a-week prep show, as opposed to a five-day schedule. Because episodes were shot on film, there was always one show in production, one shooting, and one prepping. “That, coupled with working— I think I had three other shows at the time— was intensive. I was very compartmentalized. When I walked into Beauty and the Beast, it was all Beauty and the Beast… and I had good crews on every single show, great people to work with. Dedicated. We all worked hard, we brought a lot of professionalism to our craft.”

The Game-Changer
Patricia Field

Except for the world of soap operas, nineties programming turned its back on the opulence of the previous decade. Grunge ruled runways, and costumes on the small screen were more casual as storytelling through realism took precedence. CD Patricia Field explains, “What developed in television was a new aesthetic epitomized by gritty shows like Thirtysomething, which was a tremendous hit, but was not at all based on fantasy or aspiration. It was the opposite— it was the angst of life.” As the decade drew to a close, several factors converged to create the perfect storm. The Internet was gaining momentum, but as the dotcom bubble ironically burst, recession loomed on the horizon. As Field says, “Sex in the City was the right show, at the right time, in the right place.” Suddenly, glamour starved audiences fell in lust from the first twirl of Carrie’s tutu.

Field credits creator Darren Star’s original synopsis for describing each character in detail, except for Carrie, whom he called only “eclectic.” In that word, Field found both the path to the character and freedom of expression. Sarah Jessica Parker, who famously played Carrie Bradshaw, was a savvy and enthusiastic conspirator. Field and Parker shared a trust and rapport after a previous film, which opened the doors to the rest of the cast. “It didn’t take very long,” Field says with amusement, “One or two episodes, and they started to understand that something here was good.”

This trust extended to the writers and producers, and as the show gained notoriety, Field encountered less resistance and was able to more fully realize her vision. “Any creative process is best left alone,” she remarks, “Unfortunately, in our industry, it often becomes a decision by a committee of many different kinds of people who actually are not experts on the subject, but are in higher positions, and in the end, have the final word. This dissipated very quickly in Sex and the City, which resulted in the free flow of creativity.”

While Field used a sophisticated visual vocabulary which wittily juxtaposed high and low fashion, she put personality first to create the characters, carefully considering each actor’s body and how they moved, held themselves, and thought. The avalanche of adulation and conversation that surrounded the costumes worn by Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte is a testament to how exceptionally well Field did her job. The Internet played a large role in propelling Sex and the City into an international phenomenon. Audiences tuned in because the enthusiasm behind the Costume Design was contagious. It married the sheer love of clothing and the joy of expressing one’s self. Field feels that her aesthetic “broke down the uniform” and liberated women to embrace themselves as individuals.

The New Guard
Eric Daman, Alix Friedberg, Jill Ohannesson

A new group of Costume Designers took the ball tossed to them and ran, creating visuals audiences find riveting. Revenge’s CD Jill Ohanneson comments, “Sex and the City did us all a great favor by opening the door for beautiful high-end clothing. From it came Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars (CD Mandi Line), and our show as well, where fashion and the costumes not only inform the audience about the character, but can be a character in and of itself.”

CD Eric Daman of Gossip Girl agrees, “I think the [television] wardrobe has a heightened sense of reality that also helps the actors embody their roles. Because the clothes are aspirational, but also relatable at the same time, it is almost like watching a living TV fashion editorial.” Ohanneson insists any tension between the worlds of Costume Design and fashion is unnecessary, “I feel like I have the best of both worlds because I take beautiful, luxury pieces but still use them to define my characters, instead of letting the characters be defined only by their clothes.”

Revenge’s leads are pretending to be someone they are not, and Ohanneson enjoys hinting at their psychological subtext. She feels her film background has equipped her with the ability to add layers to the personas while working at the lightning pace of television. “They are using fashion and clothing as a camouflage to help them play a part,” she explains. This is reflected in character Emily Thorne’s choice to assume the classic American blond, as embodied by Grace Kelly, to mask her roots as a juvenile delinquent and Victoria’s feline sensuality with a nod towards Sophia Loren shadowing her past as an art gallery sales girl.

The Gossip Girl viewers are obsessed by the wardrobes of Chuck, Blair, and Serena. Daman, who got his start assisting Patricia Field, enjoys fanning those flames. Inspired by the Billionaire Boys Club, he costumes Chuck to evoke a confidence and wealth that can fearlessly flaunt “pink Saville Row suits, bespoke Italian shoes, and Parisian cravats whiles sipping scotch and seducing the ladies.” Serena is a free spirit whose style was originally inspired by Kate Moss, while Blair is a hybrid of old Hollywood glamour and high fashion, a mash up of Anna Wintour and Audrey Hepburn.

The Cult Favorite
Judy Evans

No one championed glamour going forward more than the late CDs Nolan Miller in Dynasty and William Travilla in Dallas and Knot’s Landing. Their costumes defined the next decade, as audiences tuning in for the melodrama also had an insatiable appetite for the exaggerated silhouettes. CD Judy Evans spearheaded many shows in the eighties, but two of the most influential stood in sharp contrast to the landscape of broad shouldered, waspwaisted suits. The first was The Golden Girls.

Not only did The Golden Girls gather critical acclaim, it beloved by a broad audience. Evans took the direction from the producers to create a vibrant look for the four mature leads, and ran with it. It was a breakthrough show, with Evans single-handedly redefining what “dressing your age” looked like. From Dorothy’s layered looks in intriguing fabrics paired with low boots and sophisticated jewelry to Blanche’s unabashed embrace of her femininity, The Golden Girls ensemble cast is considered by some to be the prototype for Sex and the City. Evans worked hard to keep the characters distinct and give them an optimistic vitality with color that suited their upbeat Florida surroundings. She chuckles, “I got an awful lot of fan mail!” The costumes, however, inspired such appreciation because they freed an entire generation to age gracefully and beautifully.

On the other end of the spectrum was the surprise hit Beauty and the Beast featuring actor Ron Pearlman as the benevolent Beast. Evan’s costumes combined present day, period, and fantasy in a nuanced, romantic, and poetic way that complemented the literary undertone of the show. She describes it as a seven-day-a-week prep show, as opposed to a five-day schedule. Because episodes were shot on film, there was always one show in production, one shooting, and one prepping. “That, coupled with working— I think I had three other shows at the time— was intensive. I was very compartmentalized. When I walked into Beauty and the Beast, it was all Beauty and the Beast… and I had good crews on every single show, great people to work with. Dedicated. We all worked hard, we brought a lot of professionalism to our craft.”

This article can be found in the latest issue of The Costume Designer magazine. Click here to view the rest of the magazine online.


User ID


Password




I forgot my user id/password