Costume Designer Joseph Porro
By Valli Herman
Deep in the heart of Louisiana, past bayous and bluffs, Costume Designer Joseph Porro is recreating 17th-century Salem, Mass., one detailed costume at a time. His current project, a period drama about the Salem witch trials, is something of a trial itself for the veteran designer.
“It’s the toughest show I’ve done in 30 years in Hollywood—by far,” says Porro from his wardrobe office in Shreveport. “Salem” shoots on stages in the western Louisiana city and on an expansive set nearly 40 miles south that painstakingly recreates the 1690s village.
The project has depended on Porro’s vast knowledge of every aspect of costume design and production. Aside from the pressure to produce a stunning wardrobe for the first-ever original, scripted series for WGN America, a cable network set on becoming a destination for compelling content, there was also the complication of shooting a period drama in rural Louisiana—a show that needed more than 1,000 costumes and nearly 600 pairs of shoes and boots. And that also required an international array of materials and factories to finish and ship it all in just four weeks.
Porro pulled it off, sometimes working 110 hours a week.
“I made everything. There was no aspect of the show that was rented,” he said. That meant that Porro made the gowns, corsets, hats, socks, knickers, the sash ties to hold up the knickers, pleated shirts, hand-finished collars, vests, ties, capes, gloves, jackets and every ruffled jabeau.
“I thought doing ‘Tombstone’ was tough. This one beats ‘Tombstone,’ hands down,” says Porro. That 1993 Western filmed in rugged Arizona locations and similarly required that every piece of wardrobe be custom built in a matter of weeks.
The “Salem” project has become a culmination of Porro’s career and life experience. He’s done contemporary television projects including “Ghost Whisperer” and “The Cleaner” and period wardrobes for “The Music Man,” which earned Porro a 2003 Emmy nomination for outstanding costumes.
The native of Cape Cod, Mass., was brought up surrounded by history, a passion he cultivated by joining the Massachusetts historical society at 8 years old. As a young man in New York, he worked with Halston, Geoffrey Beene and shoe designer Vittorio Ricci. He left the city for a 200-year-old Massachusetts farm to sell antiques and vintage clothing–great training for period costume work. He maintains an extremely active interest in history and had recently visited Salem, Mass., when he heard news of the upcoming WGN America television project.
He brought all of his experience in costume and fashion design to bear on “Salem,” the ultimate test of his career.
“I don’t know what another designer would have done, given the lack of time,” says Porro. He, however, knew just where to source for fast, skilled clothing construction—China.
While shooting “Shanghai Noon” in 2000 with Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, Porro was introduced to mainland China factories for construction and materials. In the years since, he has worked in Asia on “Man of Tai Chi” with Keanu Reeves, “Ultraviolet,” “The Warrior’s Way,” “Iron Man 3” and on several notable Chinese films. To supplement what he called lean times in American films, he also created fashion collections in Asia, including a highly successful one for Chinese online clothing retailer Vancl.
“They brought me in because I was Mr. Hollywood. They actually called me that and promoted me as person who worked with Hollywood movie stars,” he said. The strategy worked: A pair of Vancl jeans of his design sold 1.9 million pairs.
Serendipity has helped guide his career, which he discovered after moving to Los Angeles where his family had relocated. He worked odd jobs, including stints in construction, sewing in a sweat shop, building parade floats and walk-arounds for Disney and making specialty costumes for the Ice Capades. Jobs in costume shops connected him to a Costume Designer who needed sci-fi costumes for the lead actor.
“I took the job and went to the set to deliver the finished costumes,” Porro says. “She showed me around and I watched them shoot a scene—I was hooked. I asked her if she needed any help and the next thing I knew I was dressing hundreds of extras and loving every minute of it.”
Along the way, Porro refined his skills with classroom work at Parsons School of Design in New York for fashion illustration, life drawing and textile classes, and studied haute couture at the city’s Traphagen School of Fashion. At UCLA, he studied costume design and met industry legend Renié Conley, a founder and past president of the Costume Designers Guild who also won an Oscar for her work on “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor.
“She had done over 100 pictures for RKO and she had great stories. She taught me how to treat an actor, when to say ‘yes,’ and when to put your foot down,” he says. She also introduced him to Edith Head, who spent many afternoons mentoring Porro.
It was Head who also shaped his signature personal style. “She said, ‘Kid, you gotta have style. You have to have a look about you. You gotta look the role.’ So I have something crazy to wear every day. Today, I’m all in jewelry from Borneo and wearing an African mud cloth shirt I designed.”
Porro uses his factory and fabric sources to help make his memorable wardrobe. He’s long been familiar with the cutting table and the sewing machine. As he built his design career, he worked in costume workrooms, where he learned every aspect of costume construction and design.
“I’m one of the few designers in Hollywood who can tell the seamstresses exactly how to do that interfacing—where to put the seams and the topstitching. And if you’re doing it wrong, I’ll know it,” he says. That kind of knowledge provides both a shorthand and an X-ray vision into the process that helps speed production and anticipate hurdles.
For now, Porro is delighting in making his coven of “Salem” beauties the best-dressed witches on television.
“We’re making some amazing things—things you’ve never really seen done on TV—a dress out of human hair, and there is a crocodile cape in the works. That’s from my fashion and sci-fi background. I’m also making a stomacher out of sterling silver.
“I’ll do it in a way so that when you put it on our ‘Salem’ set, it works.”