Working With Children
April 17, 2013
Costume Designers who work on children’s TV shows and films face a number of different challenges and obstacles. In the United States, the activities of child actors are regulated by the governing labor union and state and federal laws. California and New York have particularly strict labor laws for child performers—in California, for instance, work permits are regulated by age and overtime is illegal for child actors. A parent or guardian must be able to see and hear the child on set at all times and three hours of on-set schooling with a state-licensed studio teacher is required for children each day.
Costume Designers who work with children know these laws inside and out and, as a result of the additional time constraints, are hard-pressed to schedule fittings and wardrobe changes with these young performers, just as they are with adult actors. From infants and toddlers to tweens and teens, each age range brings a different set of circumstances, and these Costume Designers need to be able to work fast to get the job done.
Here, three very talented Costume Designers with years of experience in this area share the processes and challenges involved in designing for kids’ shows today.
Costume Designer Nicole Gorsuch has had years of experience working with children. In the 1990s, she worked on shows such as “It’s All Relative,” “The Geena Davis Show,” “Unhitched” and, most recently, the Disney Channel series “Good Luck Charlie.” Gorsuch, who works primarily with children, teens and tweens (ages 5-18), believes that the most important thing to monitor while designing for children is whether or not they are comfortable in what they have on. She is incredibly sensitive to giving them their privacy when they seem uncomfortable during fittings and changes. As Gorsuch says, “If I sense even the slightest bit of discomfort, I insist that they put on something else. It is most important to me that these kids feel good about what they are wearing.”
Gorsuch loves working with children as she feels she has greater freedom to put her creative side to the test, and embraces the opportunity to mix and match colors, styles and trends. She is also aware that fashion is ever-changing, especially when it comes to children’s clothing and trends. In order to make everyone happy—from the directors and producers to parents and young actors — Gorsuch is constantly on the lookout for new styles about which the actors can feel confident and excited. She finds herself shopping either online or at stores such as Target, Crew Cuts or Forever 21.
When it came time to design the costumes for the actors on Disney Channel’s “I’m in a Band,” Gorsuch enjoyed creating custom pieces for the children and the adults as she knew she would be unable to purchase the right pieces in stores. From custom studded leather pieces to embellished and studded rocker tees and lots of accessories, she wanted the look to be hip and a bit edgy, but with a youthful twist. Ironically, for Gorsuch, it was a bit trickier when having to design and source similar looks for the six-foot-three adult actors.
When working on the show “Good Luck Charlie,” which also airs on the Disney Channel, Gorsuch really wanted to have fun with the clothes. “Good Luck Charlie” is the brainchild of three fathers and veteran producers, who wanted to create a show that, through humor and life lessons, celebrates the family unit and shows what it means to be a family. The series features actors of all age ranges, from infant to adult, and spans a large period of time. With about two-and-a-half days to get approximately 40-60 outfits together, Gorsuch is always working to get ahead and shop ahead when she can.
“You never know, someone could walk in and everything could change,” says Gorsuch, who adds that she spends much of her time on shoot days checking on last minute costume changes, additions, and alterations.
One of the challenges of her job is finding the right clothing and colors so that the lead actors stand out against the backgrounds and amongst non-principal cast members. Gorsuch tries to find patterns that are more unexpected to maintain the youthful energy of the show. She also likes the challenge of outfitting the characters in a way that is realistic and inspirational to the show’s young viewers. As she describes, “I wanted to make the clothes something that young girls could aspire to—to make it creative so they can have fun with their own clothes, too.”
Always on the lookout for potential outfits for the show, Gorsuch shops at thrift stores, department stores, and wherever something special catches her eye. She also gravitates more toward pieces that most teens can realistically afford, opting to customize pieces with embellishments and adding accessories and little details to make them look expensive rather than going straight for designer labels in high end boutiques. “It’s how you put it all together,” she says.
NANCY BUTTS MARTIN
Nancy Butts Martin, Costume Designer on popular television shows such as “That’s So Raven,” “Corey in the House,” “A.N.T. Farm,” and “Austin and Ally,” is very familiar with working on children’s shows. Martin works mainly with actors ranging from pre-teen to early twenties, and says they are, for the most part, usually excited about their costume selection. With two young teenage children of her own (a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter), she finds that her motherly instinct comes into play often.
“I would never dress any child in something I would not put my own child in,” says Martin, who is currently working on the third season of “Austin & Ally,” a Disney Channel comedy.
The series centers on the relationship between two very different musicians: extroverted singer and instrumentalist Austin Moon, who is fun-loving and outgoing, and introverted and awkward songwriter Ally Dawson, who can sing but has an extreme case of stage fright.
Martin often creates boards so that the actors, parents, directors, and producers can see where she is going with a particular character or scene and to ensure that they are all on the same page with the direction for the overall look. With the two lead characters played by Ross Lynch (as Austin Moon) and Laura Marano (as Ally Dawson), Martin feels it is important to stay true to their age and each characters’ personality, selecting pieces that are “visually interesting and colorful with great textures and patterns.”
Martin also does her best to keep up on “what’s new and hot” by attending fashion shows to see what is ahead. She also shops in smaller boutiques rather than huge department and chain stores, to keep things original. Martin also loves to find pieces online because “it’s easier to locate specific sizes.”
As is the case with many projects, Martin is typically faced with a limited budget and employs her creativity while hunting for and embellishing garments. Oftentimes Martin will find a great item of clothing and customize it and change it up a bit so that the viewer finds herself asking, “I wonder where she got that.”
Preferring to work with children and teens, Martin enjoys the creative aspect of her work. One of her favorite recent projects was an episode she completed for the Disney Channel series “A.N.T. Farm.” One of the characters, named “Madame Goo-Goo,” had multiple wardrobe changes, including fabulous, intricate outfits. Every time Madame Goo-Goo would enter a scene, her wardrobe would change, reminding Martin of Lady GaGa and her continuous wardrobe shockers. As Martin describes, “the outfits were huge. We had a moving solar system on her head and Cantonese style costumes that we had to change out in little to no time, but it was a blast.”
JOYCE KIM LEE
Emmy-Award-Winning Costume Designer Joyce Kim Lee is no stranger to working with children, tight deadlines and fast costume changes. As the mother of young twins, Lee knows exactly what it takes to put together multiple looks on a daily basis. “Between the spills, naps and specific needs of each child, you learn to work quickly,” she says. At work, Lee is faced with all sorts of challenges—from scenes that call for exploding volcanoes that cover the actors in black goo to funny gags that require lots of multiples, she has to be ready for everything!
Lee discovered her love for costume design in college, after she walked in on a student-produced gallery exhibit at Boston University. Although it was not her major at the time, she was drawn to the many costumes and set design models that had been gathered from previous productions and decided that she wanted to learn more. After graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s of fine arts in costume design, Lee spent the next 15 years traveling and working with a number of theater, opera and dance companies. In 2007, she decided that she was through with the traveling company life and transitioned to the film and television world. Two years later, Lee landed the job as Costume Designer for Nickelodeon’s “The Fresh Beat Band,” a children’s television show about four best friends (Shout, Twist, Marina and Kiki), in a band who love to sing and dance. Although the actors are young adults, the show targets preschoolers.
Each of the four characters in “The Fresh Beat Band” possesses a very specific look with their own signature color scheme and logo. Although the signature costumes were inspired by fashion and music magazines, the signature colors helps to keep the look young and “pre-school friendly.” For the characters’ everyday clothes, Lee likes to stick to simple silhouettes selecting hooded sweatshirts, shorts, jeans, tees, shirts and dresses. For the themed scenes, which change per episode and on a weekly basis, Lee would have the costumes custom built in the signature color as oftentimes the costume houses do not have the exact color she needed for a particular character.
Some of these themes call for specific looks, such as “The Wizard of Song,” “Veloci-Rap-Star” and “Bollywood Beats,” Lee found much of her inspiration online as with her tight schedule and deadlines, it is oftentimes impossible to “…get out and do library research. “In the case of the ‘Veloci-Rap-Star’ the script called for a dinosaur rock band and I needed to figure out what that would look like,” she said jokingly. She went online and researched real dinosaurs and heavy metal bands from the 80s such as Def Leopard and Van Halen. She also found a fabric swatch with a reptilian print which, rather than trying to make dinosaur-shaped-legs, inspired her to create tights for the band, “which worked perfectly on one of the actors who is 6’7” with really long legs.”
In 2011 and 2012, Lee was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design/Styling for her work on “The Fresh Beat Band.” She won the Emmy in 2012.
Lee is currently hard at work on “The Haunted Hathaways,” a Nickelodeon sitcom that centers around a single mother named Michelle Hathaway and her two daughters Taylor and Frankie, (ages 12 and 8 respectively) who move to New Orleans and discover that their new house is already occupied by a dad named Ray Preston, and his two sons, Miles and Louie (ages 13 and 9 respectively)…who happen to be ghosts. The two families, who are literally from different worlds, attempt to live together without driving each other crazy.
With two to five days of prep-time, Lee does her best to pre-fit, take pictures and group the complete looks together. For the young actors on the show, Lee does most of her shopping at stores like Zara Kids and H&M, Target, the juniors department at all of the department stores as well as online. For Taylor, Lee selects printed tees, bright colors and patterns, with the goal of keeping the looks attainable and a bit aspirational. “The looks are very character driven,” says Lee. “Frankie’s look has a bit of an edge, not too girly- so I put her in denim vests over printed shirts, patterned leggings or jeans and calf-length Converse or low top sneakers with brass hardware. Her signature accessories include a scarf, thick black glasses, and a black leather bracelet. Miles’s look is a bit more “preppy” and I usually put him in a bow tie paired with a plaid shirt and cardigan sweater, hi-top tennis shoes and a colorful watch. Louie is more of a regular kid and for him I use lots of striped tees or hoodies and cargo shorts or pants.
“It is important to me that each person has their own look—not necessarily something that everyone would have in their closets, but unique in their own way,” says Lee.
With a handful of very successful children’s shows under her belt, Lee hopes to continue working with teens and tweens. It is not just about the creativity for Lee, it is also about the sweet innocence of youth. “I have been asked the funniest and sweetest questions by kids,” says Lee, referencing a child who once picked up a bra and asked, “Are those cups for your chest?” and another youngster who wondered aloud, “Where do you get all of these clothes? Do they come out of your paycheck?”