Lights, Camera, Crazy Costume
Creating unique costumes puts designers to the test
By Valli Herman
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there are often a handful of costumes that require such demanding construction, such leaps of creativity and innovation that they belong to a special place in every costume designer’s portfolio. It’s that place of honor you could call “Crazy Costumeville.”
It’s where costume designers become the MacGyver of Clothing, able to dress anyone and anything for any situation.
“Anyone can make a suit,” said Salvador Perez, President of the Costume Designers Guild. Creating a blooming wedding dress or a lamp that’s actually a person or a sparkly dress for a martial arts match—it’s all in a day’s work for costume designers.
“There is a lot of learning on the job,” said Rita Ryack, who was tapped to bring the fanciful animation of Dr. Seuss to life in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.”
“I was taught, ‘Design what you want and figure out how to do it.’ So that’s what we do. There is going to be some soulmate who will figure it out with you. You really do have to find the people with whom you are simpatico aesthetically. Then you have to hold onto them,” Ryack said. “Then when they retire, I can’t stand it.”
The tribe of artisans required to execute many of these complex costumes often includes specialty costume designers, such as Kacy Treadway, who often works at Western Costume. Perez called on her to create a giant butt for a Halloween episode of “The Mindy Project” and she made another for “Raising Hope.” Ryack has collaborated with Michael Curry Design, whose studio in Portland, Ore., fabricates everything from puppets to parachutes. Often, the costumes are created by the in-house design team from a combination of wit and ingenuity that would make even MacGyver proud.
Here’s a sampling of a few memorable creations.
“When I was approached to design a costume for Humpty Dumpty, a character in ‘Puss in Boots,’ it surely had its challenges,” Mussenden wrote in an email. “In animation the costume is designed in conjunction with the character design. Together the character designer and I laid out our issues: eggs don’t have feet or hands, but he needed to move, so legs it would be…but if you have legs you must have arms, too. But since there is actually no anatomy to support that, I would cover the arms with sleeves and add gloves, because everyone knows eggs don’t have fingers! And then there was the question of a waist? Oh, and the neck area? Let’s just say, designing for an egg is much harder than designing for a cat.”
“One of the most difficult things was the hat in ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ That was a very, very fun show to design. The hat was really difficult because the director wanted to do it theatrically, but it had to do a lot of different things. So there were many hats. Some were tiny and some were big. Some had to get smaller, or taller or get bent over. Some had dials and knobs. One had a CD player in it. One had tennis balls and opened and tennis balls would come out.
“It’s scary because it’s such a famous hat,” she said.
Ryack had hundreds of costumes to make, and called on the skills of specialty costume fabricators across the country.
For “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Ryack indulged her fondness for using food in costumes.
“I wanted to dress the Who family like a Christmas picnic. I got carried away, I have to confess,” she said, explaining how she applied artificial cookies, built teacups for hats and tablecloths for clothes. There are even peppermint candies in the hair.
“It got me an Oscar nomination, so I can’t complain.”
“On the last season of ‘Wilfred,’ one of the scripts called for a man to be incognito, hiding in the wall at the back of the set. He was to walk away from the wall and into the scene. I did some investigating and once I gave the production the cost, they decided to write it out of the script, saying it just wasn’t an important enough gag to pay all that money.
“I really liked the idea so decided my team and I would create it ourselves. We dyed a sweatsuit grey and with the help of the paint department painted drips and bumps on it which matched the basement wall. We got some fabric that looked like wood and cut out the shape of a tall, standing lamp which the FOX tailor carefully sewed onto a grey sweatsuit with one leg Velcro-ed so the actor could break free and walk into the scene. We stuck a lampshade on his head so there was no makeup to contend with and it was done. My costume supervisor and I stayed on set the whole time they were shooting so we could hurry in to reset it after each take. The set costumer had enough to deal with just getting Wilfred in and out of his dog costume.”
“We had to have prom dresses that worked for one episode, and, of course I custom made two out of the four, which were used in the finale. But then they were used again for [the] opening of season six,” Line wrote in an email. In the episode, the actresses are left to wear them when they’re captured and left outside.
“Those dresses had to act as shelter for three days, protecting them against all of life’s exterior elements. I had to build three of each for that episode—and guess what? I had picked fabric that they had to ship in from Italy and New York because they ran out in L.A. I was also on a show with no budget! And of course, I picked the hardest-to-find fabric.”
Though the actresses and the dresses survived their ordeal, watching the process was hard on Line. “So you see the sad, heartbreaking end to all of my hard work!”
For the second season of “Playing House,” the comedy series on USA, Grundman made a clever commentary on today’s definition of “family.” In a scene set at a portrait studio, a group of three are dressed alike—the husband, wife and their dog.
“They all have matching argyle sweaters—even the dog,” said Grundman, who ordered matching adult-size argyle sweaters from the online site, woolovers.com. She cut down a sweater for the dog.
“I did get a chance to measure the dog. I have this amazing seamstress that does some things overnight. I made a T-shirt pattern onto the dog and she ran with it because she’s such a genius,” Grundman said.
Of course, even with his custom-made sweater, the dog still didn’t match his parents.
“The dog’s outfit didn’t look complete until I put a shirt collar underneath,” Grundman said.
“My seamstress had the most fun making this dog costume. She even had a neighbor with the same size dog,” Grundman said. “We laughed so hard.”
“On ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ one of the more challenging costumes was the silver sequin wrap dress we had to do for Agent May [Ming-Na Wen] last season. I had about an eight-day lead time to create a dress for her that she not only had to dance the tango in, but then had to wear for one of the more intense fight sequences of the show. In total we had to make five of those dresses in about six days for Ming and her two stunt doubles. We were finding sequins all over Culver studios for months afterwards! But the end result was great and we ended up with one of the coolest action sequences of the season!”
Though he’s known for making star and executive producer Mindy Kaling a fashion plate, a first-season Halloween episode showed that he could make plumbing into a costume, too. When Perez learned he was to make a urinal costume, he snapped a shot in the restroom and returned to the story meeting asking, “Is this what you want?”
“It had to be lightweight enough that he could actually wear it. Were we going to buy one and strap it on him? Then I thought we should make it a whole wall,” Perez said.
“We didn’t want it to be too slick. I went online to find a used urinal and it was $200 or $300,” said Perez. There was also the “ick” factor. Then I found a new one for $40. I took it to a special effects house and had it vacu-formed it for $500. Kacy Treadway made all the mechanics. It was so realistic it was crazy.”
For the same episode, he also designed a “Big Ass” costume—a giant buttocks, complete with oversized briefs. Yet the pricey costume never made it to camera.
Though Treadway’s got a nice repertoire in extreme body parts, she’s also created a dress with flowers that bloomed for “The Drew Carey Show.” For “The Millers,” she made broccoli hats and in a separate episode, dueling Jesus puppets. The plot? Neighbors get in a fight over their nativity scenes.
“It was bittersweet, though,” said Treadway. “After that, the show got cancelled.”