February 19, 2016
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a clown suit is simultaneously silly and scary. Less universally appreciated is the difficulty of dressing men sympathetically as women.
In the new FX series, “Baskets,” Zach Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, a French clowning college flunk-out who lands a job as a rodeo clown in Bakersfield, Calif. He manages to look out of place wearing his fancy black and white Harlequin-esque clown suit–which is the point.
Created by comedian Louis C.K., “Portlandia” writer Jonathan Krisel and Galifianakis, “Baskets” also takes the extraordinary step of casting comedian Louie Anderson as Chip’s mother, Mrs. Baskets. He looks completely natural.
Portland-based Costume Designer Amanda Needham shot the “Baskets” pilot last spring, and continued when the series was picked up by the FX network. Dressing Anderson sensitively as a woman was important for social and personal reasons.
Anderson based his character on his own mother, copying her fondness for colors and fashionable accessories. “The first time we talked, he sent me pictures of his mom and told me the kind of perfume she wore,” Needham said. “Sometimes in the show, he talks and goes into a low whisper. That is something that his mom did, too.”
Though the show is a comedy, it’s a dark, droll comedy that required special handling. As Needham discussed the character’s look with the actor and director, all realized Mrs. Baskets needed to be an especially convincing portrayal: “Let’s not put a muumuu and lipstick on him and call it a day,” Needham said. Nor did they make the character look like a man in drag or give him the exaggerated padding of John Travolta playing Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”
Needham said she also felt a responsibility to be respectful to the transgender community and men who choose to wear women’s clothing. “More and more people are coming out and choosing this as a lifestyle and it’s our responsibility, and a huge part of our sensibility, to show it well,” she said.
However, it’s not every day that a costume designer has to find fashionable size 7X or 8X clothes–fast and on a budget. She manufactured a few pieces, but relied on Myles Ahead, an online Florida retailer and manufacturer that stocks dressy women’s clothes up to size 10X.
“I spent hours on the phone coming up with custom designs for this character,” Needham said. “A lot of the character was based off his mom. His mom wore fashionable clothes and a lot of matching prints and pieces,” she said. “He was really into pleats and matching jackets, so I worked a lot with Myles Ahead. He wanted to feel really elegant. He never wanted to feel like a man in clothes,” she said.
Anderson wore a blond wig, colorful, chunky necklaces and the occasional hat. The remaining challenge? Shoes.
“Louie is a size 13 men’s, a 15 women’s,” Needham said. She sourced flats and more from the Canadian website Long Tall Sally. “Louie wears Crocs for comfort. Even though we had all these shoes that worked – flats and heels – at the last second, we decided that Crocs fit his character better.”
Needham found that sourcing for off-the-rack clothes was a challenge, but in some ways, easier than anticipated. More shoe styles are unisex and the Internet allows manufacturers to reach niche markets. And plus-size women are demanding more fashionable clothes—a boon to costume designers.
Said Needham: “Without the larger ladies in America, we’d be doomed.”
Baskets airs on the FX network Thursdays at 10 p.m.