Spotlight On: Catherine Adair
By Valli Herman
With her sleek blond bob, neatly tailored attire and precise British accent, Costume Designer Catherine Adair presents a tidy picture of propriety. It’s easy to imagine her completely at ease dressing kings and queens, but Adair is equally adept with aliens and athletes, or cops and cowboys, but especially housewives.
Adair became a household name during the eight-season, 142-episode run of “Desperate Housewives,” where the spot-on costumes of the sexy, scheming women of Wisteria Lane helped turn them into international fashion trendsetters. For four years running, her work on “Desperate Housewives” was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Costumes for a Series.
Adair’s work has consistently won recognition from peers and the industry at large. Between 2005 and 2007, her work on the series earned three Costume Designers Guild Awards nominations for Outstanding Contemporary Television Series. She has been variously honored for her work by Women’s Wear Daily, Giorgio Armani, the Platinum Guild of America and US magazine, which named her TV Costume Designer of the Year.
It’s impossible to link her to a particular style or genre. She’s worked in theater, ballet, television and film, creating characters for comedy (“Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”), for horror (“Eye See You” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and science fiction, with four of the five “Alien Nation” television movies. Adair also worked with Oprah Winfrey on the acclaimed TV movie, “Before Women Had Wings.”
Adair, who is currently vice president of the Costume Designers Guild, balances her advocacy role with a busy schedule. She recently designed the television series “Rake,” and the pilots for “Hatfields & McCoys,” “Hallelujah,” “The Burning Zone” and “Crescent City.” Always hard at work with projects, Adair recently sent her son, Alexander, off to college, while working the crazy hours on “Bosch,” a new TV series to stream on Amazon in 2015 that’s based on the books by Michael Connelly. Yet little compares to the intensity of “Desperate Housewives.”
Working with virtually the same crew throughout the run of “Desperate Housewives,” Adair pulled off an astonishing number of original costumes for the high-profile cast that included Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria. Series creator Marc Cherry frequently included flashbacks in the episodes, requiring additional costume changes, with Adair creating between nine and 12 changes for each of the season’s 23 episodes.
“The biggest challenge on the show was that Marc would come up with great ideas that he wanted in 15 minutes or less,” Adair recalled. She had costume departments and seamstresses and tailors on call to create other original looks in hours.
“We got emails from people all over the world,” Adair said. “They were trying to deconstruct the origins and wanted to buy the look,” yet some of the most compelling designs were Adair’s own. Even still, the show had the power to instantly sell out a look–especially Juicy Couture tracksuits.
Though “Desperate Housewives” changed her life and career, she’s also grateful that she wasn’t typecast as someone stuck in suburban America. “I was very honored that they didn’t think I could only do one thing,” she said.
Kenneth Johnson, the writer/director of the five “Alien Nation” television movies, hired Adair to create costumes for four of the science fiction films.
“She brought an extraordinary sense of style and creativity and outside the box clever thinking that was also totally organic to the work we were doing,” Johnson said.
Though Johnson credits her with a facile imagination, he also recognizes her attention to the smallest details.
“She has very, very specific ideas and she is not afraid to let anyone know,” he said, recalling how she took command on the set where he was executive producer, writer and director.
“We were shooting downtown and the street was kind of empty. I said I’d volunteer to be a homeless guy sitting on a sidewalk. I had this ordinary blue windbreaker on. Then I suddenly hear this British voice saying, ‘Stop! Cut! Stop! Who is over there in that blue jacket? That is not in my palette!’ Even when she saw that it was me, she stopped the show,” Johnson said. “But she was absolutely right. I love people who work with that kind of detail and also have the bravery to say, ‘I don’t care if he is the director.’ It made me love her all the more.”
Adair also keeps a wicked sense of humor well hidden behind her proper exterior. “She decided that I should make an appearance as Ed Wood while I was directing,” said Johnson. “She actually got me into a sheath skirt, pearls, heels, a flaming pink angora sweater and a bra to die for. We filmed it for a party scene with a huge cast.”
A woman of many talents and surprises, Adair is fluent in French, holds U.K. and U.S. passports, and has worked internationally in Vancouver, Rome, Nice and Monte Carlo. A Los Angeles resident since the 1990s, she earned a degree in set and costume design, specializing in costumes, at Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
“They taught us everything, from pattern cutting on up. We had to understand how the costume was built, how it made an actor move, how politics and lifestyle would influence the look,” she said. “They really drummed into you that it was about storytelling and how storytelling changed throughout time.”
She also learned in the classroom, stage and set that consistency and authenticity are essential to crafting a compelling, believable character–especially during the many seasons of “Desperate Housewives,” when the actors were sometimes desperate to wear anything but their character’s trademark twin set, T-shirts or frilly vintage finds.
“I always start with what was on the page, looking at who the person is, how they live,” she said.
Adair shares that approach on her blog, Fash365.com, which offers daily fashion inspiration, so that women can be the star of her own life story.
As she explains on her blog, dressing for the screen and real life aren’t that different.
“As a film and television costume designer, I’m challenged daily to find the right outfit for the right situation. My job is to dress characters in ways that reveal who they are to the audience and where they are in the story, all the while making sure the clothing fits their bodies and flatters their figures,” she writes. “I need to consider a character’s personality, physical assets, and the situation they’re in. And where these three converge, the outfit — perfect for the character and perfect for the scene — is found. What I do in Hollywood directly translates to how real women in the real world should also approach dressing for the ever-changing circumstances of their daily lives. Not just those occasional “major” dress-up moments.”
On the blog, she also shares sound advice in her list of Cate’s Golden Rules, including No. 1: “As the saying goes, ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.’ Remember, you’re telling a story. Your story. Wears clothes that reveal who you are.”
She follows her own fashion advice.
“One of my mantras is when we find that place where we begin to inhabit our clothes, rather than simply wear them— that’s the beginning of discovering our personal style,” she said. “So I guess my personal style is being comfortable in my skin. And my clothes are my skin.” And, evidently, they’re also her soul.