Strong is the New Sexy

August 2018
By Alexandra Welker

A sea change is happening in Hollywood’s depiction of women. It may be slow, but it is steady and gaining momentum. For years, women both in front of and behind the camera have been marginalized, stereotyped, and underrepresented, but 2017 marked a turning point. While the numbers are still dispiriting—just 24% of protagonists in the 100 top grossing films were women—the three top US films of the year had female leads, and movies helmed by female directors pulled in an impressive $1.2 billion at the global box office. In television, women’s roles remained mostly stagnant, although streaming services had the highest number of programs with major female characters and a higher percentage of women as show creators (47% and 26%, respectively). The global movements of #MeToo and Time’s Up, in shining a light on the on-going biases, harassment, and barriers to advancement in Hollywood and other industries, have empowered women and their stories, bringing them into the public eye.

Although there is still a long way to go in addressing representation and pay disparity based on gender, it is exciting and encouraging to see female-centric projects offering complicated, compelling and multilayered characters who happen to be women. As Costume Designers, our work is to visually tell the story of our characters, encapsulated in the clothing that they wear. The Costume Designer had the chance to speak with four of our members about their experiences creating indelible portraits of powerful women on screen, sexy in their complexity.

Judy Gellman
American Woman/Paramount Network

In this series, Alicia Silverstone stars as Bonnie, a Beverly Hills housewife who throws out her cheating husband and proceeds to try to put a life together for herself … in 1975, when Women’s Lib was nascent and women relied on their husbands for almost everything. For Gellman, it is a dream job, recreating the period while showing the process of a woman becoming strong and self confident, “having fears and crashing through them to get to the other side, as we all do.” Bonnie and her friends all experience this, says Gellman, finding ways, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. “And really, it’s kind of sad that in 1975 all of that was going on and it’s still going on now, but it’s important to make these things visual and have people see them to realize how important it is for women when they do get to accomplish these things.”

In the pilot episode, there’s a defining, liberating moment when Bonnie makes an party entrance in a stunning dress. Gellman says, “I was really fortunate to find it—15 pounds of bugle beads, and form-fitting and very different from what she was wearing earlier. It’s kind of her diving board, if you want to call it that. It was enormously powerful.”

Gellman’s biggest challenges were tracking down vintage pieces and/or creating them, for both cast and a staggering amount of extras, on a tight TV schedule. She reached out to vendors, private collectors, and costume houses to track down the pieces she needed, often in 48 hours or less. She also had to educate her cast about vintage sizing, fabrics, and fit, as well as important accessories. She made all the female leads wear pantyhose, which horrified them, prompting cries of, “Nobody’s going to see it, it’s TV!” To which Gellman responded, “Building a period character is from the inside out, not the outside in.” She adds, “I just want to create that character for them. Because when they walk out there and believe that they are that character, then the clothes just support them.”

Beth Morgan
GLOW/Netflix

The series, with a diverse ensemble cast, follows a group of aspiring performers who find themselves involved in an all-female fake wrestling show. It was inspired by an actual TV series which ran from 1986 to 1989, a time when women had made some strides in asserting themselves in the world, but were still not being taken seriously in many situations, especially professional ones. These characters take a project conceived by men and gradually gain a measure of creative control and expression. The period-correct skimpy leotards are both exploitive and empowering. Morgan, talking about her characters’ clothing choices as they struggle with how they want to be perceived, asks, “Are we empowering young girls? Are we having young men gawk at us? What’s the power in both of those?”

Morgan’s cast embraced their custom built vintage wrestling costumes. “People come out in a new leotard, and the other actors clap! They’re wearing all these leotards, and half the time they don’t wear bras, and we have all different body types, and we’re not afraid of cellulite, especially in the ‘80s, when fast food was really taking over. These are really what women looked like, and there’s no reason to make them look like TV women. They are all so supportive and happy, and nobody feels self-conscious. That’s how everybody should feel, every day! I think that really translates on screen to our audience that these women are all here for each other, and feel strong and powerful, in the tiniest leotard with their legs hanging out, and it’s all these different types of women showcased.”

For Morgan, GLOW was an incredible experience, working on a show about women that is produced and created by women. “There’s something about the open collaboration that happens on GLOW that’s why I believe that creatively it’s been my best work, and I really feel that it’s because I’m in this space, in this loving, supportive environment. I think that’s why audiences respond to GLOW. Industry people respond to GLOW because it’s a bunch of people trusted to do their best work.”

Dolores Ybarra
CLAWS/TNT

The Florida comedy noir, CLAWS, also celebrates a diverse group of women who band together in a supportive sisterhood—a group of manicurists who enter the world of organized crime, pursuing the American Dream in their own, decidedly off-beat way. Ybarra says it’s been “a great ride” tackling the challenge of dressing interesting characters who express themselves in such different ways. Niecy Nash plays Desna, the sexy, brassy salon owner and “mama” of the group. Ybarra says that she “basically works her fabulous body structure,” and has made fitted jumpsuits a staple of Desna’s and the audience has responded. Polly (Carrie Preston) is a former jailbird who dresses like a preppy prom queen, while Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes) enlivens her masculine looks with retro kicks. “She’s probably not going to spend much as her character, but she’s got a shoe collection!” Ybarra laughs. Virginia (Karrueche Tran) is a ex-stripper who’s “always showing her body,” says Ybarra, who dresses her as a kind of millennial club kid in shiny patent leather, hot pants and flashy boots. “She let’s me go there!” says Ybarra, who adds “the actors, they’ve really got to love their costumes—my plan is always to listen to what they like, and what they don’t, and I just take it from there.” In talking about the way women wear clothing and makeup as armor, for strength, Ybarra comments, “I think what it is, is positive. It’s a confidence of knowing that first of all you feel good, and you stand out – whether it’s a dress, pants or your accessories, you’re feeling ‘this looks amazing on me, I love it.’” Ybarra confides that she spends time tracking down just the right pieces for her characters’ indelible looks. “I like to make sure that I have what I need from head to toe. I’m searching for that certain purse or bracelet, because I think it makes it all come together. It’s those little pieces that make the outfits important sometimes.”

Sarah Edwards
Ocean’s Eight/Warner Brothers

Ocean’s 8 was shooting as the #MeToo movement exploded, and Edwards describes how wonderful it is for the film to be appreciated “in that light. It’s really being embraced by everyone for these strong female characters, and the fact that it’s an all-female cast.” Coming into the project with a very short prep, Edwards zeroed in on who each of her characters was in order to give each a strong identity visually. She worked closely with her director and actors to gain their takes on their characters, did lots of photographic research, distilled it all down, and then developed mood boards which they followed closely. Silhouette was an important part of her process. For Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the mastermind and sister of the Danny Ocean character from the Oceans movies, Edwards pulled a little bit from his look, and kept her simple, streamlined, and sleek. Cate Blanchett, as a rock and roll night club owner with an interesting past, wore costumes inspired by iconic people in the music industry. “I had a fantastic picture of Keith Richards in a 3-piece suit when he was very young, and we loved that suit and thought, why don’t we just make these suits?” Edwards looked at pictures of Bob Marley from the 70s for Rhianna, playing a Caribbean computer hacker, and dressed her in a combination of Army, Navy, and vintage finds. “Each one of them has her own backstory that I tried really hard to bring out in the way they were dressed.” For example, they chose a special Zodiac necklace that Debbie wears throughout, which Bullock pushed hard to get into the story as a piece with special meaning to her character.

Edwards notes that the women start strong and stay strong in Ocean’s 8. “You really get a sense of how each one of them is integral to the operation, and all of their strengths and abilities come out throughout the heist. What I do love about their costumes is that they are all individuals. None of them is dressed in a way that is a kind of trendy, of-the-moment thing. They really are their own people. They are not followers, any of these women.”


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