Television costume design in its golden age

Insecure and I Hate Suzie lead a new era in fashion-forward TV. Sometimes, however, like Emily in Paris, the clothes can be a saving grace for a second-rate offering.

It is risky to use Sex and the City in 2020 as a fashion reference. Retro as it may seem, Carrie Bradshaw, who first appeared on our screens in 1998 wearing body-con dresses and Dior saddle bags, and Manolos, was a rare exception. Television characters were rarely, if ever so fashion-forward up until then.

We modeled The Rachel and loved The Fresh prince’s Air Jordans and found comfort in Angela Chase’s plaid. But, Jennifer MichalskiBray, the new costume designer for Netflix’s The Duchess, which stars Katherine Ryan. “Patricia Field was the costume designer on SATC. She set a new standard in creating fashion-forward TV programmes,” she said. Until Gossip Girl, which ended its eight-year-old-old-style socks, there wasn’t another show like it.”

Cut to now, and we are living in a golden age of TV costume design, spearheaded by shows such as Insecure and Killing Eve. You can call them fashion-forward characters, like the Telfar-toting Issa or the Dries Van Noten-loving Villanelle. Ryan is seen wearing Zandra Rhodes frocks with feather-trimmed Sleeper pajamas while Ryan runs on the school bus, while Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper), enjoys a wardrobe full of shearling and hair ribbons from Sky Atlantic’s captivating I hate Suzie. Even in period pieces, there is not just vibrancy (see: the mustard yellow skirt suits and teal nurses’ uniforms in Ryan Murphy’s Ratched) but style inspiration. The costumes worn by Letitia “Leti” Lewis in HBO’s Jim Crow-era horror Lovecraft Country – fringed frocks, cat-eye sunglasses and pedal-pushers – feel relevant to modern fashion, thanks to costume designer Dayna Pink’s melding of period silhouettes with modern fabrics and sensibilities.

Sex and the City’s costume designer Patricia Field is back in the fray with Emily in Paris, one of Netflix’s most talked-about shows. It premiered this week. Fashion with a capital F is the name of the character. She doesn’t mind putting on a million trends from Kangol bucket hats to Y-Project accordion bags. The wardrobe’s “basicness,” which has been described by the character, speaks to her pep. A 20-year-old marketing executive, she is visiting the continent to share her kitschy American perspective with her chic Parisienne colleagues. It also speaks to the Vogue-reading American girl who is in Paris following in the footsteps of Blair Waldorf and Carrie Bradshaw. So it’s no surprise that there are many examples of literal dressing that rival Bradshaw’s bardot necklines, Breton stripes and broderie-anglaise. These include an Alice + Olivia shirt with Le Tour Eifel, broderie anglaise and a biblioteque with berets, as well as a Mona Lisa-emblazoned tote. Vogue’s Lily Collins, actor, stated that Emily has the opportunity to dress up and go to Paris. She’s going to make use of it.

Image: Lily Collins in Emily in Paris

Grace Snell, I Hate Suzie’s Costume Designer, believes it’s not a coincidence that high fashion is big news on the small screen. “Probably the generation that spent our teenage years or twenties watching fashion-forward TV,” she said. Fashion-forward TV costumes are providing a window into fashion in 2020 for those who can’t make it to red carpets or fashion month street style. The Duchess gave fashion a high priority. Michalski-Bray has been styling Ryan onstage for seven years. “We wanted the characters’ clothes speak for themselves.”

This isn’t glamour for the sake of glamour. Pickles’ wardrobe in I Hate Suzie is filled with flame-print socks, Shrimps and stripy Jeremy Scott pants. But it is about character and clever optics more than aesthetics. The audience is given a glimpse into Pickles’ unravelling through her outfits. It’s a vehicle. It’s subliminally and subconsciously a way to show a character’s mental condition,” Snell says. Pickles’ adult clothes, which Pickles wore as a teenager on Britain’s Got Talent, are a sign of “Suzie”‘s lack of identity. Snell explains that Pickles has been given and styled clothes all her life. Michaela Coel hinted recently, in an interview with Who What Where at something similar being done using her kaleidoscopic costumes from I May Destroy You. “She’s constantly toying around with her image trying figure out who she really is,” she said.

Pink, who was a stylist for bands, dressed Marilyn Manson for many decades. Pink also put fashion and trends above all else when dressing Lovecraft County characters. “The responsibility is to tell a story…Where did [the characters] get it? What is the average time they have had it? It’s not possible for everyone to wear perfectly fitted, high-fashion clothes.

Costume design speaks to how audiences want to dress in recent years think Villanelle’s pink Molly Goddard dress. Outfits that are priced high on the high street often sell out quickly. For example, Fleabag’s halter neck jumpsuit for PS38 was sold numerous times. The ease of accessing “Shop Your TV” fashion sites online makes it easier to get wardrobes.

This new era in TV costume design transcends aesthetics, consumerism and the aspirational worlds of luxury fashion and characterisation. Insecure’s characters often make political or social statements through their clothes. This includes Issa’s Harriet Tubman jacket and Molly’s Tshirt with Trayvon Martin’s name embossed on it. In Lovecraft Country, Pink refers to outfits worn in photos taken during civil rights era by Gordon Parks, a black photographer. Also, Emmett Till’s outfit, a 14-year-old African American boy whose murder provides the background to an episode, is referenced. She says, “We made a fashion statement [and] we made a social statement with this show.”

Television has transformed from being cinema’s lowbrow sibling to a respected medium. However, this doesn’t mean that show creators have to work with larger budgets. Michalski-Bray says, “We had a very small budget because [The Duchess] is a sitcom.” Many of her costumes were purchased from vintage shops. Snell relied heavily on designers to lend her outfits as well as to shop secondhand for I Hate Suzie. Pickles’ wardrobe was almost half-secondhand and she always aims to use 60-75% of secondhand clothing in all her productions.

On a practical level though, you have more opportunities to create your costuming magic in TV than on film. Pink says that working with characters over a long period of time is more challenging than in film. Lovecraft Country was her first experience in TV. She says, “There is so much creative potential in television right now.” “It’s juicy.”

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