Just as Mad Men did in 2007, Starz’s new series Magic City immerses audiences in vintage styles, kicking off in the late ‘50s in its first season this year.
But City (starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Danny Huston and Kelly Lynch) is set in the sun-soaked, hot n' spicy Latin-flavored pleasure palaces of Miami Beach, not the concrete jungle of New York City.
And instead of Brooks Brothers besuited Madison Avenue execs and secretaries, City focuses on tanned bikinied babes, highly paid escorts, exotic lounge singers, dicey nightclub entertainers, crooked politicians, Miami’s old monied crowd, Cuban revolutionaries, the CIA and, oh yeah, the mob.
Viewers only have to watch costume designer Carol Ramsey's 2012 Emmy episode selection to see the major differences between Miami and Manhattan in that turbulant era.
Think skin and plenty of it.
"Episode three ("Castles Made of Sand") was our biggest, most challenging episode with so many vintage and made costumes,” Ramsey explains of her Emmy submitted episode. She hopes Emmy voters will pay attention to the thirty synchronized swimmers in matching period swimsuits with multi-colored bathing caps and an international beauty pageant with thirty contestants wearing gold, silver, aqua, and pink lame bathing suits.
As if that’s not enough Emmy eye candy, there’s also a scene with the beauty queens in vintage floral shifts and hot pink Capri pants, doing the twist on the bar, and later being pawed by creepy politicians flown in for the big event.
“I based the governors’ suits on photos from a 1958 Life magazine of a big governor’s conference in Miami at the Americana Hotel,” says Ramsey, also known for her work on films including Meet the Fockers, Horrible Bosses, Surviving Picasso, and King of New York.
Ramsey was inspired by Dean Martin's open collars for Ben Diamond's (Huston) slightly sleazy tropical suits, and he's often seen in nothing more than a bathrobe. She even dressed him in authentic guayaberas -- Cuban short-sleeved cotton shirts -- because of his ongoing business dealings with nightclubs and casinos in Havana.
She admits that the biggest challenge for the period show set in tropical 1950s Miami is finding vintage swimsuits.
“Because they’re bathing suits, they’ve been in salt, chlorine and sun and sand. So many of them are just disintegrating,” Ramsey explains. “The bra cups are crumbling, the elastic is all stretched out, and the colors are faded. We have to figure out ways to bring them back to life. We had to make a lot of suits towards the end of the series, because we were running out of decent vintage ones.”.
After she put Lily, (Jessica Marais) the hot young third wife of mobster Ben Diamond, in a skimpy white bikini, some on the set were surprised.
“They said, ‘Oh, in the late '50s, they didn’t have bikinis.’ But there were bikinis in Miami back then. The American version covered the belly button. But the bad girl bikinis, the ones worn on the European Riviera or by Playboy bunnies were much smaller, almost like string bikinis.”
Backing up her claim, she references a research photo of a Playboy bunny walking on the beach at Miami's FontainebleauHotel in 1959, causing quite the ruckus among onlookers, in a very tiny bikini.
Ramsey, who works out of an office at Western Costume in North Hollywood during City pre-production, relies heavily on their 1950s costumes. And she's always conscious of being true to the times.
“If you’re not solidly in period, the audience gets uneasy,” Ramsey says. “They may not be able to say, 'That dress or that shoe is wrong,' but it still will create a sense of unease. That’s why staying true to period is so crucial.”
Having to make -- or build -- costumes as they say in the biz means a much higher wardrobe department budget. Magic City's was an estimated $1 million for the first season and very often the episodes had hundreds of extras to dress as well as the principal actors.