How 'Divorce' Costume Designer Put Together Sarah Jessica Parker's Wardrobe
"We make decisions together, it is very collaborative," says Arjun Bhasin of working with the actress for the new HBO comedy.
Sarah Jessica Parker's long-awaited return to the small screen has kept entertainment and fashion fans alike on their toes. But don't expect to see Carrie Bradshaw 2.0. in HBO's Divorce. Parker's new dark comedy gives a realistic look at the life of a mother of two, Frances (Parker), dealing with a failing marriage, career challenges and complicated friendships.
Arjun Bhasin (whose work has included Life of Pi, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Begin Again) was tasked with creating the perfect wardrobe for the show's characters. "We tried to set up these women as three categorically different types of people and to show how their lives are different through the use of clothing," explained Bhasin. Below, the NYU alum talks about working with SJP, the inspiration behind the character's looks and the difference between creating costumes for film and TV.
Pret-a-Reporter: Did you have an inspiration from TV or film that you referenced when you started pulling things together for Frances?
Arjun Bhasin: We wanted the show to be nostalgic and to have a sense of the past, so we looked at a lot of films and photography to get inspiration. And what excited myself, Sarah Jessica and the other production members were the films from the late '70s. There was a sense of a working woman mentality in the '70s which I thought made sense for Frances. Sarah Jessica loved a film called An Unmarried Woman from the late '70s, which I had seen before and think is incredible because the costumes were designed by one of my favorite costume designers, Albert Wolsky. So we looked at those kinds of films and I brought in images from Kramer vs, Kramer, which was a divorce film from the '70s and a lot of Woody Allen — some Annie Hall images. We wanted to create sort of a dusty palette and we wanted to create a cinematic feel that has an old-world charm. I wanted there to be that sense that all of these people, but especially Frances, had a history, almost like they belong to a different time and era.
VINTAGE VIBE: Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances in Divorce. (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
Where do you source clothes from?
I go everywhere. I’m the craziest shopper because I sort of refused to go to any of the department stores for this, because I felt like those things felt very new and shiny and young. I go to vintage fairs and do a lot of work on ebay and Etsy. They have this amazing thing called Manhattan Vintage that happens a couple of times year that I am obsessed with and I go to flea markets like Brooklyn Flea. Even when we build costumes, we try to reference old clothes and make them and then distress them to look old, so they feel like they have been lived in and feel like they have a life of their own. Then I will pull things together and we will try them on and see which pieces feel like they actually belong to the character.
How involved is Sarah Jessica Parker in her character's wardrobe choices?
Since it is season one and we are really trying to find the character, she is super open to suggestions and will try on a hundred different things — she loves to play dress up. She tries on things and we say "Oh this doesn’t feel right for Frances" or "This doesn’t look amazing, but is there a reason she would want to look like this?" or "Why is she so underdressed?" And we make those decisions together, so it is really very collaborative.
What is the thought process behind the character's jewelry?
She doesn’t wear a ton of different jewelry pieces. We decided early on that she would have a couple of things and that was it. And that was a big decision from the beginning. We just didn’t want her to feel like the kind of person who was looking in the mirror every morning and making herself attractive for somebody else. I felt like she is the kind of person who puts on a bracelet, like an Aztec or Navajo turquoise, and sort of forgets about it. So we just left a bracelet on a wrist throughout a lot of the season. In a way we wanted to show that she wasn’t obsessed with the way she was dressing and that she had other stuff on her mind. I feel like that blue turquoise color is very Frances. She wears a turquoise dress in the pilot, and then the bracelet and a necklace. We kept recurring themes like that.
MINIMAL JEWELS: Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances in Divorce. (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
She also wears a coat pretty frequently.
I feel like there is a certain reality in New York City in the winter about a woman’s coat, which I think people tend to forget on film. But it is big deal, the coat. Your coat is symbol of who you are, but it is also about functionality and comfort and about the everyday drollness of getting up and going to work. And we wanted there to be a continuity to that coat, to see it again and again to make it that statement of, "It’s another day of her waking up, she’s putting on her coat and getting out the door." It’s not a chance for her to be someone else, you are just the person that you are. So we wanted those kind of ideas to keep going in the story. And the opaque tights she wears, which almost feels a little old fashioned but it's very her. I feel like it seems awkward when you see bare-legged girls in the winter in New York because it looks kind of forced and fake and we didn’t want that sense for her. She is very pragmatic and practical.
What is the biggest difference between creating a wardrobe for TV compared to film?
In film you get a script and you know what the end of the story is. You can create an arc in an interesting way to show the beginning, the middle and the end. But in TV you are kind of responding to every scene in the moment and you don’t really get to plan those kind of arcs. You have to be really honest in TV to the moment in which something is taking place. You can’t really foresee what the character is going to go through. So you have to approach it like, she wakes up in the morning and she feels a certain way and I am going to dress her for that feeling.
Diane (played by Molly Shannon) seems to be the really stylish character.
Diane has a lot of time on her hands and and we wanted to make it very clear that she has more money than Frances. She has money, she has time and like a lot of woman who have that kind of life, they put a lot of energy into shopping and dressing up and we wanted that kind of visual noise for her. It feels like she is constantly buying things and constantly changing and constantly wanting to draw attention to herself in a way that Frances doesn’t. Her clothes are a little more modern and we did do some designer shopping for her, but again there is a lot of older pieces. We pulled out some vintage Chanel and some vintage Hermes for her. And Molly is just amazing to watch because she is so wonderful.
THE CAST: Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker), left, Dallas (Talia Balsam) and Diane (Molly Shannon) on Divorce. (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
What's your favorite clothing item from the show so far?
Some of Sarah Jessica’s dresses, when I found them they were like size 16 and 20, but I loved the fabric and made it work. We cut them down and deconstructed the whole thing and that was just so phenomenal. And there is an umbrella dress that came from ebay and when she put it on, it was just amazing!
Can you think of something that both Frances and Carrie Bradshaw would wear?
No. There really isn’t something. I think they are so different as characters I can’t imagine that they would have a similar wardrobe piece unless it was some kind of beautiful classic piece like a simple pump. I think they are very different people and I hope people see that when the watch the show.
Divorce premieres Oct. 9 at 10 p.m. on HBO.