Well-designed office wear reveals subtle character clues
It doesn't matter if it's a tailored suit and Gucci loafers or a paper hat and a polyester smock, the clothes people wear on the job tend to be a uniform of some sort. So, for the TV costume designer laboring in a workplace setting, the challenge is to fashion outfits that stay within the confines of corporate conformity yet still communicate individual character quirks.
NBC's "30 Rock" costume designer Tom Broecker used clothing to help illustrate head-writer Liz Lemon's (Tina Fey) struggle to find herself and her role in the workplace over the course of the show's first season, as she moved back-and-forth between the writers' room and the office of her Zegna-suited boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin).
"At first, she's really trying to identify with the writers," Broecker says. "It's all about jeans with tops and blazers. There's also a very strong comfort factor with her because of the long work hours. But then she met a guy and started to investigate her own life, and we began loosening up her silhouette and her color palette that started off autumnal and dark, and she started wearing skirts, dresses and high heels."
Conversely, ABC's "Ugly Betty" Mode magazine creative director Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams) has been rigidly consistent, wearing stylish outfits that explore a different monochromatic color palette each episode.
"She'll either be in vanilla, gold or caramel, and she won't vary from it," the show's costume designer Eduardo Castro explains.
"Basically, the colors evoke power -- and they look good with her skin tones."
The clothes worn by employees of Dunder Mifflin Inc. Paper Company on NBC's "The Office" are more like those found in the typical workplace.
"The boss, Michael Scott (Steve Carell), has ties that I believe he thinks are power ties, but, to me, they are hideous," costume designer Carey Bennett says. "We get them at drug stores and places like that. Mostly, it's the girls I obsess about, because I try really hard to make them not appear outfit-y and to have little personal details that sort of spell out parts of their personalities. For instance, Angela (Angela Kinsey) is this sort of prudish, very regimented, follow-the-rules, pious kind of character, so we do a lot of high-necked prim-looking blouses on her with tons of little buttons that would be impossible to undo."
No matter how dull and drab a cast members looks, one can rest assured that dressing them took a whole lot more work than a few trips to Macy's and Men's Wearhouse.
"People ask me, 'What is there to do for costuming on 'The Office'?" Bennett says. "I take that as a great compliment, because it means they're not seeing all the work that goes into making them look sort of mundane."
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