The Best TV Costumes From the Past Decade

6:00 AM 9/14/2017

by Whitney Friedlander

Costume designers from 'Scandal,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Game of Thrones' and more spill on the most memorable costume moments from their respective hit series.

Scandal_Girls_Bad_Split - Photofest - H 2017
Courtesy of Photofest; Ursula Coyote/AMC

The confluence of Peak TV and the influx of bloggers and social media users chronicling it in exhaustive detail has lead to an obsession with almost all aspects of the medium — with particular attention being paid to costumes, whether it's Olivia Pope's sleek white outerwear, or the The Mindy Project's arsenal of designer bags--and how we can mimic them in real life.

"The reason we fall in love [with a show] is the story and the people in the story," says Deborah Landis, a Hollywood costume designer, historian and the director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. "Costumes contribute so much to the creation of those people."

But what are the best TV show costumes of the past 10 or so years? And how did they come to exist? We asked Landis, as well as experts at The Paley Center for Media, The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and the Costume Designers Guild for their top picks. And then we tracked down their backstories.

  • Countess' Sharp-Edged Gloves on 'American Horror Story: Hotel'

    TV Show: American Horror Story: Hotel

    Years On: 2015 - 2016

    Costume Designer: Lou Eyrich

    Costume: The Countess' sharp-edged gloves

    Actress: Lady Gaga

    Vampires had been done to (ahem) death by the time this chapter of Brad Falchuk's and Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology took up residence on our screens and introduced Lady Gaga’s lethal and glamorous character The Countess.

    "Ryan wanted to come up with a different way that she kills her victims and gets their blood," besides the usual gimmick of fanged teeth, says Hotel costume designer Eyrich. Murphy’s first idea, that the character would wield a knife, eventually morphed into her wearing an elegant glove with the tiniest, sharpest fingernail. Eyrich hired Los Angeles based designer Michael Schmidt, a wardrobe go-to for Rihanna, Madonna, Fergie and more, to fashion a leather glove with 11,000 Swarovski crystals. The piece was inspired by a chainmail style created for fashion icon Daphne Guinness by jeweler Shaun Leane, a frequent collaborator with the late Alexander McQueen. Not only did Schmidt hand-sew the crystals, but he also hand-carved the adorning filigree, which included a eerie, silver skull at the top.

    Gaga’s casting was a first for the series, which has amassed a troupe of actors over the years — but no one of such wattage as the pop star. Eyrich says both she and Gaga were aware of what the singer’s reputation for avant-garde fashion choices off screen would mean for audience’s expectations.

    "She was conscious of it too and wanting to create a character and not be Gaga," Eyrich says. "She was full-throttle into her character."

  • Walter White's Pork Pie Hat on 'Breaking Bad'

    TV Show: Breaking Bad

    Years On: 2008 - 2013

    Costume Designer: Kathleen Detoro

    Costume: Walter White's pork pie hat

    Actor: Bryan Cranston

    The round, black cap that the world's most overqualified chemistry teacher wears when his nefarious Heisenberg personality takes over became synonymous with this AMC series. But its existence was born out of practicality. As costume designer Kathleen Detoro, who worked on the show’s early seasons, put it simply: "Bryan wanted a hat."

    She says the show’s outdoor filming locations in New Mexico were great for natural light and aesthetic, but the scorching heat was frying her lead's bald head. So series creator Vince Gilligan and his writers incorporated the hat in with where Walt’s storyline was going.

    But why this hat?

    "On Central Avenue in Albuquerque, [Vince] saw a pork pie hat and I went to take a look," Detoro recalls. "We tried about six different styles of hats. The deal was sealed. The Man's Hat Shop in Albuquerque copied the hat and we were able to incorporate need and function with character and the arc of the story, thus creating an iconic costume piece."

    Detoro still hasn’t unraveled the "mystery" behind how this costume — or others, like the yellow Hazmat suits that Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) wear while cooking meth — became so ingrained in the fan community around the show.

    "We, as costume designers, tell the stories through color, shape, and silhouette," she says. "And when we are allowed to, we create magic."

  • Rebecca Bunch's Everywoman Fashion on 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'

    TV Show: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

    Years On: 2015 - present

    Costume Designer: Melina Root

    Costumes: Rebecca Bunch’s everywoman fashion

    Actress: Rachel Bloom

    TV characters can interesting because they live fabulous lives, or just because they are relatable, and because they dress like the people watching them. Even though Rachel Bloom’s lead on this musical comedy is prone to breaking out in song or dance, she still looks like she’s actually working and living in West Covina, Calif.

    "It was dictated by the [character’s] job and her body type and the arc of her story," says costume designer Root, adding that it helped that the pilot of the CW series was originally shot for Showtime. "Most contemporary costuming, the goal is to be aspirational. You will hear that word at Disney and ABC and most of the networks want that. Showtime...was different," she says, noting the open mindedness to keeping it real. "And when we moved to CW, we kept that idea."

    Root adds that, since her lead is a lawyer with a "very loose sense of identity" (most of these songs take place in her mind), and "doesn’t really know how to express herself through her clothes," a lot of the looks are "haphazard." Even though the character has the funds to shop online for more expensive items, she’s still a product of her environment.

    "If you go to West Covina, there’s one mall and there’s no Banana Republic in it," Root says. "We try to remain true to that community."

  • Daenerys Targaryen's Ready-to-Fly Ensembles on 'Game of Thrones'

    TV Show: Game of Thrones

    Years On: 2011 - present

    Costume Designer: Michele Clapton

    Costumes: Daenerys Targaryen's cloak and pants combinations

    Actress: Emilia Clarke

    Thrones' Dragon Queen is always preparing for some flying — even during formal affairs. Designer Clapton tells The Hollywood Reporter that Daenerys always wears pants and boots under her gowns because "this style allows for freedom to run and ride, which is essential for this character in her present situation." Similarly, the tunic dress she’s fond of wearing while riding "is cut in such a way to also allow for freedom of movement. It is decorated with embroidery inspired by dragon scales. The shoulders of the dress have a hint of Targaryen about them and balance the silhouette."

    This infamous ensemble came out of a collaboration between Clapton and the show’s writers. She says she "designed the costume to fit in to the development of Dany's story." An example: The vibrant blues that Dany wore early in the series were inspired by her time with the nomadic Dothraki as, Clapton says, it  "was a precious color used by the them at a time of celebration."

  • Rachel Berry's Bright Cardigans on 'Glee'

    TV Show: Glee

    Years On: 2009 - 2015

    Costume Designer: Lou Eyrich

    Costumes: Rachel Berry's bright cardigans

    Actress: Lea Michele

    One way to serve a storyline that a student is obnoxious and doesn’t quite fit in at her high school? Put her in the loudest colors imaginable.

    "We first went in another direction for Rachel; this nerdy, goofy and mismatched," recalls costume designer Eyrich, who worked on the show’s early seasons. "It just felt a little too contrived and made for TV. We mostly went with this awkward skirts that were a little too short and sweaters just a little too bright mixed with a little Peter Pan collar. So it’s a little awkward school girl meets nerd, meets know-it-all."

    She adds that, because this character’s "personality was a bit grating, we tried to pump up her costume" to stress that she wasn’t jelling with the school’s popular cliques.

    "It was this 'look at me, look at me' [attitude] that she just wanted to be a star," Eyrich says, adding "she was this deeply insecure teenager where the outside doesn’t match the inside."

  • Blair Waldorf's Headbands on 'Gossip Girl'

    TV Show: Gossip Girl

    Years On: 2007 - 2012

    Costume Designer: Eric Daman

    Costumes: Blair Waldorf’s headbands

    Actress: Leighton Meester

    For a show that helped popularize everything from sequinned sweaters to patterned tights, it’s hard to choose just one important costuming choice. But Blair Waldrof’s headbands became as eponymous with rich girl prep as Cher Horowitz’s colored knee-highs from the movie Clueless had some 12 years prior. Costume designer Daman told Fashionista that he didn’t set out to make the accessories a thing. However, they became "part of the very meticulous finishing to her — she sits in the mirror and it's the last thing she does. It's like the icing on the cake; it's like her force field and almost this powerful element that she wears. It's like her Linus blanket."

    Elizabeth Reilly-Davila, the show’s hairstylist, told InStyle that the key to successful headband wearing is to place yours at least an inch back from the hairline.

  • Joan Holloway's Green Dresses on 'Mad Men'

    TV Show: Mad Men

    Years On: 2007 - 2015

    Costume Designers: John Dunn (pilot) and Janie Bryant (series)

    Costumes: Joan Holloway's green dresses

    Actress: Christina Hendricks

    Starting from John Dunn's creations for the pilot and continuing through the AMC series with the designs spearheaded by Janie Bryant, Mad Men was a sartorial sensation that generated countless stories, and even spawned a few retro fashion trends. But the idea behind Joan Holloway's green dresses was actually quite simple. Joan is a redhead and, as Bryant says, "redheads love to wear green."

    "I always thought that was one of Joan’s signature colors and she wore all shades of green [except chartreuse]," Bryant says.

    Another note about the character's costumes? They reminded us of a time when attractiveness was not a synonym for svelte. Bryant says that she and Christina Hendricks, who played Joan, would laugh and say that Joan bought all of her clothes two sizes too small for her on purpose, to show off her assets.

    "Joan is the iconic shape of femininity; she is that gorgeous, feminine hourglass that was in fashion during the 1950s like Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot," Bryant adds. "One of the themes of Joan, especially in her costumes, is she’s always stuck in time with that signature wiggle dress or the pencil skirt and the tight sweaters."

  • Mindy Lahiri's Designer Bags on 'The Mindy Project'

    TV Show: The Mindy Project

    Years On: 2012 - present

    Costume Designer: Salvador Perez

    Costumes: Mindy Lahiri's designer bags

    Actress: Mindy Kaling

    It shouldn't be a surprise that a character who wants her life to be like a romantic comedy would have the shopping habits that usually go with the movie genre. In fact, some of the best relationships The Mindy Project’s heroine has had on her show have been with her clothing and accessories.

    "She never re-wears an outfit, but she does reuse bags and shoes and jewelry," says series costume designer Salvador Perez. "I've been able to get lavish with her bags because we use them over several episodes and they're like family members."

    When choosing styles from Salvatore Ferragamo, Lanvin, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, Perez goes for shades that can work with monochromatic color palettes or pop, pairing "a pink dress with a yellow bag," for example.

    "I love playing with an arsenal of bags that we can match, coordinate or contrast," he says, adding that he knows his star's wardrobe habit is unrealistic, given her profession as a Manhattan OB/GYN. "We’ve spent over $3 million on this show in six seasons. I would say, easily, $2 million of that is Mindy."

    That said, Perez says guest stars and supporting players must have wardrobes on par with Mindy’s because "the world has to all be insane."

    "We're doing stunt shoes for [co-star] Ed Weeks because he’s running in the rain and they’re $400 Ferragamo tennis shoes," Perez says.

  • Olivia Pope's White Coats on 'Scandal'

    TV Show: Scandal

    Years On: 2012 - present

    Costume Designer: Lyn Paolo

    Costumes: Olivia Pope's white coats

    Actress: Kerry Washington

    From the moment new hire Quinn (Katie Lowes) breathlessly whispers "I wanna be a gladiator in a suit" during her blind date-turned-job interview in the first scene of the pilot, we expect our heroine to be someone both glamorous and genuine. As she began to plan the character’s looks for the series, costume designer Paolo says her image boards were covered with women in white. Some were even the same photographs that star, Kerry Washington, had pulled during her own research. And they particularly bonded over a white Tory Burch trench coat.

    "No one does this on television; they avoid white because [that color] takes longer to light," Paolo says now, adding that she had no idea the color would become such a hit with fans. "I didn’t expect people to be pulled to that. I think a lot of that is Shonda’s writing and the stunning Kerry Washington."

    She adds that the challenge is to "present Olivia as a trendsetter in fashion, but also remaining conservative; you want her in what’s new and amazing, but it’s also [a show] set in Washington, D.C."

    "I keep saying to Kerry and to Shonda that I really want to do a show that’s fashion-forward and wild and they just laugh at me," Paolo says. "We could go crazy with it."

  • Betty Suarez's "B" Necklace on 'Ugly Betty'

    Of course Betty Saurez, the unfashionable fish out of water who lands a sweet gig at a hoity-toity magazine, would want her own take on the gold "Carrie" necklace that costume designer Patricia Field immortalized on Sarah Jessica Parker’s lead on Sex and the City. And, luckily for Betty, Field was hired to create the wardrobe for her show’s pilot and returned to spearhead costume designs for the show’s third and fourth seasons.

    "It’s a throwback to Sex and the City, but I didn’t want to do a ‘Betty’ necklace; that’s Carrie’s," Field says of the character’s signature accessory, a giant gold "B" accentuated with hanging pearls. "When I saw this piece, I thought that’s kind of Betty. It’s sweet and maybe a little naïve. It would refer to the ‘Carrie’ necklace in a new and Betty way."

    It isn’t often that costume designers get to be self-referential. But Field says, in this case, it just made sense.

    "If it has a humorous idea around it, then I play with it," Field says. "I wouldn’t use a tutu on anybody."