From 'The Crown' to 'Black-ish': Costume Designers Dissect How They Curate the Perfect Looks

8:30 AM 8/7/2018

by Katie Campione

The wardrobe wizards for series such as NBC's 'This Is Us' and FX's 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' talk discovering unexpected pieces and finding meaning through the "small details."

'The Crown'
'The Crown'
Alex Bailey/Netflix
  • Paolo Nieddu

    'Empire' (Fox)

    Chuck Hodes/FOX

    Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) are always dressed to the nines on Empire. So how does Nieddu — nominated for the fourth time for the Fox drama — continue to put new spins on black tie? By finding pieces in the most unexpected places. “I had been walking through the Garment District in New York and passed by this rather inexpensive prom/evening gown shop and saw this dress in the window,” he says of the dress that would become Cookie’s look for the Captain’s Ball in the episode “Slave to Memory.” “They had racks of them in different colors, and it was this cool, deco crystalled design on the dress.”

    Nieddu paired a blue version of the dress with fine jewelry from Jacob & Co., a white fur capelet and a Judith Leiber bag that looked like a wad of $100 bills. With the addition of Lucious’ emerald green suit jacket, the pair shined like jewels. “Cookie and Lucious just kind of come into this room like Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] and do this elaborate tango,” he says. “It was a cool old Hollywood homage mixed with their gangsterness.”

    The dress, however, barely survived the tango. Nieddu says that between cutting the train to make the dance easier and the snagging of cheap sequins, “by the end, we were on the third dress and it was practically falling apart.”

  • Jane Petrie

    'The Crown' (Netflix)

    Alex Bailey/Netflix

    Based on the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), The Crown uses real events and outfits to inspire much of its costume design. However, first-time Emmy nominee Petrie must find a balance between staying true to history and telling a story with the clothes that each character wears, as was the case with the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode.

    “The dress the queen wore is accurate, but the dress that Jackie [Kennedy] wore isn’t because I thought I could enhance what we were trying to say by changing it slightly,” she explains. During their visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kennedys are met with fascination from most of the royal partygoers and insecurity from the queen. While Elizabeth wears a typical blue chiffon gown, Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) opts for a strapless blue silk dress.

    “We worked really hard on telling the story of the outside world in forward propulsion, and then the palace being so stuck,” Petrie says of the costume choices in the episode, from Jackie’s lack of sleeves to the style of the background actors.

    Kennedy’s dress presented an additional, unexpected challenge when they were filming in central London. “When we got to set with that dress, I suddenly realized I hadn’t given her a cape or a top layer to wear with it for when she arrived at the palace.”

    Petrie drove 45 minutes from the set to buy more fabric and sew the cape herself. “You’re not going to stand there and go, ‘Oh, I wish I’d made a cape but there isn’t time. We’ll have to go without.’ You would never do that on The Crown because the material’s too good. It’s far too good.”

  • Hala Bahmet

    'This Is Us' (NBC)

    Ron Batzdorff/NBC; Courtesy of NBC

    For the This Is Us episode “The Wedding,” Bahmet made her way through 10 different sketches and two physical versions of Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) wedding dress before she felt confident that the beaded lace version that made it onto the screen perfectly told the story. “I wanted everything to be sort of natural and organic and not too stiff, to coordinate with the setting [of the family’s cabin],” she says.

    Bahmet — who has one previous Emmy nomination, for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — had to create two custom wedding dresses for this episode because Kate has a dream that her parents are renewing their vows, which required Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to wear a wedding dress as well. Because the show jumps decades in each episode the costumes are another tool used to tie the storylines together.

    “I think that fans who pay attention to the costuming might notice that there are sort of throughlines between different characters as we go through time and look at different decades,” Bahmet says. “There’s always sort of a connecting line that you can see in the costumes if you’re really paying attention.”

    The lace, the belled sleeves, the dreamlike quality — all these details form a link between the bride and her mother. Smaller details — such as a tie bar that Kevin (Justin Hartley) wears in the real wedding and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) wears in the dream sequence — link the cast even more to their characters’ past, present and future.

    “We do even more small details that are harder to see, but the actors feel it,” Bahmet says, adding, “All of us know it, and it infuses all of us with even more meaning as we’re doing the show.”

  • Michelle Cole

    'Black-ish' (ABC)

    Kelsey McNeal/ABC; Courtesy of ABC

    Though it’s set in the present, Black-ish took its characters on a trip back to June 19, 1865, for the episode “Juneteenth,” when Dre (Anthony Anderson) decides to learn more about the history of the day that slaves were liberated in the U.S. The episode alternates between Dre discussing Juneteenth with his white co-workers and a stage production about Juneteenth, featuring a gospel choir and several musical numbers.

    “I thought it was going to be socially aware, culturally aware, it was going to be something big,” says Cole, who scored her fifth Emmy nomination for her work on the episode (the others were for the 1990s variety show In Living Color). “I felt really proud to be on something really big like this.”

    Being nominated for this episode is important to Cole because she remembers watching her father, a history teacher, picket for black history to be taught in schools. It was a powerful experience to dress the cast in slave garments, especially the red bodice and striped skirt worn by Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). The addition of the gospel choir made the episode a “spiritual journey” for Cole.

    “The visuals that would come into my mind whenever I would watch this is like the journey that we’ve all had to come on,” she says. “The music, the set, the clothes just came together, and I think we were all just so proud of it.”

  • Lou Eyrich

    'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' (FX)

    Jeff Daly/FX

    Eyrich has been collaborating with Ryan Murphy for decades, since his early Glee days — from Jane Lynch’s iconic tracksuit look on that show to Lily Rabe’s demonic nun getup on American Horror Story: Asylum. And now, Eyrich has her eighth Emmy nomination (she’s won two twice) for her work re-creating the designs of a fashion empire on The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which chronicles the weeks leading to the 1997 murder of the iconic designer.

    “We scoured the internet for weeks and weeks,” Eyrich says of her early research. Despite a tight budget, her crew built the looks using a combination of vintage Versace and custom-made pieces. However, her favorite look from the nominated episode, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue,” is not based on an outfit that Versace wore or designed at all.

    “Ryan Murphy, who is very hands-on with costumes, said that he would love it if we could make some kind of a pink and gold robe,” she says of the wrap that Versace (Edgar Ramirez) dons at the beginning of the episode. “So, a tailor custom made it. When we came to shoot the scene at the casa in Miami, we had him in the black T-shirt and white shorts that he eventually gets [killed] in, and Ryan called me and said, ‘Do you have that pink robe?’ ”

    Perhaps the robe was meant to add some color to an otherwise bleak day. Or maybe Murphy just likes pink.

    “I do not know why pink,” Eyrich admits. “That’s just something that Ryan came up with, and I always follow his instincts. They’re always spot-on.” 

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.