Pros on 'House of Cards,' 'Grace and Frankie,' 'Russian Doll' and more break down the trends on each coast and how they dress characters authentically as city dwellers in New York, L.A. and D.C.
Do New Yorkers really wear head-to-toe black? Are all Angelenos bohemian? Is Washington, D.C., really just about the power suit? Costume designers for top series set in D.C., Manhattan and SoCal try to nail the local style beyond the outrageous stereotypes — though that's not to say that Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) in Russian Doll doesn't lean toward black or that Grace and Frankie's Frankie (Lily Tomlin) doesn't love her California caftans.
"That's one of the first things I ask when I get to do a show or a pilot — I'm like, 'Where is it set?' " says Allyson Fanger of Netflix's Grace and Frankie. "It informs the way that people express, in color and mood."
Costume designer Hala Bahmet agrees, saying she takes the location, geography and climate into consideration with every costume, whether it's in Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh or New Jersey for NBC's This Is Us. "When it's missing or when it's wrong, you notice," she says of regional looks.
Costume pros for Vida, Insecure, Broad City, This Is Us, Russian Doll, Veep, House of Cards and Grace and Frankie break down the trends on each coast and how they dress authentically for city dwellers in New York, L.A. and D.C.
The San Diego setting of Netflix's Grace and Frankie manifests itself most blatantly in Grace's (Jane Fonda) beach cashmere looks, says Allyson Fanger. She buys most of the coastal costumes in Santa Monica or Malibu — Grace's sweaters have been from California-based label Margaret O'Leary since the pilot episode. In later seasons, Grace starts getting playful with printed shirts, custom-made by Fanger using archival Carolina Herrera fabrics.
For Sol (Sam Waterston), Fanger goes to a store called Malibu Lifestyles for linen and drawstring pants: "I literally cannot find those anywhere in L.A. unless I go to the beach." This spring, she was visiting Palm Springs and spotted a shirt for Sol, so she bought 10. "They're like my children," she explains. "I think about them all the time."
To fit Frankie's (Lily Tomlin) bohemian lifestyle, Fanger dresses her in California caftans and Danish-inspired outfits she mainly finds in the San Fernando Valley. "Everything Frankie wears now is something she 'made' herself or that she found on a travel," Fanger says. "She's so California because she's so free-spirited and artistic." Fanger was inspired by artists like Judy Chicago and Agnès Varda to create a realistic aesthetic, enlisting indie designers or brands from Instagram, such as Shrimpton Couture, Rice and Beans Vintage, and Marcy Tilton, who makes dresses in her garage with rust as dye. Fanger also checks out vintage fairs in L.A. like A Current Affair. "I find great treasures there," she adds.
Hala Bahmet also took into account the more carefree style of the Golden State when dressing Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan's characters, Kate and Toby, on NBC's This Is Us. "This is a great example of the contrast between the L.A.-based people in the family versus the East Coast siblings," she says of Toby's blue chinos and Kate's colorful, floral dresses, often made by purchasing two dresses online and cutting up the second to use as "pizazz" — ruffles or embellishments at the waist or neckline.
For HBO's Insecure, Ayanna James wanted to showcase the areas of Los Angeles not normally seen onscreen. Issa Rae's comedy is set in South L.A., so James — the costume designer for seasons one, two and part of three — featured local and black designers to mimic the offerings at places where character Issa Dee would have shopped, like the Crenshaw Mall or Leimert Park.
"When shows are based in L.A., we're always talking about Hollywood or Melrose Place or Echo Park. Very rarely do we get to see the inner workings of South L.A., of Crenshaw, of Inglewood," says James, who pulled from places like L.A. thrift store Jet Rag, L.A. boutique Collection (for vintage Levi's) and L.A. brand 69 U.S. "So just being in alignment with the storytelling and the importance of it to Issa, I wanted to supplement that with the costumes."
Having lived in L.A. for 10 years, James sees "a totally different vibe, particularly within black culture" between NYC and L.A. One Insecure character demanding particular authenticity is Blood gang member Thug Yoda (Tristen J. Winger); James "had to abide by a specific street code" with requirements about the colors and shoes he wore and how he wears his belts.
Likewise, Starz's Vida authentically depicts streetwear for the Latinx community in L.A. by using various hoop earrings to distinguish different levels of cultural pride. Costume designer Hannah Jacobs says hoops are symbolic of "reclaiming your culture and reclaiming your identity," so the type of hoop a character wears demonstrates "to what degree you're showcasing it and to what degree you're proud of it."
Other clothing choices also convey culture. For example, Emma (Mishel Prada) opts for a French-influenced outfit with cigarette pants and striped tops — something "specifically not Latina … She's fought against her roots and has rejected this part of her." But those roots peek through with her small hoops, as opposed to the ones that young activist Mari (Chelsea Rendon) wears, which are large bamboo "classic" hoops.
Emma's more bohemian sister, Lyn (Melissa Barrera), illustrates California couture by being "forever Coachella-ready" with crochet tops and paisley wraps from Revolve and Free People. Jacobs adds: "There is this play dress-up world for her, this romance, and her not ready to really grow up — playing with a fantasy world."
Having background actors from New York made it easier to use shorthand when building the authentic city style in Netflix's Russian Doll. "We did give notes along the lines of 'Dress for a Bushwick loft party opening, PS1 MoMA event' with very specific New York art scene references," says designer Jennifer Rogien of the hip, red-tinted aesthetic of Nadia's (Natasha Lyonne) birthday party.
Since Rogien lives in New York, she was able to absorb the look of the city on a daily basis to envision the wardrobe of Nadia, who dies and relives the same day over and over. "She's a New York woman. She's not in a car. She isn't a fashion chaser," Rogien says. "She lives on the Lower East Side. She's lived there forever. She's sort of a real New York character — throwback cool."
What helped Russian Doll nail the street style was the fact that much of the series was actually filmed outdoors in New York, in April, so Nadia needed a coat. "We first went after puffy coats. Something Natasha wears, something that I wear, it's something insanely practical for shooting in New York at night. And it just didn't land in our fitting. It was too soft. It was too collapsible. And that's when the tailored coats came in and that shoulder structure immediately started to give us Nadia," Rogien says of Nadia's Helmut Lang coat (other pieces include Gap jeans and "rock 'n' roll" boots from Modern Vice, made in New York's garment district).
"There's a little bit of a nod to the 'New Yorkers wear black' thing, which I have not found to be true all the time, but it's not not true," Rogien says with a laugh. "From what I have observed, New York women are all about the coats and handbags and shoes." But she made a specific choice to have Nadia not carry a handbag. Everything she needs she could put in her pockets — even down to the lighter key chain on her belt loop.
Hala Bahmet describes the Big Apple's style as "slick city" when Kevin (Justin Hartley) moves there on NBC's This Is Us. Yet costumer Staci Greenbaum, who costumes Comedy Central's Broad City, noticed a gritty characteristic of the New York fashion scene, especially when it came to the show's character Ilana (Ilana Glazer).
"Her style to me maybe would encapsulate New York more. It felt grittier and more thrifted," Greenbaum says of scouring Beacon's Closet, The Vintage Twin and L Train Vintage stores, along with eBay and Etsy, for vintage goods. She mixed in items from Topshop, Zara and H&M for "extra sparkle and bang," often with Dr. Martens and Converse for Ilana. Greenbaum looked toward people in Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg — "and then pairing that with a little more androgyny," she says, "which I find here a lot."
Ilana even wears a "New York" tee to reflect how "Ilana really romanticizes the city. This is her home." Abbi's (Abbi Jacobson) look, on the other hand, was based on New Yorkers who were "aspirational, like what she would picture on a vision board." Greenbaum says the vibe is a more "pragmatic" Carrie Bradshaw, or "utilitarian, which a lot of New Yorkers do. You're in a lot of public places, you ride the subway, it's dirty." Described as a "Madewell girl," Abbi lands on a uniform of skinny jeans, combat boots, graphic tees, army jackets and beanies.
Greenbaum's best New York moment for Broad City was shopping at Gothic Renaissance to find Ilana's Matrix costume for the February 2019 episode "Bitcoin & the Missing Girl." "I happened to find this really unbelievable PVC or patent leather corset, and that's what we built the whole costume off of. It was just like one of those things where it was like, 'Only in New York would this kind of S&M black patent leather corset exist.' "
Costume designers for House of Cards and Veep agree that Washington, D.C., is only beginning to embrace fashion, trailing more chic cities like New York and L.A.
But for Cards' Kemal Harris and Veep's Kathleen Felix-Hager, the job wasn't to mimic the current trends of everyday political staffers in D.C., but to envision the bold wardrobes of their respective leading ladies — President Claire Underwood on Netflix's drama (which ended after its sixth season) and VP Selina Meyer on the HBO comedy (which ended after its seventh).
"With the proximity of Washington, D.C., to New York City, you'd think that they'd be part and parcel, but I had a glamorized version in my mind of what the West Wing style was like," Harris says. "But when I really did start to research it, I realized that the U.S. government runs like a large corporation and everyone had their corporate daywear."
Felix-Hager noticed a lot of Banana Republic and Ann Taylor; Harris points to Theory and Brooks Brothers. New Yorkers are investment shoppers, Angelenos tend to be trend-driven, and D.C. is the most practical, she says.
"I had to figure out how we'd make Claire stand out from that crowd," Harris says.
When she joined in season three, Harris went to a luncheon to chat up female D.C. professionals about what they wear and where they shop. "They definitely were wanting more fashion in their lives," Harris says. One big "hurdle" was being on their feet for 10 hours a day and still being taken seriously as women in politics.
When Robin Wright's Claire became president, Harris instituted her everyday suit — typically a navy jacket with a Mao collar, over a skirt, belted. "It's a little bit militaristic. That one became our formula for an everyday piece," Harris adds. It's formfitting yet modest in coverage, because Claire would utilize her body to command attention. "There's something so powerful about covering up the feminine form, but still showing the feminine form," Harris says. "Something that Claire would use to undermine and overtake some of her colleagues."
A powerful presence was also a goal for Felix-Hager. "I really wanted her to stand out. I wanted her to be the first thing you looked at," she says of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina. The resulting color palette was a lot of primary colors by more than a dozen top designers, such as Victoria Beckham, Oscar de la Renta and Gucci.
Though she thinks the Capitol is about five years behind what's happening in fashion, Felix-Hager acknowledges that "D.C. is really trying." She points to younger staffers and lobbyists who are imbuing the place with a new sense of style. Washington men, for example, are testing out more colorful ties, an aesthetic that carries over to Tony Hale's character, Gary, onscreen. Adds Felix-Hager: "Fashion is becoming a more important tool when people in Washington realize that [clothing] can affect how people view you or help you to stand out in the crowd."
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.