'SNL' Costume Designer Reflects on 25 Years of Successes and Only One "Moderate Mishap"

In recalling some of the most complicated costumes in the show, Tom Broecker mentioned the Royal Wedding as well as recreating looks from 'Game of Thrones' and 'Black Panther' in just two and a half days.
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Tom Broecker

Upon deciding that the life of a doctor was not in his destiny, Indiana native Tom Broecker considered the world of dance before committing to costume design. After an exploratory hiatus in California he joined the creative team of Saturday Night Live as an assistant in the costume department in 1988 and worked his way up to designer by 1994, breaking in the middle to pursue higher education. As head of the department, Broecker is a key brain behind the weekly operation that includes three films, 11 sketches and a staggering 80-150 costumes per episode.

As the 44th season of SNL approaches its end,The Hollywood Reporter tracked down Broecker to learn about his early inspiration for storytelling and fashion, exactly what goes into each live show and his motivation to collaborate with writers and actors to create characters by way of a costume. 

Do you remember the first outfit or costume you saw that made you consider your relationship to clothes and the ways in which they aid self-expression?

My two brothers and I went to visit our dad one summer, I was probably 8, and I remember being around 14th Street and 7th Avenue in New York and realizing that people looked completely different there than they did in Indiana. It was that coupled with watching The Carol Burnett Show and The Cher Show, growing up on those two things and being aware [of people behind the scenes], "Oh my god, I don’t know this person [fashion designer] Bob Mackie, but he is making these people look amazing and giving them instant characters and sparkle and shine!’’ Then I put it aside because I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but it kept creeping back and finally by the time I was a sophomore in college I knew that the doctor thing was not going to work out. It just wasn’t so much what I wanted to do; the thought of being in a lab and watching the world through windows, I realized, was not in my cards.

What led to you joining the creative team at SNL?

I was an intern at the Juilliard School with one of my best friends Melina Root, we were both doing costume design and I left about a year and a half later to go to California and explore. When I was in California, SNL had just hired a new costume designer named Pam Peterson — this was in 1986 — Pam had gone to the Yale School of Drama and she hired my friend Melina. I [later] got a call from her saying that they were looking for another assistant and did I want to come back to New York? I was like, "Get me out of California now." Melina stayed a couple years at SNL and then went to Yale, I stayed for three years and then I went to Yale after my third season assisting on SNL. I had assisted a lot of designers who went to Yale and knew I wanted to go there but I wanted a lot of experience and practical application before I went back to school.

Is there a big moment this season with costumes that stand out to you? Any particularly tricky costumes?

One of my favorite moments from the whole show doesn’t even involve a very complicated costume at all. It was a "[Weekend] Update" piece that Cecily Strong did as Jeanine Pirro — she was so gung-ho and literally threw herself onto the floor and her shoe went flying across the air. Last season the most complicated thing we ever had to do in our entire lives was the Royal Wedding. That was crazy. Game of Thrones is always an interesting challenge for us. It’s complicated to do a big design show like that because they have 8-10 months to create their clothes and we have two and a half days to create those looks. Another crazy one was Black Panther. We’ve figured out some shortcuts like re-creating fabrics by printing on real fabric — we did that with Black Panther to get some of that embroidery. We’d scan the original images in the computer and then print it out on the fabric and then in certain places bead or 3D it. Those people who have those big epic shows have, like I said, months and months to do it and it’s hard to create one of a kind embroidery over a day.

Do you have a favorite all-time character on the show?

I feel like I haven’t created my most favorite character yet, because if I’ve already created my most favorite character then I shouldn’t be thinking about creating. I like to look forward as opposed to backward, so it’s about forward thinking and continuing to evolve as a designer. Every actor approaches a new character differently and hopefully we create a character we haven’t even thought of yet that could be better than any of the ones that have already been. I love working with this cast, they are so amazing. Creating characters for Kristen [Wiig] and Maya [Rudolph] and Amy [Poehler] and Tina [Fey] and Ana [Gasteyer] and Molly [Shannon] and Cheri Oteri — I know I’m only naming the girls, but I take great pride in the women who have been on the show. They are so epic. And this cast in particular, too, with Kate [McKinnon] and Aidy [Bryant] and Leslie [Jones] and Cecily [Strong], they all have such great individuality and what they do is so special. Helping them realize these characters is amazing.

How have you witnessed actors becoming their character with the aid of a costume?

Kate is a perfect example, since she tends to play a lot of boys. Watching her put on the Rudy Giuliani suit or the Jeff Sessions bald cap and how she starts to change her posture and they way she holds her hands and starts to change her face — it’s so incredible and the costume is there to help the person realize that. The costume is telling the story and then it’s up to the actor to take that and make it their own and to really claim it.

How do you collaborate with the writers to interpret political figures within the SNL context?

Well sometimes we are re-creating an exact moment and sometimes we are doing a more general thing, so we let the words and the action and the external people make the decision as to the comments about that particular [thing.] I look at it more as a reflection; they’re playing real people so we’re trying to get them as close to the real people as they can be. We do this thing a lot now — we call it a side-by-side — because we realized that on Sundays when press would show the real person and then our version next to each other. During dress rehearsals we do our own side-by-sides between the subject we’re trying to copy and the actor doing it so that we can compare, make sure the wig is right and the costume is in the right place. If it’s a guy, the thing with ties is that we end up having to make a lot of our own ties or recreate the ties because not every guy goes out and buys a new tie every week. The tie that Chuck Schumer’s wearing might be three years old — looking for a tie that’s three years old is hard, so we end up having to recreate a lot of ties and patterns.

Under the pressure of live taping, have you faced any wardrobe malfunctions or serious disasters?

In the whole time I’ve been there, there has only been one moderate mishap. We try to be professional and never let that happen. Occasionally the tie doesn’t get all the way up or the Velcro’s a little off or the pocket square got pushed down. There was a live Mother’s Day show and Ana Gasteyer was in a little slip dress and she was getting ready to go on, her dress had three layers and it was a commercial and they had two and a half minutes to get her into the dress. The layers kept changing, so they put the dress on and it was the wrong layer; it was inside out. Then they turned it out and it was wrong again — to make a long story short, she ended up going out in the lining of the dress and the rest of the dress hanging behind her. But that’s the only thing in the entire time I’ve been there that there’s been a wardrobe mishap. Knock on wood.

What are the unexpected challenges and unexpected rewards of your job?

The challenges of the job are that you want to create the original characters and give everybody what they want, and to make sure you’re serving the actor and the show and giving the script its due process. The time constraints sometimes make that a challenge. Something that’s happening across the board is that the smaller stores in New York that made the city more interesting — the small boutiques — have slowly gone the way of online shopping. The process of online shopping has become greater, but the problem is we have such a fast turnaround that we can’t get a lot of stuff that we need. We’ve started developing a lot of relationships with Etsy and Ebay shoppers for times when we need something urgently by Thursday morning. That’s actually changed the job in the last couple of years, the intense amount of online shopping that’s had to happen.

How has your experience on SNL changed over the years?

We do three films and 11 sketches each episode [this translates to 80-150 costumes], so we have a film unit overseen by Jill Bream — the films are put together pretty quickly on Friday morning or afternoon, then the live show is put together Thursday and Friday. My team has grown; Eric Justian is my co-designer now and the show has gotten so big that we all need as much help as we can get. We have a great team, three assistants/shoppers, and we all do [a bit of] everything. 

Have any onset costumes become Halloween costumes or taken on a life outside the NBC halls?

Definitely! For a while in the very beginning, it was things like Church Lady, and cheerleaders and Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher, and David S. Pumpkins was a big Halloween costume a couple years ago.

What drives you to create characters through costuming?

I love being a costume designer because it combines everything into one job — you have to know fashion, psychology, anthropology and sociology and art, and you have to know color theories and what’s going on with the script; how you can reinforce or interpret or help the tell the story by way of a costume. Working with such amazing actors and talent is really what’s inspiring: working with an actor and the text and helping them to create [a character] through collaboration.