For the ’90s period costumes of the upcoming Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, veteran costume designer Lyn Paolo first looked to her previous work on the mega-hit series ER and The West Wing for inspiration. “I work out of Warner Bros. [costume department], and between Friends and ER, they had quite a few pieces in stock. I also sourced things from Brooklyn to Chicago and found a lot of real period pieces,” says the two-time Emmy Award-winning designer (Homefront).
Based on the 1997 best-selling book by author Celeste Ng, the eight-episode series Little Fires Everywhere tells the tale of two families at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in the pristine Shaker Heights enclave of Cleveland. Type-A perfectionist supermom Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and her family of four children and bohemian artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and daughter Pearl provide a study in both class and costume contrast in the Midwest.
On dressing the two powerhouse actresses (both serve as executive producers of the series), Paolo notes, “There was a definite switch that had to be made in my creative brain as we are in Shaker Heights. So I had to make that adjustment in the clothing as my crazy fashionista elements have to be reined in a bit, and I needed to be true not only to the period but the place where we are telling the story.”
Paolo’s research resulted in vintage period references such as Pretty Woman’s iconic polka dot dress worn by Julia Roberts: “Polka dots became a thing when the film came out, so I had Reese wearing a navy-blue polka dot dress in an homage to that image. I also looked to Dawson’s Creek and a lot of cultural shows that were really known for their fashion and teenage lines at the time.” And in a moment of recycling, she dressed Washington’s character in a cardigan Julianna Margulies wore almost three decades ago.
The designer also drew on memories of brands that she favored from the period. “I reached out to all these brands, and went into their archives to see what they were producing at the time,” says Paolo. Popular fashion collections — Dooney & Bourke, Steve Madden, Lacoste and Ralph Lauren, to name a few — sent the designer their ’90s collections, many of which had never left the company’s headquarters.
Paolo notes the costumes juxtapose the “Midwestern preppiness of Elena versus the art world of Mia.” For Elena’s wardrobe of a ’90s Real Housewife of Shaker Heights, the designer clad her in sheath dresses and matching coats, shirtdresses and double-breasted jackets. “Reese is so amazingly eclectic in all these roles she plays, but Elena is not like anything she had done before,” details Paolo. “We did a lot of red, white and blue, which we thought was interesting as Ralph Lauren was doing so much Americana and incorporating the style into his looks. We went with what was ultimately preppy and stuck with color palette.”
The series reunited Paolo with one of her favorite creations, Washington as Scandal’s Olivia Pope. Gone is the power dressing and closets filled with Dolce & Gabbana, Prada bags and signature white trench coat, as Washington’s Mia Warren is a total departure. Portraying a carefree artist who has lived in her car with her daughter, Washington was dressed by Paolo in “darker tones that were more black, gray and earthy and well-traveled looks like the Village in New York. Mia is a mixture of old and new in her clothing, and she shops at thrift stores. We wanted to reflect their travels around the country, so we layered a lot of concert t-shirts. There was a conscious effort to keep Mia in jeans and keep her bohemian.”
And what about those ’90s mom jeans on the show? “We are wondering what the audience will think as jeans have changed so dramatically, and our jeans are so skinny today,” notes Paolo. “They were not flattering back then and so oversized, baggy and high at the waist with these full legs. Our eyes have grown accustomed to newer style jeans, and while we thought they looked great back then, it was a very different look and a different silhouette. Kerry Washington was exceptionally brave!”
Reflecting more on the ’90s, the designer details, “It’s fascinating to look back at a time when I was working in this industry 20 years ago. We all came to the table with these tiny nuggets of memories on what we remembered of the time — some would say Birkenstocks, another The Gap and another, chokers. Everyone had their own point of view about the period.”