A Short History of Costume Design At the Emmy’s

While taking a look at the Costume Design & Supervision nominees for the Emmy Awards this year, I was stunned by how genuinely excellent costuming has been this past year. All twenty-two nominees across the four categories are incredible examples of how costume design is integral to creating the characters and worlds we love to escape into. There was nothing to not like, from the bright, bold, and energetic costumes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal to the subdued, stark surrealism of the Handmaids Tale. This also got me thinking, who were the costume design nominees for the first Emmy’s? Where they all as excellent as this year and who won? To find the answer, I visited the Television Academy’s list of all the Emmy nominees and winners of the last 72 years, scrolled down to the first awards in 1949, and found nothing. I thought ok, television was just getting started in the forties surly by 1950 it should be a category. Again I found nothing. So I went through each year until I found the very first-year Costume Design was a category of the awards.

At the 18th Primetime Emmy awards in 1966, the first two tv shows to be recognized for their costume design were nominated under the category, ‘Individual Achievements in Art Direction and Allied Crafts – Costume Design.’ The nominees were The Hollywood Palace on ABC with costume design by Ed Smith, and Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque: Second Edition on NBC with costume design by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie. Unlike today where most nominees are from scripted dramas or comedies, both The Hollywood Palace and The Wonderful World of Burlesque were variety shows. 

The Hollywood Palace, nominated for its second season, was an hour-long program hosted by a different celebrity every week. Each week the host and other guests would perform multiple musical numbers and sketches unique to that week. Needless to say, there was a lot for Smith to keep up with. For example, in episode 20, Smith had to design two large musical numbers. The first number was for host George Burns called History of the Dance, where he sings about several decades of dance trends. Each dancer was dressed to represent a different decade of dance in the song.

George Burns and ensemble perform History of Dance.

In the second number, Connie Stevens performs, Married I can always get. She is accompanied by an ensemble of bridesmaids and groomsmen dressed and ready for a wedding. Stevens wears a beautiful tea-length dress that takes her from a wedding guest reluctant to get married herself, to become the bride of her own wedding effortlessly. Another stand out from the season was episode 19, when the Harlem Globetrotters visited to play the Palace ‘Dribblers’, a team comprised of that night’s celebrity guests. For the match, Smith designed custom basketball uniforms for the home team and a chic jumpsuit for Connie Stevens as she played referee. These are just a fraction of examples from the 35 episodes season. With such a high volume and quality being delivered weekly, it’s easy to understand why Ed Smith was honored with a nomination. 

Connie Stevens and ensemble perform, Married I can always get.

Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque, nominated for its second edition, was also a verity show hosted by Danny Thomas with guest stars Jerry Lewis, Shirley Jones, and Lucille Ball. While the designs by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie are excellent in each sketch, it is the second skit, a parody of “White Cargo,” that really stands out. In this sketch, the costumes really do their job, letting you know exactly who each character is. Lewis and Thomas look the part of quintessential 19th-century English explorers while Ball is dressed to the nines as the “temptress.”

Lucille Ball, Danny Thoman and Jerry Lewis

Bob Mackie design for Lucille Ball

However, the night’s truly unique look was a ballet costume designed by Bob Mackie for Lucille Ball’s slapstick burlesque routine. As Ball hilariously stumbles through the performance, Mackie’s beautiful butterfly inspired costume provides the perfect foil to her actions. It is also essential to the performance, with the removal of the detachable wings are a huge part of the routine. Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie character-defining costumes that genuinely add to every performance earning them the nomination

With each of these shows equally matched in 1966, the Emmy for Individual Achievements in Art Direction and Allied Crafa – Costume Design wasn’t awarded to either nominee. I couldn’t find out why there wasn’t a winner only that it wasn’t uncommon. In the early years of the awards, occasionally, categories only had nominees no winners. While my question of who the first nominees were had been answered, I still didn’t know who the first winner was. Thankfully I didn’t need to go far to find the answer. The first Emmy from costume design was awarded in 1967 to Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie for their work on the 1966 TV movie adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass on NBC.

Right Ricardo Montalban as The White King & Nanette Fabray as The White Queen; Middle Judi Rolin as Alice; Left Robert Coote as The Red King & Agnes Moorehead as The Red Queen
Judi Rolin as Alice

The costumes designed by Agheyan and Mackie bring the fantastical world of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland to life, with an infusion of the mod style popular during the 60s. This mixture of current fashion was a departure from the usual Victorian-inspired designs reflective of when the books were first published. This creates a unique look for the movie and helps make distinctions between Wonderland and Alice’s world. Wonderland’s fantasy is evident in the design of red and white, kings, and queens. Their costumes are lavishly designed and over the top, bringing Wonderland’s whimsy to the screen as soon as they appear. In contrast, Alice’s simple mod-inspired look makes it apparent that she doesn’t belong in Wonderland. Since it’s never clear if Alice is dreaming, all the other characters are designed with a mix of mod and whimsical elements, creating the possibility that she imagining everything.

For the movie, the costumes were essential to telling the story and creating the world because the set design was minimal. This may be because it looks as if it was performed and shot in a theater. Aghayan and Mackie’s designs were genuinely worthy of the honor for bringing Lewis Carroll’s world alive in such a unique way. In addition to being the first winner of the costume design award, Alice Through the Looking Glass was the only program nominated for costume design in 1967.

Left Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty Right Judi Rolin as Alice
Red & White Kings and Queens Court Dress
Red & White Kings and Queens Court Dress

I didn’t expect costume design to appear as a category so late in Emmy’s history; however, it’s first nominees and the winner did not disappoint. The Hollywood Palace and Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque, this glitzy, celebrity-filled verity show created new unique designs every week, earning them the first nominations. To the fantastical skeptical of Alice Through the Looking Glass, that brought new life to the classic story. These designs by Ed Smith, Ray Agheyan, and Bob Mackie helped set the bar for excellence in costume design for television that every year designers surpass and set higher.

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Elizabeth Joy Glass grew up on the east coast in Pennsylvania surrounded by early American history. A childhood full of fantasy, sci-fi and historical media, inspired her to start sewing and cosplaying. After high school, Elizabeth decided to move across the country to study fashion and costume design at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. While in school she worked on several AFI thesis films in the costume department. Elizabeth ultimately graduated with a B.A. in Digital Cinema and decided to pursue a career in video production and screenwriting, but she still holds a love for costume design and its history.

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