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Rhinestone Suits and Country Glamour: Designing the Costumes for George & Tammy 

If there is a space in costume and fashion that I have yet to understand, it would be country glamour. That was until I watched the new American drama television miniseries created by Abe Sylvia and directed by John Hillcoat, George & Tammy. This series features the incredible talents of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, who play country music legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones. To say I was enthralled by the powerful performances and music is an understatement. But most of all, I fell in love with the costumes designed by costume designer Mitchell Travers. If there was ever a question of if country glamour can be stylish, Travers put all doubts to bed with this rhinestone tour de force.

But to first understand the nature of the costume design for this miniseries, I first wanted to understand what inspires Travers and his mindset going into this project. Leading up to this project, Mitchell Travers has designed costumes for a really diverse portfolio of projects from Rosaline, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (also starring Jessica Chastain), In The Heights, and Hustlers.

This is what inspires me, going into uncharted territory and figuring out new worlds or new periods. I don’t like to revisit work. Once I’ve done something and I really understand it, I like to do the opposite!

I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to get work that’s as varied as I have over time. But I’m also kind of selective. I really like to push myself and read enough of a script until I know it’s the one I’m going to do. I get really excited when a script comes my way that offers me something brand new.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
George & Tammy - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
Photo Credit: Dana Hawley, Courtesy of Showtime

Speaking of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, George & Tammy marks Travers’s second project with Jessica Chastain. I asked Travers about that collaboration and how it may have prepared him for this new project.

You get a familiarity when you work with people a few times. She (Jessica Chastain) and I work really well together. I feel like I create in a similar way that she does. It’s a really nice partnership. We come across little blips of information or we’ll be having a fitting for a scene that’s coming up and then accidentally find the finale dress! We love to bounce ideas back and forth. I’m always asking her, well, how do you want to feel in this scene?

She’ll give me a couple of words like powerful, vulnerable, whatever the feeling that she’s going to bring to the scene. Sometimes she’ll be incredibly specific, like, “I just really think it’s important that I have a headband here,” and I’ll have to dissect what that means and why.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
George & Tammy - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette – Photo Credit: Dana Hawley, Courtesy of Showtime

Getting into George & Tammy, I was fascinated by the research and references the entire series collected as they dived into this one-of-a-kind love story. Starting with country legend, George Jones. Let’s all just admit it now, George Jones had style. Combined with the acting talents of Michael Shannon and the costuming power of Mitchell Travers, George Jones really came to life!

It was really surprising to me that George isn’t a more notable figure in the fashion world. I’ve seen collections and style references inspired by Elvis and Johnny Cash everywhere! I was just really surprised as I got into this that George wasn’t on the mood boards. He has every right to be. George loved clothes. He loved spending money on clothes, getting dressed, and coordination. He really understood the power of appearance as a musician and was not shy. He was one of the men popularizing the Nudie Suit in the late sixties and early seventies. George was absolutely comfortable in rhinestones, jewelry, and pinky rings. He really had a fantastic closet.

Michael came to the project with a tremendous amount of research. He was ready! There was a moment when we put rhinestones on him for the first time… his eyes lit up a little bit. There’s nothing like wearing a rhinestone suit, right? It’s hard to be upset by it. That first glimpse in the mirror really landed.

The suits were actually made by a man who was an intern at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in Nashville. He remembered George coming in for his suits and told me great stories about what it was like. There’s a very famous story where he came in and looked through the fabric books and ordered 30 of the same suit. It really helped me understand who this man was. He loved clothes, so it was really important that the audience gets the idea that this is a man who has fun when he gets dressed.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
George & Tammy - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
Michael Shannon as George Jones – Photo Credit: Dana Hawley, Courtesy of Showtime

Speaking of the Nudie suit! In this series, there is a scene where George and Tammy make it over to Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. As a true costume nerd, I basically screamed and cheered through this entire scene, despite it only being seconds long. How did this all come to be? Of course, Mitchell Travers loved costuming this scene as much as I loved watching it!

I mean, we got our hands on everything that we could that’s not behind glass in a museum someplace. A lot of it is in private collections. It was kind of a challenge to assemble that much clothing that would be correct for that space. There’s a lot of love for Nudie and George Jones, so once the word got out that we were trying to put this together, there were private collectors who have never lent their pieces out that would loan them to us for this sequence. I’m a costume nerd, so I was beyond excited. I was telling the grips that there’s never been this much nudity together in one room before.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume

Nudie Cohn showcasing classic Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors – Courtesy of nudiesrodeotailor.com

As I became acquainted with Tammy Wynette, it became clear that she also was a true fashion icon of her time. I was instantly mesmerized by her bright colors on stage and minimalist silhouettes off stage. Travers explained that balance between the celebrity we knew and the private person we didn’t, and how the use of color really helped Jessica Chastain find the character.

It was fun finding the balance between celebrity and being a mother. The balance between her real life and the persona of Tammy Wynette that was created over time was fascinating.

In one of our earliest conversations that Jess and I had about Tammy Wynette, we both locked into this idea of blonde and yellow. That was the door that led me to a lot of the discoveries for this character. There’s a certain electricity between that blonde and that yellow that really suits Tammy. The optimism, the cheerfulness, the sunshine! There’s also something really country about that. That felt right for us. We played with metallics in the early part of her career. 

Then once she’s a little more established and trying to get her audience back, we tapped back into the metallics to try to get into that early fandom again. Then we get into the soft drapes, Grecian goddess seventies. I give so much credit to the country aesthetic of the late sixties, early seventies, and even the mid-seventies. It was so stylish. Country gets a bad rap sometimes. The more you dig into it, you’ll think, “this is gorgeous!” There is this whole lane that you get to play with… hats, boots, belts, jewelry, fringe, suede, and rhinestones! I loved it.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
George & Tammy - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
Photo Credit: Dana Hawley, Courtesy of Showtime

Now that these two characters were established, it was time to turn up the glam! In episode three, “We’re Gonna Hold On” George and Tammy head over to Las Vegas for a major performance at the Landmark Hotel & Casino. With this performance happening at a time and place where Elvis reigned king, it was obvious to Tammy that there needed to be some elevation in the stage looks to which George was not happy. I talked with Mitchell Travers about the Las Vegas scene and the costume that came along with it.

The show at the Landmark is a major event in both of their careers. For a country duo to be headlining in Las Vegas at the time. They were some of the biggest stars of the day. They were in Vegas when Elvis was in Vegas. For me, it was really important from a storytelling perspective to portray this feeling that they were outsiders.

They both have this feeling of imposter syndrome. They’re not playing the hometown crowd. It’s a whole different energy, and it’s important that the audience gets the sense that they’re trying to deliver what they think audiences want of George and Tammy in this new super glamorous space. These were people who had no problem performing in a small venue with no mics. They were real musicians in that way. All of a sudden, they’re being asked to deliver a spectacle. This is the biggest struggle for George because he’s being dressed in a way that doesn’t quite feel like George Jones. The world is pulling him and you see where he’s trying to push back, and it’s this really cool conflict that you get to express through clothes.  Tammy’s trying to get it right and find that balance. There’s a lot that hinges on these two costumes. 

The red dress started as a jumpsuit when we first were getting into it. We were going for that Elvis, seventies disco, rock and roll thing. I had this moment of not being super satisfied with it. So I said to Jess, “Let me keep working on this.” We needed to land this look in such an extreme way. Then I found this beaded dress, which, as soon as I saw it, it’s one of those garments you’re like, “oh, I got it!”

We knew that the lighting was going to be sort of a yellow glow. I want to give our director a lot of credit for encouraging these unusual color combinations. He loved a primary red, a primary yellow, and a primary blue, which I often think, as designers are always afraid of those colors. It was really freeing. It felt slightly dangerous at times because I was doing stuff that one side of my costume designer brain was saying, “no, you can’t do that.” Then and it would work. I learned a lot of lessons just about color. Of course, I worked really closely with our production designer, Jonah Markowitz, who is a genius. It was really fun to play together and create together.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
Tammy in Vegas - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
Photo Credit: Dana Hawley, Courtesy of Showtime

George & Tammy was a beautiful tribute to some very incredible people who lived lives of pure love, talent, heartbreak, troubles, and heart. I asked Mitchell Travers what his overall take was now that the series is being seen by audiences.

This is the longest I’ve spent with characters because often I’m doing film. For this, we had six episodes, so it’s six hours of content versus two. This time allows you to be able to flesh out characters, and I loved that. I’ve really enjoyed my time designing there. What I enjoyed most was the team of people that worked with me. Everybody always describes their team as a family.

But honestly, the group chat is still alive. I talked to everyone who worked with me, All of these people that I got to work so closely with every day brought so much to the project, and they really reframed design for me from a singular activity to a group activity.

I found there was so much power in this group of people that we assembled for this job that…the bar that has been set for me. That’s really what I’ll take from it. Working with people operating of that caliber feels like a real blessing.

Mitchell TraversThe Art of Costume
George & Tammy - Costume Design by Mitchell Travers
George & Tammy is available to stream on Showtime and paramount +

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