Welcome back to Rydell High! Taking place four years before the events of Grease, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies features four fed-up outcasts who dare to have fun on their own terms! In a exclusive interview with costume designer Samantha Hawkins, Hawkins shared her enthusiasm for the show with The Art of Costume contributor, Jada Davis Turner, and her experiences working on the highly anticipated prequel and the costumes of Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.
Jada Davis Turner: Hi Samantha, I’m so excited to talk to you. I have so many questions for you because I absolutely love the show and your work.
Samantha Hawkins: Thanks so much, Jada. I’m really excited to be here and talk about the show.
Jada Davis Turner: I first would love to dive into your history with costume design. You have worked in television and film, but have you ever worked on a musical?
Samantha Hawkins: Not really. I did a movie a couple of years ago called The Binge, it’s a high school movie, and there is a musical number within it. There is obviously a big difference here. I also hadn’t really done period before as well. I have maybe a little bit here and there. Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies was very different from what I’ve done so far in my career. For me, that was the selling point!
Jada Davis Turner: Since this is a prequel to the movie Grease, how did that legacy affect your research going into this for the costumes?
Samantha Hawkins: Grease was so successful! I hadn’t watched it really since becoming a costume designer. I went back and watched it. Albert Wolsky was the costume designer, and one of my first jobs was being a costume PA on Birdman, which he designed. This felt like a funny, full-circle moment. But he’s a genius, and I think the costumes in the film are really genius. The palettes are beautiful and grounded with bright pops of color, but there is always a neutral, brown, or gray. I really wanted to embody that sense when it came to designing and grounding these characters but then also keep it really playful.
Grease is so playful and does this really fun thing of “Seventies doing the Fifties,” in a way. We kind of kept it in the back of our heads that we’re in 2023, doing the seventies, which is doing the fifties. The fifties are incredibly playful in the design. The clothing of the time is incredible and so funny and tongue in cheek and campy. People think of the fifties as just poodle skirts..! There’s so much more and just crazy stuff that you would not expect.
Jada Davis Turner: I’m glad that you mentioned that because when I was watching it, I was guilty of not knowing more about the stuff that people did wear back then. I did want to jump into some of the episodes. When Olivia was performing “Sorry To Distract,” I wanted to know what your idea was for this look.
Samantha Hawkins: I had a reference image! Knit sets were big at the time. There was an image of Marilyn Monroe that I found where I think she’s visiting soldiers in this amazing knit set. Olivia, in the story, is sort of coming into her own. She’s been sexualized, and now she’s owning that a little bit. We were walking that fine line with her, showing that she was in control of herself rather than being the victim. Next to her is Polly, and she’s wearing the same top. We built both of those. We also had to find the fabrics that worked so that Cheyenne Wells could dance in them because the choreography in that number was awesome. Cheyenne really popped in that look; it was really fun!
Jada Davis Turner: That was a really fun costume. Speaking of another fun one, we have to talk about the horse mascot.
Samantha Hawkins: Yes. That was such a hilarious situation. Rowdy was partially built before I got there. I started on the show with episode four. We had to make some changes so that we could put in that paneling so Nancy could see. Nancy was such a trooper. That thing is not easy to dance in. And the mascot stuff at the time was so creepy. The Trojans are the team they’re playing against. A lot of the mascots were papier-mâché at the time, and we actually borrowed that from a university – it was their vintage mascot. That was a wild thing to track down. There was actually this moment where Nancy takes off the helmet, and you see the sweater she’s wearing underneath, which has a knitted horse on it. I thought it was just so funny to be in a horse costume and then reveal that you’re wearing a horse sweater underneath. That was hilarious to me and very fun!
Jada Davis Turner: Speaking of Nancy…she had two looks that really stuck out to me. What was your motivation for her character?
Samantha Hawkins: The easiest way for me to explain our approach is Nancy’s a drag queen. Her looks are campy, they’re usually to a theme. They’re really loud and out there. It was just always really fun to think, what would Nancy do? I love the crane dress, it’s one of my favorites. I read this book when I was a kid, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, that always stuck with me. I wanted to reference that a little in this look. It had to do with this tradition where if you make a thousand paper cranes, you’re granted a wish. The book was set after the bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a young girl with cancer holds all these cranes in an attempt to live through them. It’s quite a sad book, but there’s something really beautiful about it, and I wanted to reference this time period for Nancy. She talks about the internment camps for a little in that episode. I wanted to visually represent that story and her heritage in her costumes well. Also, who doesn’t want just to wear a dress with cranes on it? I’ve always wanted to make something like this! We have an amazing cutter, Elizabeth, who created the dress, along with her stitchers, who hand-folded all of the cranes.
Jada Davis Turner: To finish off, I want to talk about the Romeo & Juliet costumes, which were my favorite. There was this scene where Nancy was looking at two different fabrics. What was this costume made out of?
Samantha Hawkins: It’s velvet! I really wanted to do velvet because of its luxury. When it comes to Romeo and Juliet, it all made sense. Also, I loved the way it catches the light, it’s Hazel’s first moment on stage and under the stage lights too. We knew we wanted to do this really big moment. We bought all the fabric we could! I just think it’s stunning.
Jada Davis Turner: That’s so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. I just wanted to ask one final question, what did this experience mean to you, working on this show?
Samantha Hawkins: I had the best experience working on this show because of Annabel Oakes, the showrunner, and Alethea Jones as well. It’s a collaboration that I’ve never been able to be a part of before. With the creativity that I got to bring and any idea I had, I was able to go for it. Do it bigger, go crazier! And that is so clearly the case. When you do costumes, people usually want you to dial it back. A lot of times, you don’t want to notice costumes. If they stand out, it can usually be for the wrong reason. We got to do a show where everyone should be looking at the costumes, and they tell the story in such great ways. It was unbelievable to do that.
Then I got to work with Jamal Sims and the choreography team. We worked so closely and made sure that actors could dance in these looks. I took the job originally because I love working on projects that tell stories that most people don’t get to hear or see. As soon as I read the scripts and I was in!
Jada Davis Turner: I’m so glad that you were a part of the show! Thank you so much for joining me, and I hope to talk again soon.
Samantha Hawkins: Thank you so much, Jada. This was really fun, and I appreciate your time.