Costume Designer Nancy Steiner’s new film, Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan, is predicted to be a 2021 Oscar contender. Please join us for a fun, hour-long conversation with the esteemed costume designer, hosted by FIDM Fashion Design Co-Chair Nick Verreos, and learn about her incredibly successful career. You’ll have a chance to submit your own costume design questions, so we encourage you to come prepared.
About Special Guest, Costume Designer Nancy Steiner: Steiner’s wide range of work in film and television speaks for itself from her work with Sofia Coppola on cult films The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation to further auteur filmmaker collaborations including Yorgos Lanthimos on The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mike White on his HBO series Enlightened, and David Lynch for his Twin Peaks 2017 reboot.
She has been nominated for a Costume Designers Guild award twice for Excellence in Contemporary Feature Films for Shopgirl and Little Miss Sunshine, and won twice for Excellence in Commercial Costume Design on campaigns for Bacardi & Cola and Call of Duty.
Steiner began her career in the world of music videos designing costumes for some of the most influential artists around including Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bjork, Sheryl Crow, Stone Temple Pilots, Air, No Doubt, David Bowie and Rolling Stones just to name a few. She continues to work on award-winning commercial campaigns and is currently in production on the Amazon pilot A League of Their Own with director Abbi Jacobson.
About Your Host, Nick Verreos: Nick Verreos is the co-chair of FIDM’s Fashion, Theatre Costume, and Film & Television Costume Design programs. He is also co-designer of the Los Angeles brand NIKOLAKI, which has been worn by Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood, and Beyoncé. In addition, he is the consulting producer for Bravo’s Project Runway; an author of fashion, pattern making, and sketching books; and the face of the popular YouTube channel “Fashion School with Nick Verreos.”
The date is February 25th, 2021, and what a historic day it is! It’s officially Ruth E. Carter day in Hollywood! Today, Ruth E. Carter will become the first Black costume designer to receive a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame, only the second costume designer to be honored with a star following Edith Head, who was honored in 1960 at the origin of this iconic landscape.
“A career spanning more than three decades in theater, cinema, and television, Carter’s depth of artistry flowing together with her creative instincts, passion for culture and history, empathy for people, enormous capacity for research, eye for detail, and ability to deliver the director’s vision while infusing her art makes her one of the most sought after and renowned costume designers in the world”
Though the ceremony was virtual, it was still a fabulous event featuring iconic guest speakers and previous collaborators of Ruth’s, Oprah Winfrey, and Eddie Murphy. We even got to see the making of Ruth’s star! I honestly can’t think of anyone more deserving of this incredible honor. Ruth E. Carter is an icon, a mentor, and most of all, a trailblazer who serves as an inspiration not only to costume designers but all creatives hoping to build a life around their creative passions. I feel like I am speaking for everyone when I say Ruth is simply just, the greatest of all time.
“She opened a lot of doors for us. I’ve seen more people requesting Black designers this year — due to her win, but also partially due to the social climate. Even me being considered [for awards] right now is due to her winning and laying this groundwork.”
“People ask me how did I get RUTH CARTER to be my first guest on my Instagram Live show…. I tell them, I just asked! Without hesitation, Ruth said, “I’m in, let’s do this!” To me, that is Ruth. Authentic, real, and giving to the core. I am so honored to call this star my peer, and more importantly my friend.”
While this is all so exciting, the celebration doesn’t stop there! If you thought securing a spot on the historic, Hollywood Walk of Fame, or winning an Oscar was enough, you are so wrong! I am excited to share with you all an exciting exhibition that you can all safely visit in Atlanta, Georgia. This Winter, The Savannah College of Art and Design’s SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film opened the monumental exhibition Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.
Within this exhibition, you will be in the presence of costumes from generation-defining films such as Selma, Do the Right Thing, and Black Panther. Nearly four decades of Ruth’s work is currently on display! In addition to Carter’s costumes for stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington, “the exhibition also features garments worn by luminaries” such as Angela Bassett, Eddie Murphy, Lupita Nyong’o, Rosie Perez, Forest Whitaker, and of course, the late Chadwick Boseman, “demonstrating the varied work her career brings to the screen.”
“The award-winning museum will showcase more than 60 costumes by Carter, as well as sketches and ephemera illustrating the designer’s in-depth historical research and creative process for each project. Carter is an expert storyteller who harnesses the power of visual communication to share vital narratives exploring culture, race, and politics.
The Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design is so expertly curated. Honestly, when I first saw the exhibition, I felt as though my heart stopped for a second. The pure excellence, vibrancy, and emotional power of Ruth’s work, in combination with the beautiful displays of SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, is overwhelming in all of the right ways.
“The exhibition was created in that spirit of love of self and it serves to empower anyone with an inner creative with a passion to nurture their own voice, like I did, and are determined to share their story through their art. I want to inspire a new generation, who are already expressing the need to project a profound personal connection of diversity in storytelling and to do it authentically in a way that connects with their creative self. I want to encourage them to trust their voice and embody their Afrofuture no matter who they are or where they come from.”
Ruth E. Carter
Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design is co-curated by Rafael Gomes, director of fashion exhibitions, and Christina Frank, assistant director of fashion exhibitions, in collaboration with guest curator Julia Long. The exhibition is open now until Sept. 12, 2021. For ticketing and more information on the exhibition and SCAD FASH, please visit scadfash.org.
On behalf of The Art of Costume Team, I would like to congratulate Ruth once again on these incredible achievements and I look forward to many more years of your groundbreaking, innovative work. All hail the queen!
“When I was working on the many Spike Lee films, I got the nickname ‘Ruthless’ by fellow crew members who would say, ‘Hey Ruthless!’ I knew it was because I worked so hard behind the scenes, designing the many looks, gathering materials, and getting hundreds of actors in costume, connecting actor to character through fashion. I’m grateful for this opportunity to collaborate with SCAD FASH in bringing my collection together to share my career experience with everyone.”
Going into this new year, many things seem uncertain. However, one thing I think we can all agree on is that The Mandalorian is one of the greatest shows out there. Lightsaber fights, stormtroopers, explosions, exciting worlds, new and returning characters, Baby Yoda… wait I mean, Grogu. The second season of The Mandalorian, a Disney + original, took audiences to exciting new heights. One of the more thrilling features of the second season was the introduction of characters that many Star Wars fans have come to know and love, Bo-Katan Kryze and Ahsoka Tano, two characters originating from the animated Star Wars shows, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels.
I spoke with season 2 costume designer, Shawna Trpcic, about this exciting project and the incredible task of bringing these two animated fan favorites into the live-action, Emmy Award-Winning world of The Mandalorian.
Spencer Williams: Hi Shawna! Thank you so much for talking with me and congratulations on an incredible season of The Mandalorian! I had so much fun watching each week and I miss it dearly! What was your experience like designing costumes for The Mandalorian, and now being a part of the Star Wars universe?
Shawna Trpcic: Hi Spencer! The experience was like no other – Jon has brought together a band of incredible artists and technicians, but most importantly a group of Star Wars fans through and through. The show is fast-paced and a huge undertaking and we all want to give our all for every moment and every look – it’s the most glorious and rewarding challenge – I often squeal with childlike excitement when a costume is finished and on the actor.
Spencer: I can only imagine! So I have really been looking forward to talking to you about this. For years, some of our favorite characters have only been seen in animated television shows such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars or Star Wars: Rebels. As a costume designer, you played a big role in bringing to life some serious fan-favorites, Bo-Katan Kryze (played by Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (played by Rosario Dawson). What was your reaction when you realized the weight of this exciting task?
Shawna: I have been going to Comic-Con in San Diego for years and years, and have great respect and understanding for the legacy of these iconic characters – by staying loyal to Dave Filoni’s vision created in the animation but applying my knowledge of how a costume must work for live-action and movement – I knew we’d created something magical. When I asked Jose Fernandez at Ironhead Studios to build the armor for the two ladies I was very clear that maintaining the strong feminine shape Dave had in the animation was very important to me.
Spencer: Can you take us through your process of adapting these two characters from animation into a live-action world? How did you decide on what elements to carry over from prior incarnations of the character’s costumes?
Shawna: Dave guided me very carefully through the helmets – the angle of the cheekbones, the slant of the eyes, the flare at the bottom. The helmet is the first thing you see and it communicates so much – getting that right and the slight differences in the colors were imperative
Spencer: What sort of challenges did you face in designing these costumes? Both characters see a lot of action scenes such as gun-fights and lightsaber duels. All of this keeping in mind that there are also some intricate headpieces and armor involved.
Shawna: We did tear out a few seams in the action – also after a week of intense fighting Katee was losing weight and gaining more muscle. The uniform was shifting and frequent alterations were needed to keep the shape we intended. We did add stretch panels throughout to ease the strain on the seams
Spencer: When we first meet Ahsoka in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Ahsoka is a young padawan. Now, Ahsoka is a wise, experienced figure. I believe you can track her journey and overall character development through her costumes over the years. What was the thought process behind her style evolution seen in The Mandalorian?
Shawna: I relied heavily on Dave’s direction for her – he gave me his research that influenced his decisions and I worked off of them to create the live-action version – even going so far as to have fabric made to give her the journey worn cloak – and we made many attempts at the Jedi hood before we got it right as well.
Spencer: Is there an element to either of these two costumes that just really brought the character to life that excited you? I noticed Ahsoka had a braid tied around her belt that looked similar to her Padawan braid made of “Silka Beads”. Hmmm?
Shawna: *laughs* It may or may not be the braid – some influences are like art – up to the interpretation of the viewer. Every detail of her costume means something and comes from her character’s evolution – but it’s important to me to let the viewer participate in the storytelling.
Spencer: I love that, so very much! Thank you again Shawna for speaking with me! This was a lot of fun. I look forward to catching up with you again in the future.
Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched – Ratched. Costume Design by Lou Eyrich and Rebecca Guzzi. Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
In the words of one of America’s great poets, Jake Tapper, 2020 was “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck”. Okay well, he might have been describing one of this year’s presidential debates, but I think Jake would agree that this quote still holds.
2020 was awful, we can all pretty much agree on that. However, The Art of Costume team is hoping to start the new year with some positive reflections, and hopeful intentions for 2021. While we didn’t see as many new films, shows, or theatre productions this year… there were still plenty of great costume moments to appreciate. I gathered some members of The Art of Costume team to take a look back with me, and prepare to leave this year behind us. Enjoy!
Q: What was your favorite Costume Moment of the Year ?
Elizabeth Glass:Unorthodox. While not the most flashy or technically astounding, the costumes of Unorthodox are truly apart of the story. They help tell the story of Esty’s (played by Shira Haas) strict Hasidic Jewish upbringing where clothes have both religious and social significance to her escape to Germany where her wardrobe starts to represent who she wants to be. From behind to end they telling and supporting her story.
Mariana Sandoval:Hamilton. The ensemble singing and dancing hip hop in those stunning costumes. I just couldn’t believe what I was watching!!
Candice Silva: The entire cast of Jingle Jangle and the metallic pleated Givenchy dress worn by Nicole Kidman in first episode of The Undoing.
Csilla Szlovák: My favorite costume moment of the year was from probably either The Umbrella Academy’s second season, specifically anything that The Handler (played by Kate Walsh) wore, or from The Queen’s Gambit. They brought so much beauty to this boring, but also exhausting year and I couldn’t be more thankful for them.
Spencer Williams: The series finale of Schitt’s Creek was incredible, and I find myself thinking about it all of the time. Specifically, Moira Rose’s (played by Catherine O’Hara) clergy officiant costume. Simply the best! I also am still reeling over Mildred Ratched’s (played by Sarah Paulson) entire wardrobe from the Netflix show, Ratched. I am obsessed!
Q: What costumes are you looking forward to seeing in 2021 ?
Elizabeth Glass: Dune – I’m really looking forward to the costumes for the new Dune. As a massive sci-fi fan I’m always interested to see how the designer will interpret styles and pieces that don’t exist in the real world.
Candice Silva:Cobra Kai, Never Have I Ever Season 2 (CD Salvador Perez), Ryan Murphy’s Halston mini-series CD – Jeriana San Juan and The Discovery of Witches Season 2
Csilla Szlovák: I am extremely excited to see the new season of Euphoria and what the costumes will look like in the 2021 game Hogwarts Legacy. And also in general, I can’t wait to go to the theatre in the new year.
Spencer Williams: There are a few things coming out this year I am excited about! In terms of film, I am looking forward to Coming 2 America as well as the exciting new Marvel film, Eternals. I am also excited to see the costumes for WandaVision, and pretty much any Marvel or Star Wars universe show to hit Disney + this year. Oh, and the new American Horror Stories series!
Mariana Sandoval: I want to make the best of what 2020 taught me: don’t take anything for granted, embrace every single opportunity and create my own path.
Candice Silva: To complete all the sewing projects I have on my list, specifically the ones for Costume College’s annual conference. Fingers crossed the 2021 event isn’t canceled!
Csilla Szlovák: My new year’s resolution is just to take it easy, we made it through this dumpster fire of a year, let’s not make 2021 worse than that.
Spencer Williams: This year I want to take the time to reconnect myself with my passions. I hope to take The Art of Costume to new exciting heights this year! We have so many things we want to do this year. I want to learn a new talent this year, recently I’ve been exploring digital painting as well as DJing. Finally, I want to rid myself of “couch potato guilt”. There are a lot of good shows and films out there right now, and coming in the future! I’ll watch it all and no one is going to make me feel guilty about it!
I want to end this article by giving the biggest thank you to all of the fabulous members of The Art of Costume team. The best thing to come out of this year, was getting to know each of you. I am so lucky, and eternally grateful for our new found friendships.
On behalf of the entire team, I would also like to thank YOU, the readers who visited us throughout the year. We are just getting started here at The Art of Costume, with a lot of exciting things in store for 2021! Happy New Year’s everyone!
Alright 2020, its officially that time… for you… to Sashay Away!
Earlier this year, I had the great honor of interviewing a true costume design legend, Mona May. There is absolutely no way you aren’t familiar with at least one of Mona’s films. I am talking about Clueless, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, A Night at the Roxbury, The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed, Enchanted, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, and The House Bunny. Really, I could go on forever naming her wide list of work. Today, I am excited to share with you some insight into the wonderful world of Mona May, as we talk about her growing up, inspiration, research, current and future projects, a new collaboration with Thrilling, and some advice for future costume designers. Thank you again Mona for taking the time to speak with me.
Spencer Williams: Mona, I can’t tell you how honored I am to have you here. This is so exciting!
Mona May: Hello Spencer, I’m happy to be here! Congratulations on the launch of your blog!
Spencer: Oh, thank you so much! I am so grateful for how receptive the costume design community has been to the launch of The Art of Costume. It’s a true honor to spotlight the incredible creativity and talent of costume designers.I’m so glad you could join me.
Mona: I love it!
Spencer: Well Mona, how have you been doing? It’s certainly been an interesting time.
Mona: I have been great. Actually, it’s been kind of a very interesting downtime, but I’ve taken a lot of different creative leaps. Because of the Clueless twenty-fifth anniversary, I’ve been doing so much press and my Instagram just blew up. I never was really an Instagram person. Now, I’m loving it! I’m doingMona May Minute, talking about my work and process to my followers, getting so many questions from everybody. I just love it. I’m collaborating with brands and different organizations like Girls, Inc.. a non-profit organization that empowers young girls…Mentoring is kind of a new adventure for me. It’s been a very, very creative few months.
In the beginning, I thought it was all very scary because I was on a Netflix film that was going to Canada to shoot and I was getting ready to get on a plane on Wednesday. Then on Friday, they shut us down. It was very disappointing as We were already prepping all the costumes with our actors. It was very jarring. All of a sudden, everything stopped. We were prepping at Universal Studios wardrobe department, and it was just packed with people, so many projects going on that we couldn’t even get a fitting room. Then everything just basically stopped, overnight it was empty.
Projects are finally coming back. Looks like I’m going to start Punky Brewster, the reboot for Peacock. I’m super excited to be back to work, to create and have fun.
Spencer: I am so thrilled to see projects are coming back. It’s like the end of a long winter. I always like to start with my guests, asking how you ended up in the world of costume design. Where did it all begin for Mona?
Mona: I like the question because my path is very interesting. I was actually that young kid who drew as a little girl. I had princesses and gave them all makeovers and had a whole collection of outfits for my princesses.
I was always interested in clothes and fashion. I was giving my mom advice when I was five years old, telling her what she should wear. As you can see this was kind of my natural path into costume. I studied fashion in Europe. I was actually born in India, I grew up in Poland and Germany. My mom’s German and my dad was Polish. My mom was an art dealer, so I grew up around art and artists. Then I came to the USA and via New York City ended up in Los Angeles at the Fashion Institute Of Design and Merchandising and studied fashion. It was very interesting to be here in Los Angeles because it was very different from European fashion, very casual and the clothes were a lot more fun.
During the time I was here studying, I met friends from USC Film School and the UCLA Film School that were doing short films for their school projects. They would always ask me, “Can you help us, you are in fashion?” Sure. It sounds interesting. I have to tell you that from the first little movie that I did, I just got the bug immediately because it was such a fun, collaborative process. Learning about the characters, diving into their psychology, it was so much more than just fashion. I was good at it and eventually, the word got out.
MTV was starting out, so I worked with Run DMC, Debbie Gibson, some commercials and this crazy show for MTV called Just Say Julie, which was with Julie Brown. It was super funny. I did props and costumes. I was able to express myself in this amazing way. Everything kind of led another. I got into the union. I did a pilot with Amy Heckling. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but then she wrote Clueless… she called because we just connected on such a creative level when we worked together. Amy loves fashion and has a really deep understanding of what’s going on and always has a hand on the pulse of everything, the language of young people and current fashions. When she called me up, she said you are the best person to design the costumes and the rest is history.
Clueless was a film about girls in Beverly Hills who dressed in high fashion. At the time when we were prepping the movie, fashion had a strong similarity to that of Kurt Cobain. The fashion in Los Angeles during the nineties was grunge, all about big plaid shirts, baggy pants, and dark colors. Our main goal was to bring European runway fashion inspirations to the story. It was all ahead of its time and blended with the characters in a high school setting. We also had to make sure that everything looked authentic and real. We didn’t want all of the girls to run around in high heels looking like snooty models. We wanted real girls that the audience could still relate to. So part of the challenge was translating that high fashion from the runways into high school.
We had amazing actors. Alicia Silverstone was this new girl on the scene famous from an Aerosmith video and most of the actors like Paul Rudd this was a big break… Clueless was really a project of love for all of us, we were so happy to be there and doing such a creative film with a great script and amazing director. Because of this opportunity, I was able to marry my love of fashion and costume design. What an incredible opportunity!
The budget on the movie wasn’t big, it was my first studio film as a designer, I didn’t even have an agent and had to negotiate my rate and my own perks. I want the young readers who are kind of on their path to becoming designers to know, you never know how things are going to really turn out. You have to be very open to opportunities. When we were working on Clueless none of us imagined we will be all talking about it 25 years later.
Spencer: You have an incredible story. So let’s talk about Clueless, celebrating its 25th anniversary. I mean, twenty-five years… Does it even seem real?
Mona: I mean, it seems like it was just yesterday. But, yeah, it just doesn’t. It’s bizarre and wild that it’s been twenty-five years, really and there is still so much love for this film.
Spencer: As you said earlier, your Instagram is blowing up. I’ve been seeing your name all over the press. People refer to you sometimes as The Queen of 90s Fashion. You would think the film just came out yesterday!
Mona: I am so proud that this film has stood the test of time. That is still so popular and has inspired generations of women. Even though the outfits were inspired by the 90s, I had a global point of view on fashion. So the movie is not as dated as maybe it was just on-trend. The outfits are so classic, the plaid, the peacoat, the berets, A-line skirts. You have the empire waist dresses with the cap sleeves. That’s what I gravitate to. I always wanted the girls to look and feel feminine and pretty. That’s what we’re doing in the movie. We’re kind of bringing back the feminine and bringing back the beauty of girls that was lost in the grunge and darkness.
Spencer: What type of research did you have to do for Clueless when it came to fashion as well as designing each of the subcultures, such as a skater kid, the jocks, stoner kids, or the teachers. What does that research look like?
Mona: Well, as a costume designer we each have a different process. After reading the script and meeting with a director and kind of downloading their vision is doing visual boards. You do collages. I gather art and look at photography. You look at fashion pieces. For me, that film inspiration was really about going to European runways, and really bringing something that’s not in the stores or on the streets. I was looking six months ahead or even further when it came to styles, textures, and colors. I had to use the predictive magazines, there was no computer and ideas with the click of a little finger. You look through these magazines and think about what’s right for each character, what will translate well into the world of young girls in Beverly Hills.
For example, when it came to creating the color palette for these characters, Dionne and Cher were very different. The color palette for Cher was classic, like reds, blues, yellows, and pinks as Dionne Davenport, the palette was much brighter. Her skin tone allowed me to push the colors and even use neon colors. I got to use a lot of different textures such as vinyl leopard and faux fur on Dionne as she was sassier. Cher and Dionne were best friends, but really very unique psychologically so the clothes had to reflect that.
The rest kind of fell into place with a lot of effort of course as we had a lot of clothes in the movie. Since we were creating fashion that was not on the street every extra that was on screen had to be dressed from head to toe. The stoners, the skateboarders, preppy boys, the school A-list boys we dressed all of them. And that was in addition to our main cast like Alicia Silverstone who had sixty wardrobe changes and Dionne probably had about fifty.
I would come in at 5:00 in the morning, and the real challenge was everyone had to be dressed because they were all coming in grunge. If we are creating the world, they have to be on par and look as fabulous as everybody else on the screen. With the right color palette, textures, and have all of the new cool hip clothes or the backpacks. So it was a lot of clothes.
But that’s kind of the movies I do. If you really look at Never Been Kissed, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Wedding Singer, The House Bunny, or even Enchanted. I just get these very creative jobs with big stories and journeys of the characters and this is where I thrive. I can put the creative puzzle together. As a costume designer, I don’t do it all alone. I have a big team: a supervisor who looks after the whole department, pays the bills, makes sure we are on schedule with fittings. I have shoppers, patternmakers, seamstresses, and the very important set crew who dresses actors and keeps the continuity. There is a big team behind me to support my vision. In this film, we didn’t have a lot of time prep, only about two months to prep so a designer needs a strong team to make it all happen.
Spencer: Oh wow. I’m sorry, did you say two months? I just got chills.
Mona: Yeah. We didn’t have a lot of money either. Also, you have to remember this was so long ago that the PR machine also wasn’t really in place. You know, like now if you are watching a television show, some of these fabulous clothes are just a phone call away. It’s much easier to put these incredible looks together. In my case, I didn’t have that luxury, so I had to be very inventive. The thing about not having a lot of money, I couldn’t buy all designer clothes. But in the end, I think the movie was better because of it. I had to find the clothes from the future, right then from all kinds of sources, high-end stores, mall stores, and thrift stores. Which created the unique look of the film- mixing high and low fashion which was not done before. It was fresh and the girls loved it!!
Spencer: Because of this process of thrifting and combining all of these pieces, you were setting trends. Those trends are as alive now as they were twenty-five years ago! It’s incredible really.
Mona: Yeah, it was really amazing how I was able to inspire girls to dress in fun fashions to be girly again and to mix old and new. Thrifting is so in now, so we all have to think about stability and not polluting the earth with a crazy amount of disposable clothes. I just did a collaboration with this shop, Thrilling, a company that’s online, a collective of thrift stores from all over the United States. We did a photo shoot as I am curating a collection for them and I was able to pull all kinds of cool clothes and show girls that you can dress high fashion in vintage. That you don’t need to buy new clothes and you can look more unique with repurposed clothing. I had so much fun putting it together and the response has been great so far.
I always try to inspire. That’s kind of the goal of what I do and who I am. I want to inspire young women. I want them to be inspired to be themselves and to be authentic. That’s the message I feel I have tried to send in all my movies.
Spencer: So this is really the hardest question of them all, and I am sorry I have to ask you. I think the audience would riot if I don’t. Is there a particular costume that has a special place in your heart? Do you have a favorite?
Mona: You know, it’s really one of the hardest questions to answer because they are all my babies and they all have such meaning. The yellow suit will forever be the most famous of the costumes that I’ve ever done. I mean, it’s almost like the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore. When you look at the yellow plaid, you automatically think Clueless. I love Enchanted too, you know. That white dress we did for Amy Adams, as a design, it’s just so spectacular. There were these costumes that I did for Haunted Mansion that were quite incredible as they were glowing in the dark. It was such a fun process creating them. I was using the stuff that’s on your tennis shoes that reflects when light hits it – that’s actually microscopic glass beads that reflect light. The director wanted the costumes to be very organic and have the ghosts in the graveyard glow when the main characters drive through it.
So each costume is so unique to the process. If I had to pick one, it’s probably the yellow suit just because it’s so iconic. It’s very synonymous with me and that movie to this day.
Spencer: So looking back at a lot of your popular work such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Clueless, A Night at the Roxbury, it seems like you have a real connection to Los Angeles and the L.A. fashion scene. Do you feel that way, too?
Mona: You know what? It was not intentional. It was just something that happened. I do feel a connection to Los Angeles. I love color and the environment is something that has helped me paint my pictures in a brighter way. The setting is so much more positive and happy. You know, there’s so much light here. There’s so much color. Everybody has a signature. Some designers do really well, period costumes. Some designers do great with drama. I think that I’m kind of suited to my personality and artistic take on things with comedy.
Spencer: So unlike most people, I feel like my first introduction into the world of Mona May wasn’t actually with Clueless. My childhood is deeply composed of those Disney Channel television shows that so many people my age feel all of the nostalgia for.
Mona: Oh! Which one?
Spencer: Well, most of them were projects you were on. Stuck in the Suburbs was a good one, I still have the soundtrack *laughs*. Zenon: The Zequel. Oh, and how could I forget The Cheetah Girls: One World. Take us back a little bit to the early 2000s when you were doing these original Disney Channel television-movies.
Mona: It was so much fun because in between these big movies, I always had a little break and they reached out to me. My sensibility and my art are very similar to what Disney Channel stands for. You know, it’s very bright. It was all very happy.
It was really fun to work with young kids because they were on the verge of being women. So it was great to be able to empower them and also help them understand costume design. How does costume design help tell the story? At the same time, helping them to feel good in their bodies. I really loved working with Disney Channel. At the time, Disney Channel was spending a bunch of money on those little films. They allowed me a certain kind of freedom to do what I want, which was really creative.
Spencer: I remember being a kid in probably elementary school, watching The Cheetah Girls: One World and thinking beautiful and inspiring those costumes were. Plus, how exciting to go to India, your birthplace!
Mona: We just had a blast. It was an unforgettable experience. It was so interesting to work there and oversee the cross-culture. Here’s the thing, the Cheetah Girls had these modern, really kind of cool, funky clothes. Then as we went to India, we started to blend authentic Indian fashion into their own looks. It was such a cool and interesting blend.
Spencer: Ugh I love it. You are taking me all the way back! A key focus of mine and the team at The Art of Costume is exploring this idea of storytelling through costume design. Just as a basic question, do you consider costume designers to be storytellers?
Mona: Of course! This question is lovely. Clueless is a great example. The costumes are almost like a character in itself. Or, if you look at Never Been Kissed. Josie Geller (played by Drew Berrymore) starts as a kind of very bookish, nerdy girl and then goes into high school with this crazy idea of what high school the kids would wear. Then you see her transformation as she finds more about herself and the scrips unfold the story. At the end of the film, you see this young woman in that beautiful, age-appropriate pink dress and she is not the same girl we met at the begging of the film. The final look, that dress tells us about a sophisticated young woman who is not afraid of who she is – why she became. So costume it’s absolutely part of the storytelling. When you see a character on screen, within thirty seconds or less we have a good idea of who they are by the clothes they wear.
Twenty-five years later after doing Clueless, having articles written about me in Variety and fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle, WWD, and New York Post brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers as artists. We are part of the creative process on a film or a tv project as important as directors of photography and production designers. I think this is so incredibly important because we want equality. Artistic equality and pay equality. Costume designers are a part of the collaborative process of filmmaking and as being mostly women we don’t get all the respect. I love that I’m speaking to you and I am doing all this press because it just brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers and our craft…
Spencer: Another great example I wanted to add to this idea of storytelling, is Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. I can’t even imagine that film without you. The whole story is about these two characters almost kind of changing themselves in hopes to be impressive at their high school reunion. This story is so dependent on the clothes that they’re wearing. It’s even told through multiple flashbacks to their days in high school. For example, the great prom scene. Their whole story is relying on the costume designer to translate their trials throughout their life leading up to the reunion. We rely heavily upon our costume designers as storytellers, and I think it’s about time costume designers and costume departments as a whole are given the credit they deserve.
Mona: Absolutely. But I think the problem is that people don’t know how it happens. As I said, I had to put sixty changes together for Alicia Silverstone as Cher. People don’t realize how many clothes you have, how many fittings you have to do, and you know how many accessories you have to put together. Each outfit is unique and thought out to the last detail. It’s a huge job not only creatively but you have to deal with budgets, running crew in your department, communicate with actors, and deliver everything on time. So this is about shedding the light on what we do, how does it happen – the process.
Spencer: Right. I mean, touching on that same point. Throughout your career, you’ve worked on multiple projects that include costume design for both live-action and animated films such as Stuart Little 2, The Haunted Mansion. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorites, Enchanted. By the way, one of my favorite costumes of all time is that gown Queen Narissa wore.
Mona: Thank you. Narissa’s costume is probably my second, right after the yellow suit in Clueless. I love, love that design and how beautiful it is on screen.
Spencer: Oh, it’s extraordinary. That scene where she emerges from that manhole in Times Square. Spoiler alert, she eventually becomes a dragon. Plus, Narissa is played by Susan Sarandon, it doesn’t get better than that. Okay, I will stop being a nerd for a few seconds. Not many people realize that animated characters and films require costume designers as well.
Mona: Yes! Yes! My first experience with animated costumes was with Stuart Little 2. I got a great opportunity to meet the director, Rob Minkoff, and had an interview with him. The first film was great because we had this mouse who was kind of conservative wearing little bow ties and suits the movie became a huge hit. So now people believed that there was a mouse living with humans. When I went to interview for Stuart Little 2, I brought drawings of Stuart and in a Prada suit, skateboarding outfit, or even a date outfit. I said to the director Rob Minkoff – the mouse is now a beloved character so let’s give Stuart a makeover. And that’s how I got the job!
The process is very similar to designing costumes for live-action. You start with drawings and then it becomes very technical with many many details from proportions to fit. I’m almost like an adviser to all the technical guys who are on the computer who build them all in 3D. I would come in and do fittings virtually on the computer. Pretty cool! We had to make sure that the clothes fit on the digital character, especially because he had a horrible body to dress. He had a giant head, basically, no neck, small shoulders, giant tail, and short legs and the director wanted him to look like he shops at GAP. But he was one of the best actors I’ve worked with, he loved all his costumes and never talked back. *laughs*
It was a great learning experience to work on these animated projects because it’s all very technical but I’m still designing costumes just not a human but a digital character.
I just worked on another animated movie recently that was for Skydance Animation. It was a female virtual character, a young girl, but she had a different shape than humans more of an animated character body with a bigger head and small shaped body. You’re designing the costumes and trying to make sure they still fit great. The clothes need to be the right colors for her skin tone, fit her body shape. They have to be right for her age, where she is coming from culturally, and the right socio-economic background. This particular character was going to be doing a lot of action so we have to allow for the clothes to move with her, making sure clothing is not too restrictive. So the process is very similar to live-action the decisions you make as a designer are the same. You just have to deal with gravity in live-action and not in animation
Spencer: Speaking of gravity, even in animation, gravity still affects the textiles and the flow of the clothing too! Well, unless you are space…
Mona: Very much so. It’s a funny thing that you bring up. When I was doing Enchanted, I got brought on very early because I was working with the animators designing the costumes since I had to translate them into live-action costumes. The first part of the film was all old-style animation. I was there when they were starting to draw the characters and putting some clothes on them. When we started to cast and I was hired, I would be in the room with them. We were trying to figure out the designs for characters like Nathaniel (Played by Timothy Spall) who was the sidekick to the prince. The animators started drawing little puffy hot pants and short shirts for his look. I’m like, OK, I have this actor who is over 200 lbs and he’s not going to run Central Park with these little shorts. So we need to really be realistic. We as designers can bring our experience understanding clothing, how it works on bodies how the fabric moves when it moves in live-action. Animators think more in fantasy and they don’t have to think of gravity. They can do anything they want but we as a costume designer have to deal with real bodies, especially in this case of Enchanted, which was about bringing the animated characters into a live-action world.
Spencer: Wow, that’s so interesting. I feel like I am certainly going to watch Enchanted again after this interview. I heard you are working on a new animated film, Flora and Ulysses for Disney+. Would you like to give us a special sneak peek?
Mona: I would love to talk about it. It was such a fantastic experience because it took me back to my roots of Stuart Little 2. It’s a live-action film with a CGI squirrel and working with CGI characters and live-action is complicated and fun at the same time. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects. Sadly the CGI squirrel didn’t wear any clothes…
Spencer: Oh man!
Mona: I know I was very bummed. But what was really cool about this film was that the father is a comic book writer, and his daughter imagines his characters are coming off the pages of his comic books. So I actually had to design superheroes and it was so much fun because I had never done superheroes. I was able to learn a lot and learn about textures and different finishings. We worked with material that’s shiny, that almost looks like plastic. It was just a really great learning experience. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects.
That’s what it’s all about for me. That’s what I would love to leave people who are reading along. Life is about learning. Every project brings a new experience and more opportunities to learn. When I got Stuart Little 2, I didn’t know how to design CGI characters. I had to learn. I loved it. Enchanted is such an interesting project because it blended old style 2D animation with live-action and CGI. Queen Narissa was a character that turned into a CGI dragon. I had to figure out how to blend all 3 different mediums. The 2D costume looked very flat, almost like a cut-out. Then when she comes to life, it’s like she just explodes with textures and color, and then all the details of her costumes become part of the dragon she turns into..
Spencer: When Queen Narissa comes to life as a live-action character, the costume took on a dragon scale-like texture.
Mona: Exactly. You know, probably one of the best parts of my job is learning so much. With each project, you dive into really intense research. You learn so much from meeting with other collaborators. I learned a lot from the director of photography when I was working on The Haunted Mansion when I had to make the costumes glow. We had to mix this stuff that glows that actually comes in powder form. You mix it with paint. You paint the clothes and then we had to shoot it with a camera that had a ring of light around the lens. We became a kind of like alchemists.
We work with actors. You know what’s very interesting and I talk a lot about it, when you have these ideas and you make the boards. You think you know who the character is. But then the actor or actress walks into the fitting room. This is when the magic happens. Going back to Clueless and the yellow suit, we let Alicia Silverstone try on the blue one. Then she tried the red one. The blue one was beautiful. The red one was a little bit too on the nose, like trying too hard. Then she pulled the yellow…Oh my God. This is the color of just sunshine. She’s the queen.
Another great story I have comes with those final dresses for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Those blue and pink party dresses. I had something else designed for Lisa Kudrow’s character. A couple of days before Lisa came, we started talking and she had a really good point. Maybe the dresses should be very similar. There should be this feeling, like a “We made it” feeling. So I changed the design last minute, which wasn’t easy. It was hard because everything was already in motion. We made both of the dresses A-line with the empire waist. We made Lisa’s pink which represented her character. Mira Sorvino’s character was always more in control so she had the blue one, and it really was perfect. It was actually better than what I did before. It became iconic. So the flexibility and kind of openness to the process and change are very important in our work…
Spencer: This is all so inspiring to hear. I am sure it’s also going to be very inspiring to a lot of future costume designers who are going to be reading this. It’s inspiring to hear, as someone we look up to including myself, is still constantly learning. Even with all of these projects that came after Clueless, you are still taking the time to learn.
Mona: Yes. You know, we are artists but not machines. You have to be dedicated to your work. There are long hours involved. Sometimes you have to go away for months. You have to be passionate and willing to learn. You have to show up and be there. It’s not always going to be easy. You won’t always have the money. You might not have enough crew. So you have to love it. I think. You have to really be there and be professional. I think you have to be a very good communicator.
It’s a job that’s very interesting because it’s not a job that’s the same every day. Every project is different. Every day, different things happen. There’s a lot of change. You have to be on your toes, and sometimes you have to take yourself out of the equation a little. It’s not about you. It’s about the project. It’s about the art. In the end, it’s our goal to make the project the best we can. Sometimes, maybe you don’t win and you don’t get what you like. Sometimes, you do. You know, it’s really give, and take. I hope that is one thing that the readers of The Art of Costume take away from this.
Spencer: I think they will, and I am so happy you have taken the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us… So finally, what’s coming up next for Mona May I know you’re doing the reboot for Punky Brewster, a popular 80s sitcom That is so exciting!
Mona: Oh, I am super excited. Punky is now a mom. Punky is now in her 40s and she has three kids. You know, we want to make her kind of a cool mom, edgy mom. One of the girls is a fashionista who is about fifteen. So she’s gonna have some fun clothes. Freddie Prinze. Junior is going to be the ex-husband, the musician. I’m so happy that I was brought onto this project, to create something very fresh, something real, something that the young moms can emulate. We are looking at a woman who is 40 years old, who can also be a mom and be hip and be cool. We will be connecting with the audience in different ways. I’m lucky that I get these kinds of jobs, you know. I’m sort of a go-to when it comes to bringing something fresh, to remake something in a new way that’s so exciting.
Spencer: Mona, thank you so much for talking with me. I can sit here and just talk to you for hours, and hours.
Mona: I appreciate you talking to me. You are shedding light on what we do and spreading the word about costume design. It’s really important to me.
I also would love your audience to follow me on Instagram. I’m actually answering a lot of questions. On Mondays, I host Mona Minute, and I talk about my process so anybody can send me a question and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. I want people to be on this journey with me. It’s just great. I probably will be like the eighty-five-year-old grandma still doing this, and sharing.
Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to catch-up with one of my favorite costume designers, Eulyn Colette Hufkie. As a costume designer, one of Eulyn’s most recognized bodies of work was none other than, The Walking Dead (one of my favorite shows). Eulyn’s time on The Walking Dead catapulted her career, becoming a recognizable name, especially to the horror/thriller genre. Since The Walking Dead, Eulyn went on to serve as the costume designer for 24: Legacy, Hell Fest, The Purge (TV Series), Goodnight Death, and Mayans M.C.
On Amazon Prime Video this October, you can catch some of Eulyn’s most recent work on the Blumhouse produced, “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series, an anthology of unique, unsettling thrillers developed and produced with an eye towards original, genre storytelling. Eulyn served as the costume designer for a few of these films including Black Box, directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr (Released October 6th, 2020) and Evil Eye, directed by Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani, and stars Sarita Choudhury and Sunita Mani (Premiering on October 13th, 2020).
Spencer Williams: Hi Eulyn! How are you, it’s been such a long time!
Eulyn Colette Hufkie: I am doing so well! Working and living in New Orleans. Just dodging hurricanes and COVID. Ha!
Spencer: Ugh! Yes I hear you, the struggle is real. But I am so glad you are doing well, despite the circumstances. I always like to start with my guests, asking how you ended up in the world of costume design. Where did it all begin for Eulyn?
Eulyn: I am from Cape Town, South Africa. I am mixed-race, referred to as ‘coloured’. Mixed race women make up the majority of factory workers, sewing for big industry. When I decided that I wanted to pursue a Fashion Design career, my parents strongly opposed it. They understood my interest and talent for design since my Mom still has my renderings of ball gowns from when I was 3 years old. They wanted stability for me in my future. I ended up studying accounting at The University of Cape Town, but I ‘majored’ in ‘What I wore to Uni every day’ *laughs*. My outfits were the main event after wearing school uniforms my entire life. Ha!
I was scouted and started modeling. Through modeling, I met incredible designers and asked them if I could train with them and work for free. They said, ‘YES!’ and I spent my first couple of days on set carrying racks and sorting hangers. But I loved it! It just clicked.
When you’re a P.A., you’re sort of like a fly on the wall. You get to see and listen to everything. I chose at that moment to really be a sponge for information. I learned and listened, and I kept getting employed. I was earning money doing what I loved. I was in utter disbelief. I’ve been lucky enough to train and work with some of South Africa’s best designers.
My grandparents owned a clothing factory in South Africa. That was my weekend job, selling and sorting uniforms. I still love the sound and smell of the old singer machines. My grandmother is a very talented seamstress. She made my first communion dress, all of the wedding dresses in the family, all the baby clothes. When I first started taking an interest in designing, I would take lessons with her to learn pattern making and sewing.
Spencer: Where do you feel like your inspiration and creativity comes from?
Eulyn: Oh my gosh, everywhere and everything inspires me. Authenticity without stereotypes inspires me. I’ve got a very vivid imagination and I become really invested when it comes to research. I watch a lot of movies. I love all film genres. I’m in love with going to fabric stores and just touching everything.
I find inspiration really in every way. I’m pretty sure because of The Walking Dead, I’m on a watch list though! Ha! I’ve had to really go deep and dark with finding inspiration. For example, figuring out how blood really flows. What the color of blood really is, and what a head looks like when it’s not attached to a body. Well, these are all the things that I’ve had to research. What would a walking corpse look like?
South Africa is a melting pot. We have the biggest Indian community outside of India in South Africa. We have eleven official languages in South Africa and many different tribes. I was introduced to all of these different cultures from a very early age. The food, nature, the markets. It’s all very mixed so it’s hard not to be inspired walking around in South Africa.
Spencer: You have such an incredible story, Eulyn. It’s truly inspiring. So, spooky season is upon us. At the same time, we just heard the news that one of our favorite shows has announced their series finale, The Walking Dead. When I heard the news, I knew I just had to talk to you. 10 seasons. The show started in 2010, I was just 15 years old at the time *laughs*. You were the costume designer for half of these 10 seasons. You must be so proud of being a part of this phenomenon?
Eulyn: It’s incredible that it’s lasted this long. The Walking Dead definitely gave me a big boost in my career. In the first season, I worked as a costumer. Then I got the big promotion, to be the Costume Designer. Each season was very different and presented unique challenges. There was a city full of walkers, to a small town and idyllic farm life, to Alexandria, and then finally, Negan.
Each character’s evolution can be clearly seen through costume for the first 6 seasons. Maggie (played by Lauren Cohan) stands out to me in this regard – she started the show in those pastel colors that I created. I dyed all of those pieces on the farm, myself to create a different palette for each character in order to give the audience insight into the emotional journey that the characters endured on the farm. I really wanted the farm to look like a watercolor painting. It was an idealistic place in the crazy zombie world that existed just outside of their fence.
All of the characters subscribed to Hershel’s rules, discussions about God and spirituality on the farm only then to end up questioning the leadership of the very man that they chose to follow.
Or how about watching Glenn (played by Steven Yeun) evolve, he was practically a child when we met him. Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus), starts off as a ‘bad guy’ character. I created the “angel wings” vest Daryl wore. I wanted him to look tough, be safer on his bike but at the same time still, soften him up, and make him appear to be the dark guardian angel of the group. Those little details like the wings sway the audience into a direction that the character is moving mentally. The wings were very symbolic of Daryl’s journey.
Daryl’s original vest is actually MERLE’s (played by Michael Rooker). It was hanging in my office. We cut out the wings and sewed them on, to do a show and tell with Frank Darabont. He said that I was ‘F*cking ‘genius’. Career and life highlight for sure! Merle and Daryl were literally cut from the same cloth.
Spencer: Oh wow, I love that. It makes so much sense! My mind is blown. That never even occurred to me.
Eulyn: Yeah! Frank is pretty genius, I remember he wanted a really bright t-shirt for Sophia (played by Madison Lintz). So when Sophia emerged from the barn at the end, it would be obvious that it’s her. We got so excited, imagining the dirt on the bright t-shirt! But then we had to find the shirt. I remember that day, I ran to every Target in Atlanta on a Sunday, looking for those shirts so I could buy them all out. I got the phone call while I was in the bathtub. I wanted to cry, I was so tired, but I told myself, “ it’s Frank Darabont. He’s brilliant. I am going to trust him, and I guess I’m going to Target now”. And looking back, I’m glad that I trusted him. Such an incredible moment in the history of the show.
Spencer: That Sophia costume, is one of the most iconic costumes of the show. I remember that moment so very vividly. I was an absolute wreck!
Eulyn: Oh, there wasn’t a dry eye on the set! Extremely powerful scene and a lifetime bond between Daryl and Carol created at that moment.
Spencer: There are so many characters in this show. Plus, each season had its own kind of factions? There was the farm, the prison, the settler towns, bikers gangs… What were some of the challenges you faced working on The Walking Dead?
Eulyn: I just really wanted to keep everybody separate, visually. I wanted to give each character a ‘thing’ unique to them. Including our superhero characters, MICHONNE, RICK, CARL, DARYL, MAGGIE, ANDREA, GLENN. Each character had their own style or charm or way of styling or layering clothing, but still, looked uniform as a group. One of my favorite things ever is when I got this one image when all of the characters arrive at Alexandria and they’re all walking side by side, next to each other. It was brilliant! You can see the vision. Each character looked so different, but they look like a gang.
Alexandria was a challenge for me. My mind was already in the apocalypse and the Alexandrians seemed so bloody clueless. How do you not know that you have to shoot the Walkers in the head? How do you not know? Come on, Deanna (played by Tovah Feldshuh)! Ha! I adore TOVAH, she was exceptional in her role as Deanna.
It was hard for me to make these people look so ordinary. Can we give them just something? I was always ready to go full Mad Max tribal!! We were in the apocalypse after all. When I put Rick and Michonne into those police uniforms … gosh that really felt weird! Because they already knew what lived outside of the gates. I just had to really honor the character and the story at that moment. Rick was always being a gentleman and trying to appease the new boss or new leader. He was going back to his old ways of being a policeman, following instructions, and being polite. It was supposed to feel uncomfortable for all of us. Brilliant writing!
Spencer: We had a lot of people send in questions about this next topic. The Walking Dead is a masterclass in distressing costumes. Blood. Guts. Mud. It’s all there. It truly is the best of the best. What was it like making everything so dirty? Dressing the walkers throughout the years?
Eulyn: Distressing costumes is an art. I hired artists. I needed people who were going to be open. I needed them to unlearn everything that they’d been taught and really trust my vision. We used knives, graters, blowtorches. We did things very differently. It was unlike anything that anybody else had done. I didn’t want the characters to look like pirates or cartoon zombies. They were walking corpses of ordinary people whose lives were cut short by a virus. I wanted my team to think of how that person died, how long they’d been dead. It was important to match blood splatter on clothing to match makeup wounds.
We had distressing techniques with tools we created ourselves. So I have this one device that looks like some sort of a medieval torture device, but it’s a block of wood with spikes in it. We made my own paints in different colors. We had our own names, these funny names we came up with such as ‘puss’. The other trick I used often when we shot 300 zombies in an episode, we would collect all of those costumes and soak them in bleach and then rework them so we’d be using the same costumes over and over and over. It just made them even better. They got rattier and rattier.
It was very important to me that every single costume made sense. I got a lot of criticism from fans about the long skirts. Did everybody die in a church? was a comment that made me chuckle! I thought that was hilarious. When you think about makeup, they are doing probably 10 to 20 people in one sitting. But then there would be 500 people in the field. So you’re seeing five hundred costumes in full. I had to cover them from head to toe, to make sure that they looked like walkers.
I would tell my ageing team …. I want to smell the walkers through the screen.
A fun memory is Frank Darabont directing an episode, and calling for more sweat, all I had was my Hawaiian tropic sunscreen in my bag, I used it as sweat on Rick and it became our staple sweat product, still is. I see now that some costume shops sell it as such. The traditional ageing methods simply didn’t work for long-lasting ageing. Most costume ageing products are designed to come out in the wash, for this show I needed the dirt and ageing to stay in the clothing and be one part of the design, so I had to design my own products.
My crew and I would take art classes a couple of times a week to hone our painting skills.
Spencer: Is there a certain costume from The Walking Dead you find yourself quite proud of? Some notable costumes I can think of was Daryl’s biker jacket. Michonne’s hood she wore in the woods. Rick’s sheriff gear… The many costumes of Carol that showed her major character development.
Eulyn: One of the costumes I loved probably the most was worn by Hershel (played by Scott Wilson). I love that costume with the bush pants and those old leather suspenders. If you look closely, the attachment on the suspenders is quite different and beautiful.
But I’m proud of all of the hard work that went into creating those characters.
Attention to detail was very important. If you think about every opening of every season, there wasn’t a lot of talking. They didn’t speak. So you could see the journey that they were on through the costumes. The opening of every season was always my proudest moment. Just like bam! What’s going on? When it came to Rick, he was always in some version of a sheriff outfit. I always had him either in a white t-shirt or tan western shirt and the same black jeans. Rick was always the same guy just going through different things.
Spencer: The Walking Dead was unique because you have had the popular graphic novel out there as well. Did you feel like you were referencing the comics quite often?
Eulyn: Only when Scott Gimple asked. Otherwise, I tried not to. I was inspired by it. But I wasn’t going to copy them as they were shown. I wanted to do my own version, but stay inspired by the comic. A good example, Michonne was very sexy in the comic. There were little things that didn’t really fit with Danai Gurira. We went for a more warrior-esque feel, but also realistic and relatable.
I would say also that you choose your costume in the apocalypse, you decide how you want the world to view you. That is what Michonne ultimately did. There was one episode where we went back in time and saw Michonne with her little boy and her husband. I gave them sort of an Afro vibe, with more African mixed prints in clothing which was mimicked in the decor as well. She had dreads with jewels. The outfit that Michonne chose in the apocalypse was her African inspired armor. She wanted the world to be afraid of her. She used to walk with those two Walkers with the missing limbs. She wanted people to see her and run? So she didn’t have to hurt them. Her appearance was a WARNING if you will.
Spencer: So I want to talk to you about some of your recent projects. Coming in October to Amazon Prime Video is the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series of unique, unsettling thrillers developed and produced with an eye towards original, genre storytelling. They showcase diverse casts led by emerging filmmakers, premiering on Amazon Prime Video. You worked on a few of the eight films such as Black Box – premiering October 6th, and Evil Eye – premiering October 13th. What was it like working on these two projects?
Eulyn: I loved it! The directors were all very open to my ideas and appreciated my expertise. I loved Sarita Choudhury growing up. I saw Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. So I was thrilled to work with her. Oh, my gosh, she’s so beautiful. I love her acting style. She’s just such a good actress. She really brought a lot to the character. She really wanted to look natural and not overly done. We did not want any kind of stereotype. This was not Bollywood. This was a real woman’s journey into madness and struggling with real trauma. We really wanted to honor that character. The wedding piece I designed the top just to hug her and put all of these Swarovski’s on because I knew it would be shot in a darker space. The whole movie would be a little bit dark because of the time change. Her daughter lived in America. She’s in India. My mother’s in South Africa. I’m here. We talk on the phone all the time, every day with a 9hr time difference.
Sunita is an absolute joy to work with and open to trying new things. We tried many different versions of the Americanized daughter before we landed fully on our version of this character.
Spencer: You must have found this film so relatable!
Eulyn: Yes, I certainly understood the story. As an immigrant, I understood how one adopts and adapts to a new country. The characters also lived in the United States for a long while. This led to a choice to add a bit of western feel to certain aspects of the clothing that Usha and Krishnan wear. Not too much embellishment on her daytime looks. Not too much jewelry.
Spencer: The costumes for these two films were fantastic and really show your range as a designer. With Black Box, we saw a lot of contemporary pieces, the medical field, and even the wedding. Then with Evil Eye, you really explored the beauty of Indian fashion. What were some of your favorite moments from working on these two films, and what did you learn?
Eulyn: It was nice to be involved with a group that was so open to my ideas. I got to really show what I am capable of with both of these projects. I could really see the directors were so into what I was saying. I was working with emerging filmmakers, so I would do these massive presentations, to begin with, to really show them what I can do. The sky was the limit. We can make anything happen. I did a lot of sketches and renderings, which is funny because I did way more than I usually would. I created a lot more pieces for these films than I usually would because I really wanted the vision to be realized fully. For example, I designed the looks of the bride and the groom at the engagement party that we see in Evil Eye.
I loved getting to work with Ms. Phylicia Rashad on Black Box. Our young Amanda Christine who plays Ava is an incredible actress. The clothing in this film was kept simple and with very little pattern, contemporary and not too modern. I just wanted the little girl to be CUTE! Like sunshine in an otherwise grey world.
Spencer: Finally, this blog is followed by a lot of aspiring costume designers? Do you have any words of advice for all of those trying to find their way in this crazy world?
Eulyn: Watch films! Watch films that you don’t even think you will like. Some of the most beautiful films are in the horror genre.
When you’re lucky enough to get your first job as a costume PA: Sometimes you get coffee. But that’s also good because you’re keeping the designer awake. Be flexible. I always ask new PA’s where they’d like to end up in the film business, I allow and encourage them to shadow on set with my costumers. Communicate with your colleagues. Maybe you are great at illustrating? That’s actually a job. I think a lot of times people don’t know what we do in the film industry. There is a place for all kinds of talent.
Spencer: Eulyn, thank you so much for talking with me. We have to do this again sometime. Thank you so much!
Eulyn: Thank you so much for talking with me. It’s been awesome to see you!
This year, the 2020 Super Bowl was followed by The Masked Singer. As the show started, I thought to myself that I had to give it a try and find out what everyone was talking about – it was already on anyways. Little did I know, my girlfriend Kate, and I from that point on would be spending the next four months tuning in every week, just to find out who was in that Turtle costume. The suspense was tearing at my soul, keeping me awake at night scrolling through Twitter just to reassure myself that I was right. (Of course, I guessed right but that’s beside the point.) The costumes seen on The Masked Singer are incredible, and I am so excited to have had the chance to chat with the mastermind behind the turtle and every other costume to dance across your television. Marina Toybina is a six-time nominee and four-time Emmy award-winning costume designer, now nominated for her work on The Masked Singer.
Spencer: Hi Marina, it’s so good to hear from you again! It’s been a long time. How have you been doing?
Marina: Everything’s good! There have been a lot of new adjustments and we are trying to make it work, especially since we are back at work and learning a lot of new ways to adapt to our new norm, for the time being.
Spencer: I am so excited for you as you have earned your sixth Emmy nomination! This time, in the Outstanding Costumes for a Variety, Nonfiction or Reality Program category. What does this nomination mean to you?
Marina: I’m excited and honored. It is one of the shows that we really do put so much into and it’s incredible that our peers recognize and appreciate it. I think it just speaks so much for my team because we do have the best of the best working on this. Countless hours go into each costume and it means a lot to me that we are being recognized for it. As I said, it’s an incredible honor.
Spencer: Before we talk about The Masked Singer, can you tell me a little about how you came into this life as a costume designer?
Marina: I was looking back at the past 20 years and somehow everything always leads you to where you need to be. It’s crazy! I never, in the beginning, thought I would go into costume design.
I started in fashion. I went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) for fashion design and had my own clothing line for a few years. We worked with stylists and created one of a kind pieces for editorials and celebrities, and we started with different names expanding on different genres of fashion. It was my own fashion career that led me into music and I started designing for dancers. I teamed up with the stylists of big-name celebrities and it became this whole thing — “Let’s design the whole performance!” I transitioned into my own way of designing by combining fashion and costume. Since I understood so much of the construction from more of a couture aspect, I learned more about dance in the theater and on the stage and approached working with different materials, textures and patterns –and how to combine all these elements.
This naturally guided me straight into costume design and I’ve been here ever since.
Spencer: Where do you feel like your creativity comes from?
Marina: I haven’t had a very easy life or career. I think a lot of the things I’ve been through have humbled me as a person. Because of that, I feel things deeply and I try to express that through my work.
For me, I find every detail and experience that I’ve had in my own personal life important and meaningful, so I put that much more into my work and it shows in building every single costume I create. Everything matters so much — the timing, who’s in it, the craftsmanship that goes into it, how does it make me feel when it’s finished, and can I tell a story with something that we are creating?
I think every moment and every day is so important that if you don’t treasure the life that you have, you can’t really treasure the work that you produce. By combining my two worlds (personal and creative), this is where my creative attachment comes from and it explains the kind of work that I try to produce.
Spencer: It’s almost like your costumes are a part of you?
Marina: They are! Something happens in the process of design where you truly do escape reality because we have to immerse ourselves into these narratives that we’re creating — whether it’s a fantasy or science fiction, or maybe it’s a dark place or an emotion. You have to think ahead and pay attention to every detail of the reality you are creating. These details can be brand new and you then have to be an innovator; or, you have to do all of this incredible research into the history that goes along with what you are creating. Then at some point, you have to create your own vision of the world you are designing.
Spencer: You’ve worked on some really great shows like So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor. Do you feel like your experience in performance-based television prepared you for a project as intense as The Masked Singer? I imagine serving as the costume designer for these projects sort of became the ultimate training.
Marina: Oh, 100 percent! I learned how to prioritize which makes me able to work under extreme pressures and deadlines; I learned how to delegate and work with a team; how to work with talent; being able to understand where certain departments are coming from and how to come together to integrate a show. These are all things that matter so much as a designer — and the learning doesn’t stop at the constructional side, or the artistic side of designs, it also expands into being able to understand the business structure of it all.
By doing So You Think You Can Dance, I learned a speedy yet innovative and instinctual way to design. Since we don’t have much time and the show is live, there really is not much room for mistakes. It’s trial and error as you’re going along; so making sure you’ve got the right fabrications, durability and movement, plus making sure I can bring something to life that is literally coming from a roll of fabric that also lets the dancers feel and execute their choreography. I have to take all those things into account as a designer — and quickly because of time constraints!
With reality television, I feel like most people don’t understand that for us to be able to create these shows — coming up with 60 to 90 costumes in literally four days — is a miracle. People are shocked that it’s not a year turnaround prep period before we go into the next season.
It’s been a huge support for me to be able to do the previous shows that I’ve done in order to execute The Masked Singer.
Spencer: Alright I can hardly wait, let’s talk about The Masked Singer. What were your thoughts when you first found out about this rather unique project?
Marina: I loved it. Funny story — I kept missing the original emails to see if I would be interested in the project, so it took two months for the executives to get a hold of me! Finally, we were able to discuss the show and they sent me the original reels from South Korea. Right away, I thought it was the wackiest thing I have ever seen and I was hooked. It was everything I’ve ever done in my design ability and experience, so I saw it as just one more challenge. I asked myself: how do I make it work for this type of stage (meaning TV), and how do I turn all these concepts that I’ve done from tours or different music videos, and my experience with these, forward to a grander scale.
It was great to have the experience of the first season to lead the creative aspect of the show. Since we were still figuring things out in the first season, I got a lot of creative freedom to develop the characters, and understand how it was going to work, as well as team up with incredible fabricators. For the past four seasons, I have been able to work with people and learn techniques of costume design or fashion I never even knew existed. The blessing of doing the show is now being able to be so well adapted and aware of different techniques of creating fabrics, textures, using 3D printing, fabricating, and working with animatronics. I never in a million years thought that I would know anything and everything about carving foam and how to sculpt a mask!
Spencer: I am exhausted just thinking about how complex these costumes probably are to construct. Not only do they have to have that signature “Masked Singer” look, but they also have to be functional for the performer inside. In my research, I read that there are different types of tech built in the inside of the costumes, such as fans? I guess that should have been pretty obvious but the audience might not realize how much work goes into these costumes! Care to elaborate?
Marina: We are creating works of art. Even to this day, my mom watches the show and she says, “Oh, that’s so pretty!” And I’m like pretty? That took six weeks of carving!
It’s amazing to me that the viewers are catching glimpses of important aspects that go into these costumes. People are starting to pay attention to the details — the beading or the fabrics that we use — and that is incredible.
The process is also incredible. We learn every single season and I get lucky enough to bring people on board and explore new ideas. In the season that we’re building right now, I’m actually learning a lot about 3D printing and new ways of creating masks, plus looking for new forms of textures and fabrication that we can build our masks with. Especially with COVID-19, we are creating health-safety environments for our costumes. It’s pretty phenomenal.
Spencer: What goes into coming up with some of these characters? Some of them are fun and quirky like The Taco, but then you have some characters that feel completely original like The Night Angel.
Marina: The big thing for me is that I love for every character to have their own story, feeling, and even give the audience an opportunity to create their own persona. The Banana is a runway type of modern fashion versus The White Tiger that looks like a historical Egyptian God — but, I like to go a step further by really focusing on the storytelling. Once there’s a concept for a certain costume, I start breaking down the character. I don’t want to just have another costume on stage, so we do the research and I spend my time thinking about what could this character represent? Where can I get those fabrics? How can we bring this character to this new modern world? I brainstorm all these ideas with my team and then I start doing the artwork. After this, the network gets involved and we start choosing which costumes we would like to see in the following season. Then it’s chaos!
Spencer: I love talking about this idea of storytelling through costume, Last season you brought back a monster costume that was related to another costume. So there you’re already creating a story.
Marina: I think what is so great with The Masked Singer is that we have fun. It’s a show where there really are no rules. There are perimeters that we have to stick with, but creatively, it’s those ideas that get thrown around and if it’s something we all love and there’s a way to create it and to follow through with certain characters, then we are doing it. I’m so happy that I’m in a position with a network that I work so closely with that I can present those ideas and we can make them come to life.
There is so much that goes into this storytelling that I love to just have that fantasy world where there are no rules. I’m not limited to just one-dimensional characters and that’s what makes the show so fun! For example, The Night Angel, I didn’t want to do a traditional angel so we gave it a twist, which was very much fashion-inspired. With Night Angel, some things made sense, and other things I liked were so wacky, we left it up to interpretation and for the audience to create their own storylines for that character. Same thing for season two’s The Thingamajig — people thought it was an asparagus and we were going along with it. I love it! It’s incredible too because so many kids watch the show, and I get a lot of fan mail with beautiful designs and illustrations from these young kids. I pay so much attention to that — I even have some of the sketches on my fridge! These messages from fans make me think of amazing ideas that maybe I have not thought about and that we should do. Which we have done!
Spencer: That’s what makes this project so fun, though. It’s just so creative!
Marina: I wish for more sleep every day, but we are having so much fun and it is incredible! Even people like you get to really appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into the show. It makes it so worth it for us because it is very, very difficult. I’m so particular about fabrics. We had to do Kitty for season three, but I didn’t want to build the costume until I got the right color of feathers. It was trial and error and getting the right weight of feathers plus figuring out the right fabrication, beading, and color of the pearls… All of these little things matter so much. Until it all comes together for me, I won’t consider a costume finished. All the elements matter so much, which is why it’s so incredible that the fan base has really acknowledged that part of the show.
Spencer: Funny enough. My next question was actually going to be about textiles, You must understand that the nerd inside me just wants to feel these costumes! I’d venture to say textiles play a huge role in creating these costumes?
Marina: On all my shows and all of my projects, including tours and performances, I fabric shop myself. I will always go and make sure I’m present through all the fabric research. I love mixing textures. I love the upholstery fabrics. I love modern fabrics. I love creating our own textures now that we have that kind of freedom. I print my own prints if I can’t find the things that I’m looking for. As far as a building process from the ground up, I’m very much involved. Being able to feel material and understand how I can make that character come to life is so important to me because it’s almost like if I skip that first step of research or seeing what’s available or what resources we’re working with, I feel like I can never move forward and tell my team how to construct. Because then I won’t really fully understand the character or what things I’m looking for to achieve.
Spencer: So season four was just announced the other day. I saw that there’s going to be a crocodile, broccoli, and even a dragon which you know I am a huge dragon fan. I’m stoked. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect?
Marina: For season four, I feel like we pushed things to the limit. I think I definitely used COVID-19 to my creative advantage by trying to figure out how to create outside-the-box and bring something to the audience that is bigger and better, while also being more uplifting and positive. We had to think about how to create the show in a positive way, especially since we are doing this during these times and facing so many obstacles as a department. I literally put so much creativity and more whimsical touches to the costumes and uplifting color and textures. Overall, we tried to figure out a way to bring something back to the TV world that is bigger, better, and brighter. There are also going to be a few surprises that I don’t want to reveal!
Spencer: I think it’s great for the audience reading this that even you, an accomplished Emmy award-winning costume designer that has worked on so many incredible projects, is constantly learning as you go along. As creatives, we never stop learning, especially when it comes to costume design.
Marina: Every day that I’m with the sewing team or pattern makers, I literally sit over machines and try to figure out what they are doing. Every single part of it! You know, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I really had a moment where I realized there is no difference in construction between fashion and costume. You look at something that you’re inspired by, you lay it out on the pattern table and you go through the exact same fashion process. The craftsmanship behind it is identical. The second I stop learning, I am almost ready to retire. Then there is nothing — to stop learning is almost like you stop growing and you stop being passionate about your art. So, every day I’m learning new ways how to cut fabric, how to treat materials, and watching my incredible team figuring this stuff out with me when we have two hours to finish a costume. It’s pretty incredible!
Spencer: Finally, one of my colleagues at The Art of Costume raised this question and I thought it was such fun! If you were to perform on The Masked Singer, do you have an idea of what your costume character would look like?
Marina: Wow, that’s amazing. Wow.
Spencer: That’s probably a tough question.
Marina: I would be an hourglass because I had lived my whole life on these deadlines and time pressures that every little piece of sand matters.
Spencer: You know, so many people would relate to that.
Marina: It’s the first thing that came to mind, I love all the theatrics. I think if I could, I would figure out how to constantly flip myself back and forth to make things happen. Yes, probably an hour-glass, that’s kind of cool.
Spencer: That’s so cool. I’m obsessed with this idea.
Marina: Now, I don’t know how I could get a person in there. But it would be incredible to flip somebody upside down. Yeah. That’s an incredible question. I never thought about that!
Spencer: Marina, it was so nice getting to catch up with you! I feel like I have learned so much from this! Getting a look at how these costumes are brought to life, such a learning moment. Congratulations on all of the success. I can’t wait to see what’s next and wishing you the best at this year’s Emmys!
Marina: It means so much to me. For example, after season two when The Ladybug was on the show, I got so many letters from fashion students being so inspired in the research that they are doing and understanding how we are crafting these costumes and making them. I then remembered when I was a student how those are the things I was doing — I was reaching out to my favorite designers and learning, watching, and trying to understand. It’s so cool to me to see what the students are picking up on from what we are producing. People are literally looking at the craftsmanship behind the scenes and the design aspect. That to me is the biggest gift. It feels like the biggest honor. Thank you so much, Spencer!
At the height of Emmy Nominations excitement, I had the incredible privilege of meeting costume designer, Natalie Bronfman. Natalie Bronfman serves as costume designer for one of my favorite television shows, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is an amazing show. The story is riveting, powerful and keeps the world coming back for more every season. But what I really love about this show, is the costume design. There are not many shows out there that utilize the powers of costume design to such extent like The Handmaid’s Tale. Color, silhouette, detail, tonality, character development and symbolism are all sewn within the lining of each and every costume present on this show. On Tuesday, July 28th 2020, Natalie was nominated for her third Emmy award in Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes category for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Spencer: Hi Natalie, it’s so nice to virtually meet you! I know it’s such an eye-roll question nowadays but how have you been?
Natalie: Hi! It’s nice to meet you as well. I’ve been quite well and been lucky enough to avoid the COVID virus, as well as all of those around me. I have absolutely nothing to complain about, except maybe that I really want to get back to work because I’m running out of renovation projects!
Spencer: I hear you there! I am glad you and your family are doing okay. Well, better than okay as just yesterday we learned of some incredible news, you were nominated for your third Emmy in the Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes category! Congratulations! What does this nomination mean to you?!
Natalie: Yes, this is incredibly, my third nomination! When I found out, I was completely gob-smacked! It’s such an incredible honor to be nominated by your peers, for your work. Having said that however, it does take a village to put together a show. I have the most incredible hard-working talented artisans under my umbrella, without whom, this incredible season would not have looked as fantastic as it did… The show was incredible to work on, with the most amazing production and writing team who spun the scariest near-realistic stories ever. I am still at a loss for words. It’s humbling. It was such a pleasure to work with Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, & Elisabeth Moss.
Spencer: It’s such an incredible achievement, we are so happy for you! My first question I always love to ask my guests is how you came into your life as a costume designer, and how did you end up taking on a role on The Handmaid’s Tale?
Natalie: I originally wanted to be an opera singer, but I realized it wasn’t really my forte, so I tried to find a way to stay in the theatre world and not sing. I already had a background in fine art and clothing construction from a very young age, so naturally a progression into costume design was second nature.
I took over as a designer in the third season, having been a supervisor for the first two seasons. So that seems like a natural fit since I had been there from the beginning and I understood all the parameters of what it was to be in the world of Gilead on The Handmaid’s Tale. I am forever thankful to Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, and Elizabeth Moss for letting me have a stab at the design for season three! It was an incredible experience and I learned a lot about myself.
Spencer: For the first two seasons of the show you served as the costume supervisor. Now for season 3 you have taken on the role of designer. For those looking at a career in costume design, what do these different titles mean in terms of responsibilities?
Natalie: Actually, in the first two seasons, I served as supervisor AND assistant designer. We didn’t have a formal assistant designer because the show was small enough — in terms of number of costumes — that I could handle it and do both jobs.
I think the biggest difference between supervising and assistant designing is that the supervisor is sort of the CFO of the department. They handle all the money, all the HR, all the ordering of supplies, product, scheduling, and just making sure that the work gets done to be ready for the proper time. Assistant designing is helping the designer in any which way that they need. That could mean going to set to make sure the background is being dressed correctly, or filling in for the designer on set when she’s not available, assisting with fittings, attending meetings, keeping on top of the designer to not forget anything in terms of schedule. It’s sort of a second set of hands, but they typically don’t really have a whole lot to say about the design itself. The Costume Designer, in essence, is in charge of the whole look of what the clothing shall be for the development of the various characters. That involves research, doing fittings, drawings, conceptual meetings with writers, producers, directors; and so, in essence, it is the entire creative conceptual aspect of the department. They are responsible for conveying the story through clothing and all that that entails.
Spencer: Wow, so I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, you have done it all! I’m interested to know what your initial reaction was when you received The Handmaid’s Tale script?
Natalie: Well, the funny thing is, every time I handed out a script in the office, all the work stopped because everyone was just so eager to read them. I was the same, but I couldn’t do it during the day. I had to go home at night and read the manuscript. It became so hard for everyone not to read them as soon as we got them, so then I had to hand them out at the end of the day instead. It’s kind of a funny anecdote and a testament to the amazing writing!
Spencer: I mean how can you not read the script! I would feel the same way (Laughs). Sounds like you made the right choice. So you’ve been on the show since the very beginning – how has your connection to the costumes and story evolved over the years?
Natalie: My connection to the costumes is quite strong, for lack of a better word. The wonderful thing about the third season is that we ended up landing in a new city where there were slightly different rules of dress. I did a lot of research on pious communities of all religions and their rules for dressing and why. Then, I delved into the psychology of the individual characters to figure out how that could be translated in articles of clothing. Particularly, with Eleanor, the Winslow’s, and Serena’s trajectory and costume arc throughout the series. There’s also quite a lot of symbolism in the modern-day clothing of the various refugees that we had in the series as well, that would be Moira, Emily, and Luke.
Spencer: You spoke a little about research which is what I wanted to ask you about next. Research plays such an important role in costume design, so what type of research does this show entail? The thing that makes this show so horrific sometimes is that I can imagine a lot of inspiration probably comes from just turning on the news at some point.
Natalie: Actually, I did not have to even turn the TV on to pull any symbolism from it because all the symbolism has been around before. Women have been covered up since ancient Greek times, in various cycles of dress and undress in terms of covering their bodies and their hair and their faces. My inspiration often comes from oil paintings, literature, historical stories I’ve read, archeology, sculpture, and just a human existence on this planet in its various cycles.
Everything on camera we have seen before somehow somewhere in some timeframe on the planet. Various communities have been trying to dominate women for a very long time. It always goes in cycles of submission and then a backlash, where they will not do it anymore.
Spencer: That’s such an interesting point, and really puts the costumes into perspective. Something that really fascinates me about costume design, is its ability to tell stories and drive character development. You can see this through multiple characters- Aunt Lydia and her back-story, Commander Lawrence and his fancy scarves, Emily and her transition from Gilead life- I can go on forever. Do you have a favorite instance of storytelling or character development through costume in the show?
Natalie: Good gosh, there are so many! With Aunt Lydia, we see her very last outfit in civilian clothing in the back story, in very similar military-esque colours in her clothing. It was an olive drab green, sort of an army uniform of sorts, which was a clear indication that she was going to become someone in a type of army in Gilead, later on. Commander Lawrence for example, was a very learned man, full of arts and culture and literature, and sort of a mad genius who helped create this world. In theory, the world would’ve worked, but then when he saw its actual effect on the communities, especially his wife Eleanor, he realized what a shameful thing he had done. So, in his character he is forever grappling with that shame of having caused this monstrous society and then trying to also be the romantic that he was. He is sort of a Byronic character. Fatalistic.
I think my favorite instance is Serena Joy. Her character arc goes from being very down and depressed, to becoming stronger to get her child back, to being duplicitous with Fred, to thinking she is victorious, to being locked up for her crimes. There is an amazing play on clothing and tailoring and colour and tonality. Even in her modern-day clothing. It was a lot of fun to explore that.
Spencer: Ugh, yes Serena is such a great example. The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterclass example when it comes to the use of color. There is so much symbolism and the costume design plays a vital role there… Can you tell me about the use of color in this show and why it’s important to you?
Natalie: Every colour has a meaning, a symbolism worldwide. When we look at something, it is the very first thing we register in our senses. Colours evoke emotion instantaneously. From fiery reds to dark navys. Everything has a meaning and assemble. From across the room you can see where everyone comes from or belongs to in a particular society. The interesting thing about this show was having to think a little outside the box with very strict parameters, which was an incredibly interesting way to work.
As a silly example, you can recognize the FedEx guy from across the street just from his colours and symbols on his person.
Spencer: Speaking of strict parameters, because of Gilead’s very strict way of life, do you ever feel restricted when it comes to navigating the costume journey?
Natalie: No actually, not at all. It’s just a way of rethinking the obvious and rejigging it for the characters to convey the storyline. I had to get very inventive which is interesting because I absolutely love taking objects of regular use and giving them a whole new meaning or usefulness.
Spencer: I wanted to talk to you about the masks the Handmaids are wearing in season 3. June makes a shocking discovery, realizing the Handmaids of the D.C area have their mouths shut using three metal rings in a vow to silence. These rings are further covered with a red mask that goes just under our nose. I imagine the process of researching and developing a project such as the Handmaid’s mask must be pretty powerful work?
Natalie: It was very powerful work. It was a lot of tightrope walking so as not to offend anyone in particular. I did a lot of research of all the major religions in our world including all the historical imagery and reasoning that went along with it. We had also a lot to think about in terms of not completely covering up the actors so that they could still emote for camera.
I played a lot with objects that normally didn’t go together. For example, the handmaid’s veils were made of a relatively light fabric, but were closed off in the back with big substantial fur-coat hooks. These hooks also not only looked over the top, in terms of the locking mechanism, but it also actually had acoustics to it that really slammed home the idea that the girls were locked down and could not speak anymore.
Spencer: Even just talking about the masks with you is rather chilling. Then to make things more complicated – the cast still needs to act with the mask on. Can you tell me about the technical aspects to the mask that made this possible?
Natalie: Well, I stopped the masks for the Handmaids just below the nose because one can be quite expressive with your nose as well as your eyes. For example, when you flare your nostrils that can indicate that you’re either apprehensive or angry, so that gave them one more thing to be able to emote with. The aunts, for example, had the underpinnings of a nun’s wimple. This sort of indicated that even though they were religious, they were frauds so they never got the entire wimple. They did not have their mouth closed off because they were the ones barking orders to keep the girls in line so it would have been contraindicated to do so. The other factions were more of a utilitarian base. The Marthas would cover up unraveling their headscarves a bit, and the Econo women would just simply pull up that utilitarian cowl neck collar that would cover their faces. The Commander Wives on the other hand, had merely a suggestion of veiling as to comply with the rules of the society, but they were above the rules so they’re veiling was very light and airy and nearly invisible.
Spencer: Natalie it has been such a pleasure speaking with you. I truly appreciate you and your work. Such exemplary dedication to detail and I really feel like I learned so much just from speaking with you during this short time. I am so excited to see what you do next!
Natalie: Thanks, it was lovely speaking with you. The devil is always in the details! Everything that you’ll find in the show in season three, from buttons, types of laces, types of hooks, color, shape, and textures, have all been thoroughly thought through and actually do have a symbolic meaning. I have a few new projects in the works and I’ll be happy to share them with everyone soon. Thank you so much.
Spencer: Well you will always have a place here to share your art with us. Looking forward to the next time!