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The Art of TV Costume Design: Inside This Year's Costume Exhibition At FIDM

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Clothes make the man—and woman—and that’s especially true for the characters we watch on television every day. Could Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham even be seen in public without her elegant gowns? How would Ichabod Crane—who thinks that the 21st century penchant for skinny jeans is a sure sign of the coming Apocalypse—possibly survive in Sleepy Hollow without his Old World wardrobe? Or more importantly, how does one craft a provocative, yet practical (combat practical, that is) leather catsuit for S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Melinda May in less than a week?

FIDM Museum & Galleries in DTLA opened its eighth annual The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibition—featuring all the aforementioned outfits and more—on Saturday night during the Television Academy’s 66th Emmy Awards Costume Design nominee reception. (The exhibition officially opens to the public today, running Tuesdays through Saturdays through Sept. 20.)

LAist had a chance to talk to a several of the costume designers—and a few of the shows’ stars who came out to support them—about their inspiration, characters’ clothing and even a little fashion advice for the rest of us. While on FIDM’s beautiful campus, we also checked out the 100 costumes on view from more than 20 featured television shows, including Breaking Bad, Masters of Sex, Pretty Little Liars, Castle, American Horror Story: Coven and everyone’s favorite women’s prison show, Orange is the Black (OINTB).

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Jennifer Rogien, OITNB costume designer, has to get a little creative with the show’s prison garb. “It’s a lot of sleeve rolling and waistband rolling and then tucking a thing into a sock here and there,” she said, laughing. “I have a few inmates who wear their commissary sweatshirts all the time, as opposed to some people like Yoga Jones who lives in her yoga wear….Somehow she gets away with it because she’s a little groovy and a little zen.”

Rogien has more freedom in flashback scenes or with characters like jewelry-loving Assistant Warden Natalie Figueroa, played by Alysia Reiner, who attended Saturday’s event. “Female staff don’t tend to wear a lot of jewelry. It’s a liability,” Rogien said. “It also highlights the distinction that you are not incarcerated and the inmates are, and it doesn’t do anything to help improve your dialogue with the inmates. With Fig, that was a conscious choice—that she really doesn’t care.”

Reiner (who said she has already filmed an episode for OITNB’s season 3) described power-hungry Fig’s fashion aesthetic: “I think she wants to be Alicia on The Good Wife. I think she wants to be Hillary Clinton—but she certainly can’t afford it.”

It’s amazing how you can place a certain character or scene by clothing alone, even when on a faceless mannequin. When we spotted a leather catsuit, we knew that it was tailor-made for Ming-Na Wen who plays Agent May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wen and costume designer Ann Foley talked about their collaborative relationship when creating the look for her character. “I’m here to help [the cast] create these characters,” said Foley. “So it’s important to get feedback from them.”

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Foley said that she didn’t get a lot of notice for this particular costume—and only had five days to create it. Added Wen, who, after reading it in the script, was a bit concerned about wearing such a suit: “It was important that it not only looked sexy and great, but that it functions and moves, and I could do fight stuff in it. Ann is just a genius at it.”

Another piece that we spotted right away was a bedazzled bridal gown worn by Det. Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) on Castle. Katic, along with fellow castmember Molly Quinn, and the show’s costume department, were out in support of designer, Luke Reichle.

He explained that the costumes he curated for the exhibition were all part of the show’s “Dressed to Kill” episode, which focused on the fashion industry. “We had to create a kind of a backdrop for a piece of evidence, which is a photograph of these two assistants fighting. They were in very bright colors—one of them is the victim of the crime—and I wanted them in very neutral background, so in the photograph, the girls would pop out.

“I chose to do everything in these neutral camel colors,” he said as he pointed to the costumes behind Beckett’s dress, “but each designer had their own look so each outfit had its own distinctive style.”

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And as for the haute couture wedding dress, Reichle said that thankfully then-showrunner Andrew W. Marlowe gave him a few weeks’ notice. After showing sketches to Marlowe and discussing the dress with Katic, Reichle and team crafted it in their workroom. The gown uses real French silver bullion lace, Austrian crystals and bouillon silver sequins. “The fabric alone in this dress is like $1,200,” Reichle said. “Dior wedding dresses start at $10,000. And knowing what those look like and knowing what we put into this...this is probably in the range of $50,000.”

“In a follow-up episode, the dress is destroyed, but we didn’t destroy a proper dress. What we did is that we took fabric and created a kind of trompe l’oeil mockup of it," he said. “I wasn’t going to let [the crew] near it with a blowtorch!”

We also asked Reichle, author of the book It’s Not About the Clothes: How to Change Your Mind About Your Look, about any star style tips he could give us “regular folks”—especially on those days when we’re not feeling exactly ready for the red carpet. But he was reassuring: “Even movie stars don’t feel like they look like movie stars,” he said.

“Style from the inside out. The outside is all about color and shape and developing your look and your own personal style, but the inside is really important because no matter how beautiful the outfit is, if you don’t have a great idea about how you look—that’s going to sabotage you every time.”

“The most practical advice I can tell someone is to learn how to take a compliment,” he said. ”And in taking a compliment, ‘Thank you’ is a complete sentence.”

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FIDM Museum & Galleries 'The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design' exhibition opens today (July 22) and runs through Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Museum hours are 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.