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4 TV Costume Designers on Capturing Complex Female Protagonists


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After a FOMO-filled pandemic year, viewers are understandably drawn to aspirational style to further immerse themselves in the worlds of dynamic characters and stories, from Michaela Coel’s critically acclaimed to an ambitious, wide-eyed American abroad in Emily in Paris, to twisty thrillers revolving around enigmatic New Yorkers in The Flight Attendant and The Undoing.

Deft costume design infused with fashion also supports a growing landscape of stories spotlighting complex female protagonists while building suspense for enthralling mysteries, journeys of self discovery, or both — as four costume designers discuss below.

Emily in Paris – Netflix

Reuniting with Sex and the City creator Darren Star for Netflix’s Emily in Paris, Patricia Field continues to influence the way people dress while endearing viewers to the eponymous ingenue (Lily Collins). Working with Paris-based Marylin Fitoussi for on-the-ground authenticity, two-time Emmy winner Field uses her trés chic and never-ringarde approach to show the young marketing executive dressing for the high-powered job she wants. “Emily’s optimism and individual coordination shine through her wardrobe, as she is on a mission to show her boss that she can gain back a client for the company,” says Field via email from Paris, where the show is shooting season two.

As Emily lines up alongside established French influencers to be dismissed by a snooty Parisian, she wears a bold green and multi-pocketed Chanel Resort 2020 jacket with graphic Christian Louboutin booties and a melange of playful plaids: a vintage crop top, a Brandy Melville miniskirt and a Kangol bucket hat that caused a spike in online searches. “My inspirations were as usual: a mixed combination of patterns, resources and my personal applications,” explains Field. But, “the main challenge was reapplying the Chanel aesthetic to Emily’s aesthetic.” So Field transformed the stately jacket into a fresh if not audacious message, like Emily’s ultimately successful pitch. “I thought, ” ‘Great! Let’s make it oversized Chanel.’ “

The Flight Attendant – HBO Max

Inspired by the romance and magic of a glittering Bangkok, Cassie’s (Kaley Cuoco) champagne sequin dress, which was worn for her fateful date with first-class passenger Alex (Michiel Huisman), appropriately kicks off the rousing HBO Max whodunit. “That was part of the departure point,” says Catherine Marie Thomas, punning on a call. But, like Alex, the show’s ensuing mystery and the self-destructive flight attendant herself, the sparkly dress turns out to be more than meets the eye.

The silhouette aligns with the design of the Imperial Atlantic uniform, which writer-showrunner Steve Yockey scripted as a Diane von Furstenberg wrap-style dress. “Cassie seems like she’s always keeping it so together in the way she looks, and then her world is unraveling around her,” explains Thomas of the show’s repeated imagery of “overlapping and crossing.”

Thomas custom designed multiple iterations of the lace-trimmed, fabric button-embellished and latte-hued underlying slip, which allows for Cassie’s physicality throughout the long and winding sexy evening, her discovery of Alex’s body and her frantic evidence disposal. “The whole show has a little bit of this noir vibe. I liked that the silk charmeuse slip harkens back to the ’30s,” says the Emmy nominee for 2009’s Grey Gardens. “It just really worked for the tone of the pilot.”

I May Destroy You  – HBO

To depict a Halloween “dark angel,” as scripted by the HBO limited series’ creator and star Michaela Coel, costume designer Lynsey Moore continued her distinct mix of ’90s-referential high street and vintage that an impossibly cool but budget-strapped East London author turned influencer would wear. Arabella (Coel) reaches a crucial turning point that is illustrated through her costume, which is rich with dichotomous symbolism. “It was straddling something that looks amazing — and is this iconic silhouette — but at the same time: Is it believable that it’s somebody in the real world and not off the catwalk?” explains London-based Moore.

To “signify power,” Coel suggested an imposing headpiece, so Moore custom built devilish horns by sculpting paper and wire, covering them with a leather-like fabric and engineering the towering set onto a headband. “She’s charging at people, she’s taking people down,” says Moore. “But it’s misguided. She thinks she’s doing good, but she’s not.”

Moore found angel wings, which flap with a pull string, at a party store. Amid crowds, Arabella expands the wings to capture social media content, offering another allegory. “It’s about presenting to the world an image that you want them to see, and perhaps it’s not necessarily true,” says Moore. “That’s her mindset: ‘I should be looking like this at this moment because the world needs to see me as this powerful figure.’”

The Undoing – HBO

To authentically capture the personalities of the one-percenter Upper East Side in HBO’s thriller, Denmark-based Signe Sejlund immersed herself in the rarefied enclave. “I got in touch with a lot of these ladies, and I had tea with them,” she says. To characterize Nicole Kidman’s Grace, Sejlund accented the old-money scion with luxurious yet restrained logo-free accessories and contrasted fabrics. “I always tried to put one shiny, silky, smooth and sensual piece with one piece that was more structured and solid,” notes Sejlund. “Grace is a smart and grounded person, but she’s also fragile, vulnerable and very sensual.”

Grace’s protective and vividly textured green coat inspired countless memes. “That green fabric has so many colors in itself,” says Sejlund, who custom designed the piece with a mysterious hood to evoke a children’s fairy tale. “This Little Green Riding Hood. She never put the hood up, but we could have done it.”

The shearling-like velvet was originally intended as a panel on another design, but an inspired Sejlund decided, “‘Hey, let’s just go all the way in.’ I’m not afraid to be quite bold in my choices.” Working with the fabric proved a struggle but worthwhile — provoking more discourse than the demise of the mysterious Elena Alves. “That world is really up my alley,” says Sejlund. “Fashion and, at the same time, classic and just good taste. So I felt very at home in doing The Undoing.”

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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