Brow Beat

How the Costume Designer for Suits Tells Stories Using Just the Right Attire

Gina Torres in a scene from Suits.

Photo by USA Network

The USA legal drama Suits, which returns for its fourth season Wednesday, features the most fabulous fashion on television. Set in an elite New York law firm, the well-paid attorneys of Pearson Specter are exactly the kind of people who can afford the clothes top designers send down fashion-show runways.

Slate spoke with the show’s costume designer, Jolie Andreatta, about using clothes to reflect the characters’ personalities, how to make office attire sexy, and matching outfits with the mood of the episode.

Slate: When I think about the work of a costume designer, I imagine someone sketching clothes for someone else to make, but on Suits a lot of the clothes are designer items. How does costuming work on a show like this?

Jolie Andreatta: Designers work all kinds of ways. On Suits, it starts with me going out and finding clothes, especially for our main cast. I go out, look on websites, look at fashion shows, see what’s coming into the stores. I probably shop and pick 90 percent of the show, and then I have a really great team that helps me facilitate getting the pieces that I find in the right sizes, and doing the day-players that I can’t get to. But I’ve always been a hands-on girl.

Slate: Do you adjust the clothes for the characters?

Andreatta: Constantly. We tailor, tailor, tailor. I’ve been known to buy gowns and cut them into dresses. I’ve been known to cut sleeves. If something’s sheer, I’ll cover it. I’m not shy about that. With good tailoring you adapt the dress to the proportion of the body that’s wearing them.

Slate: Most of the clothes on Suits are worn to the office, so there’s not much cleavage, but they’re very fitted. They’re amazing from behind! Is that a way of sneaking in something that’s a little more sexy?

Andreatta: Again, proportions and how things photograph are my main goal, but on this show tailoring is a way to show how sexy everything can be without it being vulgar.

Slate: As you’d expect from a show with this name, the male characters wear some very nice suits—I know Harvey (Gabriel Macht) is dressed by Tom Ford—but the guys’ clothes are almost a uniform. With the women, you can reflect more of their personality in what they wear. Let’s start with Jessica Pearson, played by Gina Torres. She’s the boss, the firm’s managing partner, although she’s constantly being challenged and having to reassert her position. 

Andreatta: I’m sensitive to the mood of the script, and the particular case that’s being addressed. I feel like I can always be a little more sexy, a little more elaborate, when it’s dealing with corporate takeovers. If it’s a more emotional case, I don’t want to distract from what’s going on. Jessica is very comfortable in her own skin, so even if I put her in a really fitted dress, and she’s got to go to court, she’s going to be comfortable in it. Gina can pretty much pull off anything.

Slate: Let’s talk about some specific pieces. She wore this pink dress with amazing textural elements in Episode 304.

Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) in a dress by Roksanda Ilincic.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: This dress is so beautiful. It’s by Roksanda Ilincic. For Jessica, everything has to be on the fitted side—she doesn’t do anything flowy. If I wasn’t out there shopping, I doubt anybody would’ve brought that dress back for me. 

Slate: Later that episode, she wore this suit.

Jessica in a suit by Dolce & Gabbana.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: It’s a Dolce & Gabbana. The dimensional fabric is gorgeous silk. We did change the buttons on that. I think they were darker. It’s a very elegant suit. When most people do business suits, they stay on the drabber side, very masculine kind of fabric, but this is very much a ladies suit.

Slate: This gray dress is from Episode 312. I notice that Jessica often wears elements that are almost sculptural at the front.

Jessica in an Antonio Berardi dress.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: I worked with Zalman King, a really brilliant director, for many, many years. He taught me a lot about detail and what photographs beautifully. This photographs without getting distracting—it just makes for something interesting. It’s an Antonio Berardi. It’s just stunning, isn’t it? It was sleeveless, so I bought a second dress and made the sleeves and put them on. It was for a serious kind of scene, but I could still do something interesting because of that fabric. That’s a perfect way to look at masculine fabric and then turn it into a feminine dress with a little edge to the style.

Slate: This outfit from Episode 314 is incredibly dramatic.

Jessica wears an Armani top paired with an Alexander McQueen skirt.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: It’s so beautiful on her. It’s an Armani piece that was with a big wide pant—I didn’t use the pant, I used an Alexander McQueen skirt with it. It was used in a very short scene, so I will use that again. 

Slate: Obviously wearing and re-wearing things is something that people do in real life. How do you calibrate that for television?

Andreatta: It depends how long a scene was and how dramatic it was. When I do shows, they’re laid out like editorial. So the first day would be like the first page of an editorial, the second day would be like the second page, and so forth, so it needs to have a flow to it. If I need something I’ve already used to continue that flow, then I will reuse it. I also know that if I don’t use it one year, I can maybe skip a year and then use it again.

Slate: Let’s move on to Donna, played by Sarah Rafferty. Donna isn’t at the same level of income or status as Jessica. She’s Harvey’s secretary, but she’s a very powerful character because of her close relationship with her boss. Is there something you do with the costumes to express Donna’s atypical state?

Andreatta: Sarah has brought a lot to the character, and part of it is that she’s got a guy who knows a guy who can get her anything. Donna has expensive tastes. She’s a New Yorker, and she knows how to get what she wants. So she does wear designer clothes. She’s a fashion plate, too.

Slate: She’s a redhead with very pale skin. Is that something that you factor in when picking out her clothes?

Andreatta: With all of them that’s a major factor. Donna’s spunky. Her personality is able to pull off a lot of prints and bolder stuff with character to them. I’ve had her in pink, which I don’t think Sarah had ever worn before, but I think redheads in pink are outstandingly beautiful.

Slate: Tell me about this blue dress. It’s sleeveless. Is that OK in a fancy law firm? 

Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty) in a Reed Krakoff dress.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: The blue dress is Reed Krakoff. We use a lot of sleeveless, especially for episodes that air in the spring. It helps the audience to connect to the show and with what’s in the stores.

Slate: In Episode 307, Donna wore this pink dress. As we were saying before, there isn’t much cleavage in Suits, but there are often interesting treatments around the neckline.

Donna in a Nina Ricci dress.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: It’s a nice detail when you’re in close-up. As long as it’s not too powerful, because then it starts to take it away from what’s going on. The clothes really should be the co-star, not the star. That dress is by Nina Ricci.

Slate: Rachel, played by Meghan Markle, is the youngest of the three women, and as a paralegal and now law student, she’s also the most junior. But she’s from a wealthy family, and she often wears beautiful clothes.

Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle) in a Rachel Comey blouse, paired with an Alexander McQueen skirt.

Composite by Slate. Images Courtesy of USA Network.

Andreatta: That blouse is by Rachel Comey, and the skirt is Alexander McQueen. Quality does show on camera: the fabric, the way it stands up.

Slate: What’s the biggest challenge of working on the costumes in this show?

Andreatta: This year, one of the biggest challenges is that what’s in fashion right now. Art pieces, the structures everybody’s doing, the bolder colors, they aren’t quite right.

Slate: Is it that bold, structural pieces don’t really work with a work environment?

Andreatta: It’s more who the characters are. Gina could pull of anything, but New York characters are pretty classic. Even though they’re sexy, they’re classic and romantic, with a little fun thrown in.

This interview has been edited and condensed.