S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Clothes are so practical, they’re so necessary, like part of our everyday lives, so when I see these characters, I see them in clothes and it’s not just like, oh, it’s a T-shirt and jeans and the hoodie. It’s also like, what color does it fit? So then there’s all these details that fall into place to help define who this person is.
S1: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Ramona Lum, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler. Isaac, we just heard the voice of Brenda up and down below. She’s your guest this week. Can you tell me who she is and why you wanted to talk to Brenda about her work?
S3: Sure. Brenda is a costume designer who has worked in theater and for Saturday Night Live and more recently in feature films. And I wanted to talk to her because there are all kinds of creative people with fascinating processes that work on things like the movies we see, and we often don’t actually pay attention to that work. Not everything is the director or the writer or the big name actors or the stuff that goes at the beginning of the credits. And I’ve been very curious to talk to more of those kinds of folks on this show. And I also admire her work. So she just seemed like a good person to reach out to.
S1: I know that you yourself are someone who has a background in the theater, so you’re probably accustomed to thinking about those details of presentation. You know, I’m mindful of how clothes function in real life. In fact, I’m like, I love fashion. I’m a fashion person. But honestly, I’m less thoughtful about how they work on screen or on stage, how they’re a part of creating narrative. But obviously, they’re a hugely important part of that.
S3: Yes, absolutely. And just as a side note, I should tell myself a little bit here and say, as a young director in my 20s, I really struggled with costume designers and with the field of costume design. I just did not understand how the stuff we were saying in meetings or that I was looking at at a sketch translated into the clothes the actors were eventually wearing. And I would often find myself committing to choices and then seeing them being like, what the fuck is this? And that was entirely my fault. And it wasn’t until I started working with a really wonderful costume designer named Sidney Maresca that that changed because I was basically able to say to her, like, I need help with this. And by admitting that I was bad at it, I was able to ask for the help that I needed. And she was very gracious in providing it. And she and I worked together on many shows. But in theatre and film and television, design is doing an enormous amount of work that you might not notice. In fact, often you’re not really supposed to notice it. It’s supposed to affect you and create the world and tell you all sorts of things about character and theme and where and when you are. But again, a lot of that kind of just registers not consciously. And so it’s not just saying, like, OK, this character needs, I don’t know, a coat for a scene. But what does this say about them? What does this say about their world?
S1: Right. That’s the kind of stuff that’s really obvious when you’re talking about a program like Mad Men where the visual aesthetic is very clearly defined. And that’s part of the appeal of watching the show, is you’re peering into the sort of beautiful time capsule of a previous moment in the culture. And it’s less evident when you’re talking about a sitcom. One of the texts that you and Brenda discussed is The Disaster Artist, which the twenty seventeen film starring James Franco that Brenda worked on. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of clothes and costume in that film? And then maybe can you explain to us what American Pikul is?
S3: Yeah. So the disaster artist, which was directed by James Franco and starred him and his brother Dave, tells the real life story of the friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Cicero and the real film that resulted from that friendship, which is a movie called The Room, which is now a kind of cult classic or midnight film, because honestly, it’s awful, but it is awful in this way that is singular and strange and rooted in one man’s or tourist vision. And, you know, so it’s caught on in that way. And clothes are really important to the disaster artist because every actor in it is playing a real life person. And the film often shows the making of the room. And Tommy Wiseau, the director and writer and star of the room, has a truly bizarre fashion sense. And so I was really interested, as I think you might be as well, in how those constraints interacted with Brenda’s creative process. American pickle’s a bit of a different story. It’s a madcap romp. It’s really heightened. And the problem there’s a little different. It’s that almost all of the movie is just Seth Rogen. And often it’s Seth Rogen talking to Seth Rogen because he plays two different roles. The first is Hershel Greenbaum, who’s a Jew from the shtetl who comes to America and gets preserved in a vat of pickle brine in 1920. And then he also plays his grandson, a Brooklyn programmer named Ben Greenbaum. And Hershel meets Ben and they become nemeses after. Rehearsal is I guess he’s not unfrozen, he’s unblind a century later.
S1: Well, I’m very curious to hear Brenda talk about the challenge of costuming, two different Seth Rogan’s from two different periods in this country’s history. Before we get to your interview. I want to mention that Slate plus members are going to hear a little something extra from your conversation with Brenda. And you discussed some of her favorite costume designs in all of filmdom. If you aren’t yet a member of Slate plus I don’t really know what you’re waiting for. You can get two weeks for me right now. Just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus. OK, let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Brenda up and down below.
S4: So, Brenda, when you meet people who aren’t in the industry, maybe at a party or whatever, back when there were parties and you tell them that you’re a costume designer, what do they tend to think that job actually is like? Do people understand costume design, do you think?
S5: I think people think and it can be fun, but I think people think it’s constant fun. I don’t know. I think they have some people think I do Halloween costumes. I mean, it’s all sorts of things. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, totally. But I don’t know. It’s not like it’s not always being and gushy and, you know, red carpets and fancy anything.
S4: Right. So when you have a job, when you’re beginning to design a project and you’re first reading through the script of the screenplay or whatever, you know, the first time you’re reading through it, the very beginning of that process, what are you looking for? What are you taking notes on?
S5: I guess it depends on why I’m reading the script for the first time, if it’s for an interview, I’m looking for the tone of the film, like if it’s a comedy, if it’s a drama, like, it gives me a sense of color, like silhouette, stuff like that. And I’m also looking for just connection with the character, things I can talk about with producers and directors and like real things I can hook into and be like, I understand this from an experiential level. Like I can step in this character shoes and I can I feel like I know what will help an audience relate to the feel of this character. And so just so I can put images together that can start to elicit conversations from a director, a producer in an interview setting, if I were reading it like I get the job and I’m reading it for the first time, I’m probably trying to put a budget together or get a scope of the size of the film. So I’m looking for like, what season is it? Do they need coats? Do they need how many layers of clothes? How many scenes are there? Big backgrounds. Like what will I need logistically to get this job done? So I know what size crew I need, how much money I need. So when they talked to the line producer, we can kind of like negotiate the realistic logistics for getting the job done. And then I go through again and I want to know, like when these characters change, how many days? Like, it’s almost like layers. And then I layer in like, oh, there’s fifteen script days, but this character goes to a benefit this night. So they’re going to wear two outfits that day instead of one. Like it’s like I keep whittling things to make it more specific and then I’m like, oh the season changes here. Oh it starts raining. So they need a raincoat. Oh I just talked to the production designer.
S6: This is the palette now. I can kind of hone in on palette walking around in our daily lives.
S4: We don’t always consciously think about what our clothes are expressing, but as a costume designer, you have to think about that in very clear ways. What about this character is being expressed in this clothing? Right.
S5: I mean, it’s like clothes are so practical, they’re so necessary, like part of our everyday lives. So when I see these characters, I see them in clothes and it’s always informed by the text in the story. It’s like, you know, the story will tell you where they live, what their classes. So I think that when I read the script, you know, it’s not just like, oh, it’s a T-shirt and jeans and the hoodie. I mean, it could be that. But it’s also like, what color does it fit? What group are they in school or are they the popular? Do they have the most expensive today of the jeans from Goodwill do that, you know what I mean? So then there’s all these details that fall into place to help define who this person is. And it’s also some of it is also done in the shopping process. Like sometimes like I’m out in a thrift store, goodwill or whatever. I like to use a lot of vintage clothes and as an even more so now. But, you know, you just find such really unique things that define a character in a way that. That’s right. For the screen. Right. Right.
S4: I think for a lot of our listeners, they probably first encountered your work in the Disaster Artist, which was the costume designer for which tells the story of the friendship between Gregs, Estero and Tommy Wiseau and the creation of the room, which I think many people regard as the most fascinatingly, delightfully terrible movie ever made. Right. And and that’s a nice way to put it. You know, it’s a weird thing because you’re designing the costumes for real life people, one of whom has a very flamboyant, shall we say, a fashion sense. And then there’s also the film within the film, which is the room, which is a real movie, which has an existing costume design. And I was interested in what it was like to kind of adapt your process to that. Much of the real world kind of existing at the same time. Was that was that fun for you? Is that a challenge or you know, what was I like?
S5: It was it was everything. It was really fun, Tommy. Such an interesting guy. And he’s got such a unique I really like Tommy. He’s a very unique sense of style and of which is so rare. Right. It’s so rare to find someone with their own identity. They don’t really they just wear. So it’s just like, oh, I, I kind of have license because Tommy’s so flamboyant.
S4: And how many pictures is he wearing. Like three belts, because I seem to remember there being like more belt.
S5: So he wore five belts. Yeah. Like, like he, it was just like, it just kept getting more and more. And Greg kept telling me the back story of all this stuff and Tommy style and how it evolved over the. Years of their friendship, so I had all this information and at some point I was like, I can’t take anymore information because we can’t put all this in the film makes no sense.
S4: So although that arc of the character is there in the clothes, because by the time you’re on the film set, he’s looking he’s not dressed the same. I mean, his campaign does change.
S5: Yeah, totally. And that’s what we talk I talk to about change. And I talked about that in the beginning, that we wanted an arc and the way that the writers had developed this imagery into the script of like this vampire imagery. And we wanted to start somewhere and then humanize Tommy and make him really relatable by the end. So he started he would pare down his him as a person got more defined, so his style got more defined into what we see today, which is like he always wears that vest and the tie and the jeans and five belts so that like some stuff we carried from the beginning. But we started to like get closer to that as the movie moved along.
S4: You know what you’re saying there is that the costumes, part of what the costumes are doing in that movie is establishing him as a mystery and then humanizing it. And that you can do that. Actually, it’s not just the script that does that the clothes themselves can do that can make you feel like I know this person better because now he’s wearing a tank top and pants as opposed to I don’t even know how to describe what he’s wearing early on in the movie, right?
S5: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like he’s wearing all vampyre, like those pirate shirts and stuff like that. Yeah, 100 percent. And we wanted to make sure that we had that arc. And I think that what they were really and I think James was really successful at doing was creating a lot of compassion and empathy for Tommy instead of him being this mystery eccentric who made this insane film.
S6: He’s a guy who wants respect and what most people want, you know what I mean? Approval and all this stuff.
S4: Do you remember how long the process of of your working on the disaster artist was? I mean, it must have been months, right?
S5: I mean, you know, and, you know, I prep that movie in five weeks. Oh, my God. And we shot it in like I can’t remember. It must have been around eight weeks, but it was fast and it was furious. And there were it was it was challenging. David and James were cast from the very beginning. So I was able to spend a really decent amount of my time focused on them because they were still making casting decisions about the people who were playing the other characters in the room. And that actually didn’t come together to really close to shooting. But I knew they were going to cast people similar in body shape and size to who the actual.
S6: So I was like sourcing everything that I could make match or I was building things within that relative, those relative body sizes so that when they cast, I could we could actually just do fittings and make alterations and go.
S5: But, you know, I was it was like my biggest project and I felt like I had a lot to prove. So I was trying to be really accurate with the room. So it’s like so weird. But I must have tried on like fifteen suits like those black suits, the black suit that Tommy wears in the room. I must have tried on fifteen different suits on James just to make sure it had the right. Is the it it was large enough, it had the right hang, it was roomy and it did all the things that that Tommy suit did.
S4: You know, you mentioned that process was pretty quick, right. Five weeks, maybe eight weeks of shooting. I was thinking about that because you were also the associate costume designer for Saturday Night Live where the where the process is. I assume even I mean, it’s like you have 72 hours or something. I mean, I can’t even imagine. Yeah, right. OK, 24. There you go. So what was it like trying to kind of compress a design process into that short an amount of time? I mean, I guess, you know, the bodies you’re working with.
S5: But but beyond that, I mean, the good thing about working on SNL is I think in a weird way, like I my ego was sort of up on the room because I had worked on SNL because I remember telling the producers, don’t worry, the casting coming in last minute on the room and then being like, can we do this? And I’m like, don’t worry. I worked on SNL. We can do anything. And it’s just like and you can’t I mean, on SNL, you can really do anything because they have like so many resources and everyone’s like, so good. But SNL is it’s awesome. And sometimes. It’s really like it was really anxiety provoking for me, it’s like, oh, my God, I need to go. I mean, I worked on the the film shorts, the digital shorts exclusively a few times. So I insisted on the show, but my job was on the digital shorts. So you got the script Wednesday night, like you would go in for the read through, you’d start to make decisions with the writers. Thursday you prep and then Friday you shoot. So you knew that you’re going to be going on Friday. So you you know, for after I was done praying, I wouldn’t get like a Lord of the Rings remake or something crazy like that. You know, if you got that, you really had to hustle, like you would fly stuff in from like L.A. or and just like sometimes just make it work on set. But, yeah, you just hustled and you had a team and sometimes you were there really late. And I don’t know, you just sweat it out. And by the time you get to set it all worked out and you could go home the next day and sleep, but you make it happen. I mean, most things on SNL are cheap. Like they’re a they have the most amazing costume. When I tell you those guys are the magicians, like, they can spin like gold out of wheat in that wardrobe room. So if you really can’t find it, they’ll build it for you. And like you have the best people building the best, the most amazing things. And they’re matching it. Exactly. So it’s like SNL is pretty magical that way. It must have really taught you how to make decisions in a hurry. You have to. Yes, totally. And I you know, I came from like NYU, like I went to grad school at Tisch. So I, like came from this place where, like, you know, we’re doing all these theoretic projects and you’re the director and you’re you’re spending weeks indulging all your senses and you’re coming up with all these clever ideas. And then you get there and you’re like, oh, my God, you’re in the store. It needs to be back in a fitting in fifteen minutes. Pick the red or the blue, you know what I mean?
S4: I was also thinking, you know, for theater, the audiences at a certain distance from the costume. Right. Whereas in film, you know, the camera puts you right up in there, right up in those details, you know, and at the same time, you know, in most film you have a larger wardrobe department, a lot more support, hopefully some more money to play with than in a lot of plays. Do those things affect your your process, you know, knowing that it’s going to be on camera, knowing that they can see the kind of seam in the pattern closer up, does that change the way you think through the process?
S5: I’ve learned a lot about the differences of what works on film and what works in theater, which is sometimes the opposite. You know, scale is so different in both cases. And also I remember one of my first jobs, film jobs. I was costume from head to toe because I would think holistically about the character. And I like to do that philosophically. But sometimes I remember wardrobe supervisor saying to me, this isn’t theater. You don’t have to worry about the shoes. And of course, like, I would spend hours, like figuring out what these perfect shoes are and they never make the frame ever. So it’s like I’ve learned like to ask, what’s the shot? Are we going to see this? And that’s what I focus my energy.
S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac Butler’s conversation with Brenda Ovenden after this. One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether that’s a specific challenge about your work or a bigger question about inspiration or discipline. Send those to us working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll even put those questions to our guests. OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with Brenda up and down below.
S4: For American Pikul, which I’m very excited to talk to you about, because I am a secular Jew and I did play Tevye in high school, so I’m very excited to talk to you about American Pyka, which I greatly enjoyed teasing you. Also, you know, there’s so many wild things going on in that movie, including that your costuming, the same actor, Seth Rogen, playing two radically different roles, one who is from, you know, the the early 20th century in a Russian shtetl. And the other is a contemporary app designer programmer. So where did you even start with with American Bikal?
S5: I mean, I was I was really excited about American people. I love working with those guys. And I was really excited about doing something that was period and then something that was contemporary, but kind of ironic. It was like kind of a play on the modern tech Williams, you know what I mean? That whole like that whole type the whole movie has a really heightened tone to it 100 percent. And like, we were kind of taking a piss on a lot of it with, like those knit beanies and they kept getting bigger. And then, like, how high Seth’s pants were, as Ben Greenbaum is, it’s just like and have taped the taper and the whatever it was just like, oh, let’s just go for it. It was cool. We started with Russia in 1916. And I just I really connected to is really easy for me to research this. And Brandon TROs, the director, is so cool and he just like we just love so many things. And he was so specific and he was just like, oh, I totally relate to like these kind of looks. And then I think what I did was I went and pulled a bunch of period stuff that I fit on staff and in combination of Sass and Brandon and some of the producers, we you know, what felt good, what felt right, what felt authentic without being too comical into too absurd. We just like honed in on something. And then we took what we did after I fit it was we had to build like ten of them because Seth had a photo double, he had an acting job double. He was going to be in the mud for multiple hours every day. He was going to have to change out constantly. So we had so many of these things made. I can’t even tell you I had so many that we didn’t even use. By the end, I could have given them a ways, wrap gifts like it was it was just a uniform that kind of, you know, of his main costume. Yes. Yeah. And he had an acting double and he was amazing. And he so when Seth was playing Ben Greenbaum, his acting double was in the Herschelle costume and vice versa. So everything there was doubles and multiples of everything for each of them so they could simultaneously do whatever they needed to do.
S4: Wow. Wow. You mentioned the the research process for the film, trying to sort of capture that look of the shtetl in the early twentieth century. What was that? Did you do you go to the library to watch Fiddler on the Roof? Do you look at Chagall paintings? You know, how are you how do you like to to to do that?
S5: I didn’t watch Fiddler on the Roof. I think I intentionally I didn’t watch Fiddler on the Roof because I think one of the first things we decided was we don’t want it to look like Fiddler on the Roof. First of all, I researched shlubs because I just thought it’s like it’s probably not a real time, but it could be. And it actually was a real town. Oh, really? And so. Yeah, which was so quick. And then I thought, oh, they basis in some like sense of reality. But then when I spoke to the director, he, he was like, no, I just that wasn’t the case. But there was photo research for people in that town which, you know, opened the door to Russian peasants, gypsies, all sorts of photo imagery. I do go to the library. We love the picture collection I spoke to to a Russian rabbi. So we used a lot of research like consulting research, which was really helpful.
S4: So, you know, one thing I loved about the clothes in that movie is I feel like they really help shape Rogan’s two performances because they’re really Herschell and Ben are not similar in a lot of ways. That’s the whole point of the movie, is they’re they’re kind of conflict. And there’s a way in which her. Was kind of determined, stubborn muscularity, you know, that he’ll fight someone with his fists or whatever, you know, is supported by the clothes. And similarly, how kind of uptight and restrained Ben is, is right there in the clothing as well. And I was wondering, I have to ask it is that one of the reasons why Ben’s shirt is always buttoned all the way up? Because I was like, oh, he’s buttoned up. That’s why his collar button is always buttoned, or is that just a riff on kind of Bushwick hipsters?
S7: I want to say that Seth was a huge I mean, obviously, as most actors do, just had so many great ideas and was really like we just had a great collaboration on who we thought Ben was and says had a lot of he kind of opened the door for me because he he had like a strong instinct towards a certain direction, which was that kind of like buttoned up, ultra cool tech Bushwick tech guy.
S5: And, you know, yeah, it worked. It just worked for the characters. It was a riff on the Bushwick hipster, but. Yeah, but he Vanesa uptight. It’s so funny how he’s the uptight character next to compared to Hershel who’s like this early 20th century old school Russian.
S4: But yeah, you know, when you’re a freelancer, you don’t necessarily love every project you work on. Right. You’re not necessarily immediately inspired by every script or every collaborator or whatever. And so I think one of the really hard jobs is figuring out how to get inspired when you don’t immediately feel passionate about a project. How do you do that?
S5: That’s an amazing question, because it happens more often than you would like it to happen. I mean, sometimes this is so shitty, but it’s like act as if. Right. So I just move forward. I’m just like, I’m designing this project. I agreed to do it. They’re paying me. I have to do it. So I start with my I just start with the same thing. Every time I break down the script, I do. My board says if I need to sketch, I talked to I just go through the motions and inevitably something is going to connect you. You’re going to have either a great footing and you’re going to like really get on with the actor or the director is going to say great job. Or even if it’s like as menial as that, it’s just like, you know, you just act as if and eventually you spend enough time with this one group of people. You whether you like it or not, you become a unit, you become a family. And that sometimes that’s enough to make you inspired to show up for work every day because some jobs you have to take, you know what I mean? It’s like the QUANZHOU in my life. I always want, like the the smartest, the coolest, the best job. And sometimes you need a job, you know what I mean.
S4: Right. And so it sounds like when that happens, you sort of stick to the process and have faith that the inspiration will come.
S4: Well, Brenda, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking to us about your creative process. It’s great to talk.
S5: Yeah, thanks for reaching out. I think it’s great to see you.
S1: Isaac, I was struck by how you began situating us, the costume designer has to read the script. She has to understand the story that everyone, the actors, the director, the production designer, everyone is there to collaborate on. Everyone’s working in concerts. And the costume designer has this one very particular part to play. I don’t know why I had never thought through that before, but it’s really remarkable once I heard Brenda explain that.
S3: Yeah. And you know, that collaboration can go awry really fast if you don’t agree on what the story is that you’re telling or on its tone or on its themes. And as much as we like to talk about, you know, film being the realm of the director, there’s actually a lot of other voices in there, like how much money they have. You know, the producer’s going to have something to say if there’s a star, the star has input and negotiating. All that is a real part of the creative job of a designer. So like with American Pikul, the tone is super heightened and the clothes, particularly the clothes for Ben Greenbaum, reflect this and they actually get more exaggerated as the film goes on. That is not a choice that would work for every story. Right. If you tried to take that approach to, I don’t know, the social network or something, I don’t know that it would really pay off so often. The first part of the process, which, you know, Brenda talks about as being sort of the job interview, part of the process is just about making sure that all of you agree on what the actual work is in front of you.
S1: I also really liked how Brenda spoke about the work’s more practical aspects. And again, it made me think for the first time how a character on a television show needs things like a raincoat or an umbrella and how they could use the same one episode after episode as we do in real life. But that you need to have those right. So that like on a long-running TV show, like Fraizer, my favorite TV show of all time. Right. Like you would need to see Fraziers umbrella and you know that it’s just a part of the texture of the world you’re trying to establish, but that another TV show may require, like, OK, now the characters at a fancy party. So she needs a clutch and now she’s shopping, so she needs a tote bag. This all affects the budgets. Right. So it’s not just about the fantasy you’re creating on screen. It’s about like how you’re actually putting this thing together and spending the money for the production.
S3: I think there’s something really refreshing creatively about just looking at a project and going, OK, practically, what are the real world requirements? You know, in researching my book, I found this interview with Daniel Day Lewis from the 80s, I guess, as he was preparing to do my left foot. And we think of Daniel Day Lewis, his process as being the sort of very complicated intellectual, you know, abstruse, maybe a little narcissistic kind of thing. But in the interview, he’s like, I have this really difficult job where I have to sit in a wheelchair for the entire movie and I can only move this corner of my face and my foot. And actually, all I’m trying to do is figure out how to do that. And so I’m always struck by the more practical side of the process and how that can actually be the gateway to creativity as opposed to the other way around.
S1: I do. I think we’re friends, but I got a pushback on something you said in this conversation. Push away. You said to Brenda, Walking around in our daily lives, we don’t always consciously think about what our clothes are expressing. And I don’t know if I think that’s true. I think clothes are a hugely important part of identity. And I think the care that we put into them, maybe not every day and certainly not the weird days that we’re living through right now where we’re not seeing people as much are going out to the world. But I think that care is present when you choose what you’re buying, when you say to yourself, well, I look good in green or buttoned down shirts make me look authoritative. And that’s how those things end up in our closets. And then sometimes we’re deploying them with thought like, oh, I have this Zoome today, so I can’t wear my sleeveless t shirt or whatever it is, you know, and even the act of rejecting fashion altogether, which strikes me as like an especially masculine point of view. Right. To just say like, oh, fashion is immaterial to me, becomes a way of enforcing that fashion does matter. Like the rejection of fashion just sort of amplifies that. It’s how people are defined. And I think Brenda’s work is one of those art imitates life things. The care she puts into building fake people on on screen or on stage reflects the care that we put into building our real personas.
S4: Yeah, you might be surprised to find that I actually agree with you, although I will say for our listeners, I have seen that gray sleeveless t well, I was more than one of the judges. All right. All right. I think if you view that question is coming from my living out of a suitcase with one week of clothes for five months, it probably makes a little more sense. But but what I meant by it was this. So, like, when I. Get dressed in the morning, I’m not thinking are with what class signifiers do I feel like adorning myself today? Right. But a costume designer is definitely thinking, OK, this character is upper middle class, but they’re ashamed of having money.
S3: And so they want to look like they aren’t. And so they’re going to dress this way or, you know, whatever it is. In some ways, I feel like that’s not that dissimilar from what I imagine a fiction writer like yourself thinks about when when one of those moments comes when you want to describe what a character is wearing. But but I’m not a fiction writer, so I don’t want to speak for you. I mean, does that happen to you? You think about kind of what am I expressing by describing this person’s gloves or whatever?
S1: Yes, 100 percent. If you’re trying to summon a sense of who a character is, it tells you one thing to hear that she’s wearing like a rumpled, shapeless, expensive looking linen ensemble versus wearing a t shirt and cut off jeans. Obviously, there are signifiers buried inside of that. And I suppose maybe really what I’m talking about is the ways in which this comes from fashion design itself. Right. So that when fashion, which is a cyclical, ever changing beast, shows us a presentation of femininity that prioritizes like strong shoulders, as was very popular in the 1980s, that that tells us something about the character of femininity in that particular period of time. And these are just things that are constantly changing and constantly shifting. And I think it’s worth paying attention to. Obviously, as you said, you’re living out of a suitcase and, you know, we’re all living at home. And so fashion has the very meaning of fashion has evolved yet again. And that’s sort of that is its nature. It’s mercurial, you know.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m actually writing about a moment in time when this happened in the book right now, which is when Brando wore a dirty white T-shirt and jeans in A Streetcar Named Desire and the Wild One. And that absolutely changed what authentic masculinity was supposed to look like that. That’s in heavy quotes. Right. And if you look at press coverage of method actors in the Actors Studio at that time, everyone is just like the men dressed in jeans and rip T-shirts and the women don’t wear makeup. Every article is talking about it because the norms of what it meant to be real are changing and are being expressed in the clothes. Absolutely. The people from that period would protest, oh, we were all just poor. But it wasn’t just about that. It was about, you know, what is the new vision of a real person supposed to look like?
S1: It’s very obvious to me in some films, and I’ll use the film that I love, which is Phantom Thread, which is of course, it’s a film about fashion to some extent, it’s obvious that some films take fashion very seriously, that it’s part of like the conjuring of a universe. And it’s maybe less evident to an audience how clothing functions on something like a sitcom or even like those less outrageous parts of Saturday Night Live when it’s like the weekend update as opposed to like the fanciful, complicated movie parody.
S3: Yeah, and sometimes on Saturday Night Live, you don’t want the costume to be outlandish, even if the sketches outlandish. Tina Fey has a part in her memoir where she talks about this that sometimes you like, you need to tell the person actually just needs to be a basic serving trace of the joke, can do the work of getting the laugh. You know, every year when the Oscars roll around and we get to the design awards, it tends to focus on the most something as opposed to the best something. And sometimes those coincide. But, you know, a lot of design in film is not meant to be noticed consciously, but that takes an enormous amount of work to do well. And it’s also really important. Brenda spoke a little bit about this with the disaster artist, the relationship between costume and performance. I don’t think I know a single actor who wouldn’t admit that the clothes they wear affects their performance, whether not just on a comfort level, but just when you put on the suit, that is cut a certain way. It changes your physicality and that changes who the character is. So with someone like Tommy Wiseau, you want to make sure you get that right because he chose that suit, it means something to him. And that meaning is actually conveyed through the clothes.
S1: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you watch I only seen the trailer for the new one, but you watch those Christopher Nolan movies and it’s like a bunch of handsome men wearing these, like, razor tailored suits and they’re all walking perfectly. IREX, you’re like, well, yeah, if I had a twenty thousand dollar suit to wear, my posture would be so good. Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned before Phantom Thread, which is the twenty seventeen film by Paul Thomas Anderson. That’s a film that I really just I love the costume work and the movie. I know you were a fan of Brenda’s work on American Pikul, but I’m wondering if there are other films that sort of jumped out at you as like, yes, this is the high watermark for what a costume designer is able to do.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I just mentioned, you know, we can think of movies that actually, like, changed what people wore, like Faye Dunaway Beret and Dress and Bonnie and Clyde. Right. Or Mad Men had a huge impact on clothing in the United States. And they had a collection with Banana Republic or something like that as a result. But I wanted to mention one specific designer who, you know, actually connects to Christopher Nolan’s filmography, which is a Mary Freeze. She has designed everything from Interstellar to la la land. But the thing that I admire her most for is her long standing collaboration with the Coen brothers, which started with their film Fargo and has continued to this day. So if you think about the Coen Brothers filmography, each movie set in a different time period, but also a different subgenre of movies. Well, almost always they’re playing around with movie genre as well as period and doing both of those things while making costumes that feel real and like the characters actually live in them. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. I admire the kind of Mad Men school of costume where the Fincher Hitchcock School of Costume, where it looks like no one has ever worn this piece of clothing before. It’s hand tailored, it’s fresh pressed. It has no history to it whatsoever. There’s an enormous amount of pleasure to be had in that. But that is not always the right approach to design. And when it’s poorly used, it can actually be really alienating in a way that I don’t think is intentional or interesting.
S1: Well, I think in light of our conversation today, the next time I see you on Zoome, I expect to see you in a perfectly tailored suit that looks like no one has ever worn it before. I expect you to have really pulled out all of the sartorial stops.
S3: Yeah. Or I’ll just wear the T-shirt that I have. That’s a photo collage of Leonardo DiCaprio facial hair there that would work to.
S1: We hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only 35 dollars the first year and you can get a free 2B trial now at Slate Dotcom. Such working.
S4: Plus, thank you so much to Brenda for being our guest and Cameron for being our delightful producer. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between June Thomas and the scrapbooking entrepreneur Allie Edwards. Until then, get back to work.
S3: Hi, sleepless listeners. Isaac Butler here, we are so grateful to you for your subscription and for supporting everything we do here working. So we have a little special treat for you. Here is a brief conversation between Brenda myself, talking about some of her favorite costume designs. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks for listening.
S4: So now is the time in our program where we like to talk about other people’s work, about work that’s been influential to you, that you really admire, and you and I talked a little bit about this before the interview, and you brought up two things that are so that they think of as so different from one another that I’m really curious to talk to you about. The first one is the film Black Panther, and it’s and it’s Afro futurist kind of maximalist costume design. But then on the other side, you talked about the French new wave, which I think of as the sort of least ostentatious of costume design, 100 hundred percent maybe. Let’s start with Black Panther, because I think, you know what what is it that so impressed you or that you took away from looking at the the work in that movie?
S5: I bought a Black Panther because it’s sort of like the dream design, because it’s like costume design at its highest potential. So you have this this sort of mythological story. But Ruth Carter has obviously done this amazing, amazing job in researching tons of African culture and heritage and really like lifting that beyond what it is into this fictional world. And I just think that that is everyone’s dream to get to do that. Right, because sometimes as much as I like realism, I sometimes feel like my creative impulses aren’t fully satisfied.
S6: And I feel like, oh, Ruth Carter really, really took like historical and cultural. And she took this whole reality and then like. Just like in the most beautiful way, I lifted it up for us.
S4: Yeah, it’s interesting, you know, the kind of heightened hyper real comic book ness of Black Panther. And then, of course, going to the other pole, there’s movies like Breathless, Jules and Jim, you know, where it’s like reality. It’s just people in clothes. But it seems like there’s a lot more going on there than just people in clothes.
S5: You know, I have a soft spot for that period of clothing. And I just love the the authenticity and the the reality and the stylishness of those people that they brought and just so intrinsically became these style icons for decades and decades to come.
S4: Right. And it’s also interesting because, I mean, another way that it contrasts is, you know, we normally think of everything on a film set as being as tightly controlled as possible. Right. But in those movies, it’s actually it’s all you know, you’re wearing the clothes you wore that day or it’s happy accidents. It’s much more intricate. Do you find that inspiring to to to think about just kind of like, oh, it’s just clothes and but yet the character is there.
S5: I think in the historical context, I find it inspiring. I don’t I’m not sure if I were on the set as a costume designer, if I would find that inspiring. If I were the director, I would find it inspiring. But I mean, but but ultimately, I do. I do, because I look back and I think, oh, that’s that. So typifies that moment in history and the 60s and that subset of culture and hipness and coolness and that stuff we we look to today. We’re still referencing it today constantly, you know, and I appreciate that. I appreciate that sense of honesty.
S4: All right, that’s our special Slate plus segment. Thank you so much again for listening. Catch you next.