Using Sex and the City as a fashion reference in 2020 is a risk. But, retro as it now is, when Carrie Bradshaw first trotted on to our screens in 1998, wearing body-con dresses, Dior saddle bags and Manolos, she and the show, were outliers. Up until that point, TV characters had rarely, if ever, been so fashion-forward.
We emulated The Rachel, loved The Fresh Prince’s Air Jordans and found comfort in Angela Chase’s plaid, but “SATC was the first show that really was a home run for the costume department,” says Jennifer Michalski-Bray, costume designer on new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, starring Katherine Ryan. “Patricia Field, the costume designer [on SATC], set a new standard for creating a fashion-forward TV programme.” There wasn’t, she says, “another show like that until Gossip Girl” — which hung up its knee-high socks more than eight years ago.
Cut to now, and we are living in a golden age of TV costume design, spearheaded by shows such as Insecure and Killing Eve. Characters with what you might call fashion-forward wardrobes, such as the Telfar-toting Issa in the former, or the Dries van Noten-loving Villanelle in the latter, are omnipresent. In The Duchess, Ryan wears Zandra Rhodes frocks and feather-trimmed Sleeper pyjamas on the school run, while former child star Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) enjoys a wardrobe filled with shearling and hair ribbons in Sky Atlantic’s mesmerising I Hate Suzie. Even in period pieces, there is not just vibrancy (see: the mustard yellow skirt suits and teal nurses’ uniforms in Ryan Murphy’s Ratched) but style inspiration. The costumes worn by Letitia “Leti” Lewis in HBO’s Jim Crow-era horror Lovecraft Country — fringed frocks, cat-eye sunglasses and pedal-pushers — feel relevant to modern fashion, thanks to costume designer Dayna Pink’s melding of period silhouettes with modern fabrics and sensibilities.
It also happens that Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field has returned to the fray with one of Netflix’s most talked about recent shows, Emily in Paris, which premiered this week. The titular character wears fashion with a capital F — she is unafraid to pile on a millefeuille’s worth of trends, from Y-Project accordion bags to Kangol bucket hats. What has been described as her wardrobe’s “basicness” speaks to the character’s pep — a 20-something marketing executive she is on the continent to bring her kitschy American perspective to her chic Parisienne colleagues. Plus, it speaks to the trope of the Vogue-reading American girl in Paris, following in the red-soled heels of Carrie Bradshaw and Blair Waldorf. It fits, then, that there are examples of literal dressing to rival even Bradshaw’s bardot necklines and Breton stripes, from an Alice + Olivia shirt decorated with Le Tour Eifel to broderie anglaise, a biblioteque of berets and a tote emblazoned with the Mona Lisa. As actor Lily Collins said to Vogue, “this is Emily’s opportunity to dress up and be in Paris, and she’s going to take advantage of that.”
I Hate Suzie’s costume designer Grace Snell, thinks it’s no coincidence that high fashion is now big news on the small screen. She and her costume designer peers are, she says, “probably the generation that had our teenage years or 20s watching fashion-forward TV” such as SATC. Plus, for those missing the red carpets, fashion month street style or even just the people-watching opportunities usually afforded by lunch breaks spent not “WFH”, fashion-forward costumes on TV are providing a welcome window in to style — beyond elasticated waists — in 2020. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that fashion was so prioritised in The Duchess. “We wanted characters’ clothes to speak for themselves, so much so that you could watch The Duchess and even with the sound off still enjoy the outfits,” says Michalski-Bray, who has been styling Ryan’s onstage performances for the past seven years.
But this isn’t just glamour for glamour’s sake. In I Hate Suzie, for example, Pickles’ wardrobe, which is full of of-the-moment brand Shrimps, flame-print socks and stripy Jeremy Scott trousers, is more about character and clever optics than aesthetics. Her outfits give the audience an insight into her unravelling. “It’s a vehicle. Subliminally or subconsciously it’s a way of showing a character’s mental state,” says Snell. Having become famous as a teen via a Britain’s Got Talent-style show, Pickles’ adult clothes are an indication of “Suzie’s lack of identity. All her life, since she was 15, she’s been styled, or given clothes,” explains Snell. Michaela Coel recently hinted, in an interview with Who What Where, at something similar being done with her kaleidoscopic costumes in I May Destroy You: “She’s constantly toying with her image trying to figure out who she is.”
Pink, who previously worked as a stylist for bands and dressed Marilyn Manson for many years, also puts “fashion” and trends below other considerations when dressing the Lovecraft County characters. “The responsibility is being a storyteller …Where do [the characters] get this? How long have they had it? Not everyone wears perfect fitted high-fashion garments.”
But in recent years, costume design has also spoken directly to the way audiences actually want to dress, were their budget or commute no obstacle; think Villanelle’s pink Molly Goddard dress. When outfits are available for high-street prices, they regularly fly off racks — Fleabag’s halter-neck jumpsuit, for instance, which was available for £38, sold out numerous times. The journey from screen to wardrobe is made smoother by an abundance of “Shop Your TV”-style fashion sites online, as well as fast fashion’s worrying knack for manufacturing copycat apparel in the time it takes for the next episode to air.
Yet this new era of TV costume design goes beyond aesthetics, consumerism, the aspirational world of luxury fashion or even characterisation. In Insecure, characters regularly make social or political statements with their clothes, from Issa’s Harriet Tubman hoodie to Molly’s T-shirt emblazoned with the name Trayvon Martin. In Lovecraft Country, Pink references outfits worn by subjects in photographs taken by the black photojournalist Gordon Parks during the civil rights era, as well as the outfit worn by Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman, and whose death provides the backdrop to one episode. “We got to make a fashion statement with this show [and] we got to make a social statement,” she says.
TV has evolved from being cinema’s lowbrow sibling into a respected medium — but this hasn’t meant show creators are necessarily working with bigger budgets. “We had a really small budget because [The Duchess] was a sitcom,” says Michalski-Bray. A lot of her costumes came from vintage shops. Snell, meanwhile, relied a lot on designers to lend outfits, as well as shopping secondhand, for I Hate Suzie (she always aims to use 60-75% second hand clothing on all her productions — Pickles’ wardrobe was nearly 50% secondhand).
But, on a practical level, there’s more chance to work your costuming magic on TV than in film. “You’re working with characters for a long time … they have a longer arc,” says Pink, whose background is in film — Lovecraft Country was the first time she worked in TV. “There’s so much creative opportunity in television right now,” she says. “It’s juicy.”