Once again, the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles has delivered a wonderful look back at the past year’s best in television costume design. The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibition, opening this week, features a diverse sampling of television costumes from every genre, from the stunning period details of Downton Abbey to the contemporary prison garb on Orange is the New Black. The exhibition was carefully curated by Mary Rose, a costume designer and former President of the Costume Designers Guild, who is currently a Governor of the Costume Design & Supervision Peer Group of the Television Academy. Rose has put together a broad spectrum of work from the talented designers currently working in television.
Upon entering the gallery, one is immediately greeted by Emmy-nominated Caroline McCall’s work for Downton Abbey. As beautiful as the costumes always look on the screen, they are even more so in person. Each piece is unique. It is interesting to see the different styles represented for the different characters as well. The more traditional silhouettes worn by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) are presented next to the contrasting modern flair of her contemporary, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine). Many of the younger characters are also represented, their dropped-waist gowns covered with an amazing array of beading and metallic thread. A particular highlight of the Downton portion of the exhibition this year is a focus on the show’s jewelry designer, Andrew Prince, who has made a beautiful variety of custom pieces for the characters, including necklaces, earrings, and tiaras. (Visitors to the exhibition can also purchase a variety of Prince’s pieces similar to those worn on the show in the museum’s shop.)
Included in the exhibition is another period piece with surprising detail – WGN America’s Salem, designed by Joseph A. Porro. At a glance, the costumes are classic 17th-century gowns, but a closer look reveals extraordinary nuances. One black dress features a bodice overlay with intricate metalwork, and a collection of bird and insect charms scattered throughout the skirt. A men’s costume includes rough woven leather and a creepy, otherworldly relief of a human face across the chest. Porro masterfully combines the historic with the supernatural.
On Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, costume designer Kristin M. Burke combines not only historic and supernatural costumes, but also the contemporary. On display is a sampling of the broad range of the show’s costumes, from Abbie’s modern leather jacket to Ichabod’s infamous coat, which he wore throughout almost all of season one. It is fascinating to see the present-day styles alongside some of the Revolutionary War-era costumes, which showcase Burke’s extraordinary attention to details ranging from uniform buttons to careful skirt pleating.
There are beautiful period pieces showcased in the exhibition, including Ane Crabtree’s polished costumes from Masters of Sex and the authentic creations from television movie The Trip to Bountiful (designed by Van Broughton Ramsey). But it is also exciting to see so many contemporary pieces showcased as well. Too often the hard work of these shows’ designers is overlooked, but Mary Rose and the FIDM Museum have made sure that they receive the attention they deserve.
It is easy to assume that a contemporary series set in a women’s prison, like Orange is the New Black, would have minimal costume needs, but quite the opposite is true. The exhibition has a range of Jennifer Rogien’s costumes for the show, and even though they are mostly uniforms, there is still a sense of individuality between the looks. Rogien and assistant designer Joshua Marsh attended the exhibition’s opening, and graciously talked with me about the design process for OINTB. Rogien said that “one of my favorite creative challenges on the show” is “to convey that each of these women is an individual even though they’re literally in uniform.” It is great to see that unexpected design challenge acknowledged and celebrated.
Other modern shows are also celebrated, including the impeccable tailoring on The Blacklist (from costume designer Christine Bean), and Daniel Lawson’s sleek, interestingly textured women’s and men’s suits from The Good Wife. More casual design looks are represented as well, from shows like Parenthood (designer Diane Crooke) and Portlandia (Amanda Needham).
Sundance’s The Red Road is a contemporary series that includes some Native American elements. Designer Alonzo Wilson told me that he is “really happy that Mary Rose always tries to include some contemporary shows…. because a lot of times people think there’s not much design in that, but there’s a lot of design in them.” Wilson’s displayed work ranges from a traditional full leather dress to modern clothing with Native American accents like turquoise and silver jewelry or leather pouch necklaces.
The variety and nuance needed for a fantasy show is also showcased, with a display from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., by designer Ann Foley. Foley’s designs include everything from Grecian-inspired gowns to leather catsuits that must move with the actors as they perform stunts, as well as stylish tweeds and sweaters.
This year, even theatrical costumes are included, from the live television production of The Sound of Music, by designer Catherine Zuber. Zuber’s work involved colorful 1930s costumes, as well as a wedding dress that had to be donned in an incredibly short behind-the-scenes quick-change.
Part of the beauty of this exhibit is, as mentioned earlier, the chance to take a closer look at details that might not show up on screen. Rachel Sage Kunin’s stylish work for Dallas includes custom western belt buckles and statement jewelry. A gold skirt worn by Judith Light’s character featured a stunning painted design. American Horror Story: Coven, which earned designer Lou Eyrich an Emmy nomination, has a unique, vintage-inspired look. Many of the costumes were black, in varying styles, with a standout red ensemble for Frances Conroy’s Myrtle Snow. Her fingerless leather gloves were particularly striking, with their pleated wrist detailing.
Television series connect with audiences in a uniquely intimate way, as audiences learn about and identify with characters while watching in their own homes. Costume design is a huge part of what helps define these characters, often without the conscious knowledge of the audience. The FIDM Museum again shines a spotlight on the diverse and immensely talented designers currently working in television.
Designers also featured in the exhibition: Marilyn Vance (Bonnie & Clyde and Lizzie Borden Took an Ax), Jennifer L. Bryan (Breaking Bad), Luke Reichle (Castle), Mandi Line (Pretty Little Liars), and Jenny Eagan (True Detective).
The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibition runs from July 22-September 20, 2014, at the FIDM Museum & Galleries, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90015. Gallery hours are 10 a.m-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.fidmmuseum.org.
*This review also appears on the costume design site Tyranny of Style.