If I were a costume designer, working on Ryan Murphy’s limited series “Hollywood” would be a dream come true. After all, it doesn’t get more influential, dreamy or evocative than Old Hollywood.
Even the term for this hallowed era slithers off the tongue in a nonsensical mid-Atlantic accent. Decades after this heyday, the fashion — marabou feathers, meticulous tailoring, lustrous satin gowns — continues to influence the runways and the red carpet. Old Hollywood is a shortcut to the ultimate in glamour and prestige. It’s as timeless as the films of the era.
Sarah Evelyn and Lou Eyrich are the costume designers on the new Netflix series, which takes a counterfactual look at late-1940s Hollywood and reimagines the studio system upended by a plucky group of outsiders who want to shake up show business to be more inclusive, diverse and representative. To make its point, the show plays with history like a cat batting a toy mouse. Most of the show’s protagonists are fictional, but they often rub elbows with the real stars of the day like Vivien Leigh and Tallulah Bankhead. Here’s what the designers had to say about working with Ryan Murphy and dreaming up a wardrobe worthy of Lana Turner.
Where do you begin the research for something like this? Did you watch a lot of films from the era?
Evelyn: “It starts with Ryan (Murphy). I feel like Ryan has this vision. Ryan and Lou talk it through, it gets kind of more refined and then that’s where Lou and I start working. And then some classic 1940s movies like ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Killers’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and ‘San Clemente Agreement.’ We hired a great fashion historian in New York who helped us access some of the images that aren’t so readily accessible and also helped us decipher a lot of written resources.”
Were there any times when you deviated from history at all?
Evelyn: “I don’t think we did it for the sake of the story as much as we did for a body type, because modern body types are a bit different than they were in the ’40s, so we did have to modify. Some of the suits had to be shorter or longer, narrower. But on the women, we pretty much stayed accurate to the time.”
I remember seeing a party scene where Claire (played by Samara Weaving) has a bare midriff and I didn’t realize they had crop tops in the late ’40s!
Evelyn: “That was one thing I thought was very fun in research. Actually, crop tops were a hundred per cent late ’40s. That was one of things that I thought, ‘Oh my god, wow. Who knew?’”
How did you approach costuming the older generation, like Avis (Patti LuPone) and Ellen (Holland Taylor)?
Eyrich: “So, because they were from different, let’s say, social classes and the slightly older characters are more of the power players, it was all about tailoring and sophisticated business looks. And then for the younger set coming in it was more day wear, more separates. For the ladies, it was more fun. A lot of colour, a lot of mixing of patterns and flowers in their hair and as opposed to brooches.”
Evelyn: “For Avis, her station and I think her power, for me, was definitely a force. She was a trailblazer and I think that her costumes were selected to look like she was taking risks.”
There was a scene where Avis is deciding between casting Camille (Black actress Laura Harrier) or casting Claire in the screening room and she’s wearing a black and white dress. Is that something that you had discussed with Ryan Murphy or something that you had envisioned specifically for that scene?
Evelyn: “It was a bit of a happy accident. It felt like the right place for the right thing. We didn’t go out and get that just for this scene, but somehow it did work and was very dramatic and strong.”
There are also meta moments in the show. There are movies being made within the show. There’s even a scene where a character goes to a costume rental house. How did you treat those fun film-within-film moments?
Evelyn: “I think those were some of our favourite days! The meta aspect of it all was super fun and of course it’s awesome to film a Western. It was so incredibly exciting to be remaking our world in the 1940s, you know?”
And what about the real people like Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel (the first African American actor to win an Oscar, played by Queen Latifah)? Was the approach a bit different?
Evelyn: “That research became very, very important. If we were doing real characters in a real scene, like when Hattie McDaniel wins but isn’t allowed to sit with the audience, we really doubled down on making sure that we were right about every detail to really give it an homage. But with Vivien, let’s say when we found her at the George Cukor party, that wasn’t really a historical scene, so we looked to her style to find something that looked very Vivien-y.”
How did the costumes play into the greater visual sumptuousness of the show, whether it’s the checkerboard floors or the wrought iron balconies?
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Evelyn: “We started with a really specific colour palette that we called harvest tones. Very rich gold with some pops of pink and purple and red. That then created a very textured world. The yellow caps on the gas station attendants, that was like a real Ryan Murphy moment where we had a vision for what colour these would be and how it would work.”
What’s it like to work with someone with such vision, such specificity?
Eyrich: “It’s always inspiring. He takes a pause when you ask him a question, he pauses and then what comes out is so specific that it just catches you off guard a little bit. He thinks about it and he knows what he wants. I treasure it and it does sometimes become almost intimidating.”
How are you doing in quarantine? Are you staying creative and connected to the industry?
Evelyn: “We’re so busy, all consumed by a project and by pumping out the creative, that I’ve noticed there’s a real opportunity to slow down. I’ve lived in my house for five years and I never noticed that my roses were a really beautiful peach and pink. I’m getting to watch movies that have been on my list forever, so I feel like this is the moment to just be present and see the world around me. It’s actually very inspiring.”
Eyrich: “One beautiful thing: there’s a huge evergreen tree right outside our front picture window and there has been a mama hawk nesting. We watched her build her nest and then lay her eggs, and then watch them being little tiny chicks. And now they look like they’re going to fly. These last few weeks we’ve had our very own nature channel with binoculars out; we’re constantly like, ‘How’s mama hawk doing?’ It’s very calming and beautiful. And I unearthed our musical instruments. I’m finding treasures. I found a ukulele and an electric guitar, a harmonica. We’re starting a family band!”
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