DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In years past, modern-day America ruled the location landscape on television programs, and the costumes were a reflection of the times in which we lived. That day has come and gone.
In 2015, the Second World War, Elizabethan England, turn-of-the-century New York and colonial Salem are among the settings for an extraordinary range of televised shows and the fashion that comes with them.
That much is clear at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. The South Park institution recently opened its Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design exhibit. The ninth-annual installment, notes guest curator Mary Rose, is full of non-contemporary duds.
A quick glance at the exhibit that runs through Sept. 26 bears that out, with costumes from shows such as Cinemax’s turn-of-the-20th-century hospital drama “The Knick,” AMC’s colonial series “TURN: Washington’s Spies” and ABC’s fairytale drama “Once Upon a Time.”
Altogether there are about 75 outfits from 24 shows on display. Included are outfits from 2015 Emmy nominees for Outstanding Costume Design “Gotham,” “The Mindy Project,” “Olive Kitteridge” and “Wolf Hall.”
Rose said that in assembling the FIDM show, she was on the lookout for a diversity of time and place. Once she set her sights on a program, Barbara Bundy, the director of FIDM’s Museum & Galleries, began her hunt for the garments.
“It’s like a big puzzle,” Bundy said of tracking down a show’s costumes.
The process begins, Bundy said, with the show’s production company, though it rarely ends there. Sometimes a designer has a stash or the costume has been returned to a rental house, but other times, she noted, actors have the rights to the pieces they wear.
Fox’s “The Mindy Project” is probably in the latter camp. The FIDM exhibit has a mannequin wearing a signature Mindy Kaling tweed jacket, in pink and black, that the actress wore on the show about a young OB-GYN in New York.
“Mindy is a real collaborator,” said the show’s Emmy-nominated designer Salvador Perez at a press opening for the exhibit last month. “She loves clothes almost as much as I do.”
While Perez said he and Kaling gab about fabrics, designs and ready-to-wear outfits and accessories whenever the star has a free moment, it’s up to Perez to alter almost every piece he buys. The job, he notes, involves making sure that each item fits the star, or any other member of the cast, perfectly, which usually involves tweaking the lengths, proportions or sizes.
Bundy said that task indicates what the job really entails.
“The exhibit is a great way for students at FIDM to study practical fashion up close as they look not only at the designs,” said Bundy, “but how different colors look under the lights, how things are made and what it’s like to create a cohesive look for a show while individually defining the characters.”
She’ll Make ‘Manhattan’
Bundy said there is a great crossover between fashion in costume design and fashion on the runway and in the mall. The point was echoed by FIDM spokesman Nick Verreos, also a past contestant on “Project Runway.”
“Some designers wouldn’t admit it, but I think everyone takes a little bit of inspiration from what they see on film and television,” he said.
Bundy said that even historical dramas take advantage of this cross-pollination. She pointed to another show included in the FIDM exhibit, “Reign,” which airs on the CW network. On display from “Reign” are a billowy, empire-waisted frock made with two different patterns, a more traditional-looking black dress under a chic coat trimmed in fur, and a man’s royal maroon robe, also sporting a fur finish.
Meredith Markworth-Pollack handles designs on the series that follows Mary, Queen of Scots, in France in the late 1500s. Markworth-Pollack said the show’s young audience has prompted her to take a few design liberties.
“I start with an historical image, then contemporize the piece by bringing in a different fabric or neckline, maybe making it more Bohemian,” she said.
Alonzo Wilson, the designer of Fox’s “Manhattan,” takes a more strict approach. He said he extensively researches the show’s period of the 1940s to create historically accurate outfits. That attention to detail is reflected in the clothes on the mannequins, which include a midnight blue day dress with a classic square neckline, two of the baggy men’s suits popular at the time and a pairing of a blouse and high-waisted slacks.
“The ’40s was a formal yet comfortable time period,” he said. He added that wartime rationing ushered in new styles, like women wearing pants.
Verreos particularly loves the 1920s, featured at FIDM this year with HBO’s biopic “Bessie.” He is also excited by the glamorous and bedazzled costumes from Whitney, the Lifetime movie about the late music star Whitney Houston.
There is a subtler approach in another new addition to the FIDM line-up, AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Outfitting the series was a unique challenge for designer Jennifer Bryan, who had the “Breaking Bad” legacy to live up to while still trying to make her own mark. The biggest task was getting the look right for the show’s namesake character (who in the first season is known as Jimmy), played by Bob Odenkirk.
“I had meetings with the writers, which is a bit unusual, to help develop the character,” Bryan noted. “The challenge was to keep him in clothes that were simple, while still alluding to that bright peacock that was underneath.”
Bryan, who at the press event was dressed in a crisp, white, asymmetrical button-down and bright orange pencil skirt, accented by chunky blue wedge heels and orange nail polish, made for a stunning counterpoint to her understated collection.
The juxtaposition of the designer in front of her work was in itself a microcosm of FIDM’s mission, said Verreos. Sometimes the costume needs to demand attention, and sometimes it does its best work when it is hardly noticed by the viewer at home.
The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design runs through Sept. 26 at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, 919 S. Grand Ave., (213) 623-5821 or fidmmuseum.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015