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Unreal’s Costume Designer on Where She Gets All Those Gowns

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You'd think the wardrobe department on a show like Unreal would have it easy. It's a scripted series based on an existing reality TV title — a show within a show. The clothing inspiration should come straight from in front of the camera and behind the camera. But according to Unreal Season 2's costume designer Cynthia Ann Summers, it's double the work, especially when it comes to retaining subtlety in the overtly meta setup.

Summers, who worked on several seasons of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, The L Word, and many more television series prior to joining Unreal for its second season, spoke with Racked over the phone last week, while she was on the show's Vancouver set. Below, she discusses dressing "manic mess" Rachel (Shiri Appleby), office-appropriate body-con dresses, and where she gets those dozens of gowns — and shares the story behind that uncomfortable Confederate flag bikini.

I love Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, which you worked on before joining Unreal. How is your approach to the wardrobe different for each show?

Oh, me too. I'm so excited to go back. The fashion on that show is pretty high-end. I use sites like Matches Fashion because I get to use the international stuff that really works for the show, whereas for Unreal, [the look] is really a lot more homegrown. It's about The Bachelor; it's about American TV culture. The gowns are all really — How do I put this? They're real. They're what these girls can afford. [The Bachelor] doesn't pay for their gowns throughout the whole season, except, I believe, the first and the last episodes.

There's the bright, sparkly, shiny, hopeful world of the contestants and then there's behind-the-scenes.

I would say that 90% of the gowns that you see on [Unreal] are from places like Le Femme. They're all in a price range of maybe between $250 (on sale) to $400. They are sort of one-off gowns, as in you wear them one time. These serve our purpose and the purpose of the girls who are shopping for prom or quinceañera — that sort of one red carpet moment in their life. Maybe it's something that's got flash or a good cut.

I've found the gowns — with all the bodies that I've had to work with, starting with 28 women — are really versatile, really good quality for what they are. For my first stop [when shopping for the show], I went to a store in LA and bought 18 gowns right off the bat.

How did you approach dressing the contestants and also the crew? [Series co-creator] Sarah Gertrude Shapiro recently described it as "moths versus butterflies."

Yeah, it's exactly that. When you're on set and you're watching, you can definitely see the great divide. There's the bright, sparkly, shiny, hopeful world of the contestants and then there's behind-the-scenes. Film crews don't dress very fancy. They dress functional. Everything has to get you through 12-to-18-hour days. It's just about comfort. Also, being behind the scenes, everything is dark. You just want to be invisible so that everything is focused on what's happening in front of the camera.

That was definitely a gift because that makes it easier. It really sets a palette for both sides and it gives you somewhere to start. You're never guessing.

I think the only character who sort of breaks out of that mold is Madison. She's supposed to be the character who's absolutely a fish out of water. She's making her way and nobody knows why she's there. In many other instances, this kind of character would be gone. Quinn would've fired her a long time ago, but for lots of unknown reasons, she's still there. She just wears her quirky vintage stuff that doesn't work, but works for her character.

I noticed that in the trailer, Rachel is dressing slightly nicer than she did in the first season. I think I saw a Helmut Lang jacket. Can you talk about how clothes factor into her character progression this season?

It's interesting because Rachel, Quinn, and Chet all come back from personal adventures in their "off season," if you will. The three of them all come back thinking that they're going to be the showrunner. That really reflects in their wardrobe: all three of them have an upgraded look. The one that's most noticeable, as you pointed out, is Rachel.

She's just a manic mess all the time, from her hair to her sneakers, but in a sense, she's come back looking like Quinn in her own Rachel way. She basically thinks she's taken Quinn's position. She starts off that way and I can tell you that she doesn't stay that way.

Rachel's wardrobe really shows her story in a big, big way. With everyone else, though they definitely show their story through our work, it's a lot more subtle. Rachel's character clearly is the volatile one. She's all over the map. She will be again this year.

The more lascivious, the more jaw-dropping, the more awe-inspiring, the better.

Quinn's look reflects the same thing. She has come back thinking she's in Chet's position. With her, we just really cleaned up her lines a lot and Constance loves to wear dresses. We wanted to keep it real. We wanted to keep it not too highfalutin because that's not really what happens. We really just cleaned up her lines and upscaled her wardrobe in a subtle way. Her colors remain the same; they're all just dark, dark colors. She looks amazing. I love dressing her. It's so much fun.

What brands does she wear now?

I think she was wearing some Helmut Lang last year; it's interesting that you pointed that out already, because that's exactly what Rachel is wearing.

This season, you're going to see Quinn in a lot of Victoria Beckham. That worked out really well because Victoria Beckham's "day corporate dress" look is perfect. It's body conscious and it's simple. It's perfect for a character like this because in reality, she's kind of a bulldog. She goes to work and she just doesn't want to have to think about what's on, but at the same time she looks sexy. We also use some Hervé Léger skirts for the exact same reason. They're just super body con. They're sexy, but work sexy. Definitely one of my go-to designers for these kinds of characters, powerful corporate characters.

How much of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette did you watch when you got the call that you were going to be working on this show?

Not too much. I went online, I watched some trailers. I watched probably the beginning of last year's season to get a sense of what all the gowns meant, and what that big group meant. That's it. My biggest reason for doing that, always, is that I need to see what the basic situation is. It depends on how much we want to — for lack of a better word — copy, or how much we want to make it our own.

You talked about how shooting is really fast. Is the audience able to shop these looks?

I find that with online shopping, people are pretty crafty about finding pieces that they see on TV these days. For instance, if I have something that I picked up at the beginning of the season, but we're going to use it at the tail end of the season and we need multiples for whatever reason — for stunts, say, or photo doubles — I find we're pretty lucky with what's online these days. I can find multiples of the same thing much later. Stock just kind of roams around the internet.

[Unreal] can definitely go from screen to closet in that way because everything on the show is a lot more accessible because the girls are real. They shop at Nordstrom. That's their high-end store.

Nordstrom?

Nordstrom ... Macy's ... TJ Maxx.


I also saw on the trailer that there is a Confederate flag bikini in one of the episodes.

Yeah.

Did it fall under your responsibility to find that?

Absolutely, and you know, that was one of the first notes that I got way, way back at the beginning before we even began. I can't remember if it was Sarah or Carol [Barbee, EP/show runner] who gave me that note. They were like, "There's going to be a Confederate flag bikini. We do have the African American bachelor this year and that's all I'm going to say. It's really important we have that piece." I was like, "Oh my god, we don't even have an actor yet for it." And they were like, "Yeah, we need that piece." I went online — and you can find them anywhere. It's kind of crazy. They're all over the place. It's really telling, I guess.

Was that one of the most absurd things that you've ever had to track down?

Oh god, no. It's up there. Here's the thing with this show: there are no barriers. The more lascivious, the more jaw-dropping, the more awe-inspiring, the better. It's what The Bachelor is about. It's what this show is about: doing the horrible things that they do to get these girls to do the stuff they do. Nothing is politically incorrect. Nothing.

Watch Season 2 of Unreal on June 6th at 10:00 p.m. on Lifetime.

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