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It’s disappointing to see that even characters who don’t live lavish lifestyles have wardrobes befitting those with expendable incomes — the call for representation has reached an all-time high, yet television continues to present audiences with the unattainable and unfamiliar. On Jane the Virgin, Jane Villanueva has a thankless gig at the Marbella hotel, a kid to raise, and a not-super-successful romance novel fresh on the shelves. Before that, she was a waitress and a teaching assistant — surely, financially struggling millennials can look to her closet for style on the cheap. Same goes for nonprofit employee Issa Dee from Insecure, the students/interns on How to Get Away with Murder, schoolteacher Jess Day on New Girl — the list of TV characters who should be H&M devotees goes on and on. So when Jane appears in a $750 dress, April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation wears her Marc Jacobs sweatshirt, and (the unbreakable) Kimmy Schmidt dons a $198 Anthropologie sweater, you have to wonder if the character’s economic circumstances are even a consideration for the wardrobe team.
“Even contemporary, realistic TV shows are still fantasies, not documentaries,” says costume designer and FIT instructor Ingrid Price, whose work appeared on shows including Nurse Jackie, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Mysteries of Laura. “I am aware that it can be jarring to see a character in a wardrobe that’s clearly out of their price range.” At the same time, Price uses pieces with hefty price tags if the garment photographs as more lived-in than a cheaper alternative and matches the show’s overall feel, whether it’s crisp and bright or washed out and seedy.
The initial urge may be to blame the costume department for discrepancies between a character’s supposed budget and their wardrobe — after all, there’s hardly a dearth of clothing companies that specialize in fashionable and affordable attire — but they are rarely the ones with the final say on which outfits appear on air.
“Costume designers have to serve the piece, they have to serve the director, and they have to serve the audience,” says Isabel Rubio, a costume designer for film, TV, and theater as well as history of costume design professor at FIT. “Otherwise they get fired and someone else comes in who can serve the audience that way.”
Plus, Rubio explains, costume choices are restricted by the show’s budget, lead time, the actors’ contracts (as well as their egos), copyright laws, whether the piece needs to be purchased in multiples, and “[a designer’s] own good taste.” Designers, especially those coming from a stylist background rather than a costume background, may prefer “pretty” over accuracy.
And actors have a say too. The more star power an actor has, the more likely they are to use their “final right of refusal” to upgrade their wardrobes to match their personal predilections — whether that’s an affinity for a certain label or a dislike of a particular shade of mauve. “On Will & Grace, Jack, the out-of-work actor who has all these crazy things, has cashmere scarves and it doesn’t make sense,” says Rubio. “But it does make sense because [Sean Hayes] is a star.”
And as far as the audience goes, we may claim to want entertainment “to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature,” but in reality, many viewers desire the filtered, makeupless-makeup edition. “You have to remember that most of these television shows are geared to middle America,” says Rubio, alluding to juicy dramas on major broadcast networks. “Middle America doesn’t want to see messy things.”
But not everyone feels that way. “It’s basically just frustrating that no matter what the character’s financial status is, their clothing often veers into being unaffordable for the average viewer who might identify with them and admire how they’ve fictionally styled themselves on a budget,” says Hayley Goldstein, a freelance writer who works in TV post-production. “I understand that it’s television and it’s fake, but when I was younger this was a little devastating for me [because] I wasn’t a particular fashionable kid, so I was trying to use characters on TV as models of how to dress ‘cool.’ When I found a way to find what they were wearing and couldn’t really afford any of it, it was discouraging.”
Some of the costume designers I spoke to dismiss concerns about hefty price tags with a nod to the character’s resourcefulness or propensity to wear their “staple pieces” more than once — an unsatisfying answer when you remember that even if they reuse a designer bag daily, they would have still have had to splurge on it in the first place. Others say that the characters’ elevated style is a result of their increased confidence or self-awareness, as if emotional maturity automatically comes with a salary bump and a personal shopper.
Sticking a character under boatloads of credit card debt and making that a plotpoint is arguably the easiest way to excuse an unrealistic wardrobe. Lily Aldrin from How I Met Your Mother and, of course, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City were both granted a free pass to wear designer clothing thanks to story arcs that established their less-than-savvy spending habits. “Personally, when I first moved to NYC I was definitely living off of my credit cards,” says Jacqueline Demeterio, the costume designer for Younger. “I was working in fashion on an assistant’s salary barely getting by. My wardrobe, however, told a different story. I had to do a little of that ‘fake it to make it.’ I remember mixing in Zara with a pair of designer shoes that I absolutely could not afford. It’s all a part of being young in NYC and not making the wisest financial decisions.”
And given how few audience members will sit on the edge of their seat while learning the intricacies of a character’s bank account, a debt problem is a mundane (and common) enough solution that writers can mention it once and sweep it under the rug, confident that no one will miss the opportunity to watch their favorite protagonist sit on hold with their bank for an hour or meet with a representative from H&R Block.
But Alaina Leary, of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, has a hard time buying into the fantasy that Younger’s costumes present. “As someone who grew up low income and then went into publishing, it’s so hard for me to see people in shows about book or magazine publishing (or journalism) wearing name-brand clothing on the daily without a care in the world,” she says. “I work in publishing and I have worried about what to wear to an interview because I can’t afford expensive clothing. I’ve panicked about my coworkers seeing me in the same dress too many times in a two-week span and wondered whether they’d notice that I wear the same things over and over again.”
That’s not to say that fast fashion doesn’t get plenty of screen time — Demeterio often mixes designer pieces with clothes from stores like Zara, Topshop, ASOS, and H&M to balance out costume choices that are undoubtedly out of the characters’ publishing job budgets, and Jane the Virgin has relied on Target for more than a few sundresses. However, “sometimes the fit and quality of a designer piece are simply irresistible, so I just go for it,” she says. “I have had actual publishing employees say to me, ‘I wish I had their clothes!’ That thrills me! That’s what I’m going for — an aspirational fashion sense. I believe the audience enjoys getting lost in that world. I could do a very realistic version of officewear, but it just wouldn’t be exciting.”
Along with construction and quality issues, fast fashion poses another problem: If a look is “too on-trend,” it may be passé by the time the episode airs. “You have to be careful what you choose,” says Price. “For example, all those cold-shoulder blouses that flew out of the stores last summer just look tragic now.”
Ultimately, the goal of the costume designer is to amplify the personalities written on the page rather than distract from them, and Lyn Paolo, the costume designer behind Shameless, How to Get Away With Murder, and Scandal, says that if she were to dress a character inappropriately for their economic and cultural situation, then she’d be failing at her job. On a show like Shameless, where the characters are living in financial hardship, she factors in hours of dying and sanding down fabrics to make them appear worn out and adding small holes and fringed edges for the audience to subconsciously interpret as signs of poverty. And because there needs to be six to eight duplicates of every outfit — including ones for stunt doubles — the crew can’t rely on vintage shops to supply clothes that already show signs of age.
“If we buy a more expensive pair of jeans, by the time you see them on the show, they’ve been trashed,” she says. “We don’t hem the jeans exactly like they should be hemmed. Everything’s a little too long or a little too short. A little too baggy at the waist. We do those little subtle things on the show that I don’t think you register while you’re watching the show.” Still, Paolo strives for the cast to feel comfortable and look attractive even while dressed in keeping with their stories. As Rubio says, “There’s nothing worse than a pouting actor.”
Unless that actor is playing an underpaid employee, in which case, a frown would be the most realistic thing they could wear.