Last week I was lucky enough to interview costume designer Jennifer Rogien, who works on two of my favourite TV shows: Girls and Netflix Original Series Orange Is the New Black. Jennifer made a fleeting visit to London for an event with Gap and Grazia magazine, and very kindly found time to talk to me about her work whilst she was here.
Even if you don’t watch these two shows (which makes you crazy, by the way), it’s really interesting to hear how a costume designer works, which is why I decided to run the full interview. It’s really long – much longer than your average CTP post – but well worth a read. I suggest you save it for your lunch break or commute home. That way you can enjoy it properly…
First of all, I should probably say how I much I love Girls. I can’t wait for season three! The four main characters have all had very unique looks since the first episode, how are their styles progressing as the seasons go on?
You know, I’m just trying to keep up with the girls and where their story lines are going. I take all of my cues from Lena, from the script, and from the stories. I’m not making decisions off on my own, because I really want the clothes to be reflecting where the girls are. I think from season one to season two we saw the characters evolving – they’re either getting a different job or still not having a job – so I’m just trying to keep pace with what’s happening and hopefully that’s working. And I think the same can be said of season three, as the girls’ stories continue to unfold.
The show is now so influential. Do you ever spot girls on the street dressed like Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa?
You know, that’s such a hard question, because I can’t tell if I’m seeing it because I’m looking for it or because it’s happening. My assistant and I – well he’s not an assistant at all, he’s a complete design collaborator – we will go around the streets of New York and say ‘oh my gosh, that’s Jessa walking down the street’ or ‘that’s Hannah! Hannah riding a bike right there!’
I people watch just as inspiration, to see what people are doing with their clothes. And not just typical street style, like ‘I put on a whole great outfit to go and go photographed in SoHo’. That person is literally wearing a proper button-up shirt with a pair of athletic shorts! But that’s telling me a lot about who they are and what they’re doing – and it’s a question of how I can use that, when the moment comes in a script.
Do you have a favourite Girls character to dress?
Oh my gosh, that would be like picking a favourite child! You know, I used to be really committed to Ray, but now Adam is really growing on me. But I like them all for different reasons because they’re all so different. And I get to dress them in such specific styles – girls and guys – so for me it’s fantastic fun everyday!
Orange Is the New Black is a very different show – telling the story of Piper Chapman, who is sentenced to 15-months in prison after transporting drug money, ten years ago, for her ex-girlfriend. How did you prepare for the job?
I read the book, because I wanted to know where the story was starting from, and then we had a lot of fronts to attack on. We knew that there would be the flashbacks, and we treated those as their own separate group. So we did a ton of photo research. We tried online, but our flashbacks are mostly set in the late ’90s, early ’00s, and there’s not a lot of imagery online for that – so we ordered store catalogues. Everything from Victoria’s Secret to J. C. Penney. Fashion magazines have a very specific look and editorial style, which is incredibly helpful as a starting point, but I also wanted to know what the average store was selling to the average consumer, because that’s more who we were portraying.
And then there was the prison facility. I’ve done a limited number of inmate uniforms before and I immediately reached out to one of the major suppliers for prisons and jails. We really wanted there to be an element of authenticity, so wherever we could we wanted to work with real suppliers – unless there was something prohibiting us from getting the actual piece we needed. For example, we were trying to order inmate winter coats in July, and our supplier just doesn’t stock coats in the summer. So we ended up going with an industrial-level coat that we could get a lot of, because we needed them right away. Our office looked like a shipping warehouse for the first three weeks of prep, it was crazy!
Because the show is set in a women’s prison the characters are in uniform for 80% of their screen time. How did you manage to present them as individuals when they were all wearing the same thing?
That is the question I asked myself every single day! I spent a strange amount of time thinking about whether it should be a white t-shirt or a grey t-shirt… Or maybe it’s not a t-shirt, maybe it’s a tank top… And there are some things that have found me. Pennsatucky’s sweatshirt would be a commissary item which she could purchase, and one day we threw it on her because it was actually cold on set, and Taryn Manning just brought that piece to life and it really became part of her character.
It’s tricky when there are only six or seven pieces to chose from. How do you make it look like Janae is Janae and Piper is Piper, even though they’re all wearing the exact same thing? A lot of it is credit to the wonderful actresses, who really bring the characters and the clothes to life.
The flashback sequences – when the women are dressed in their own clothes – reveal a lot more about the characters. And Piper essentially has two pasts: the Piper we see in a relationship with Alex and the present-day Piper who is engaged to Larry. How does her style differ between these relationships?
That’s a really good question. When we started out we knew that the ‘Alex version’ of Piper was when Piper was right out of college. So that really helped us find a direction to begin with. She was younger, she was going through a lot of phases, she was travelling a lot… We really tried to keep it young, a little kooky, a little bohemian, a little a-piece-from-this-flea-market, a-piece-from-that-flea-market. And we wanted to play that into a look that would translate into a ten-years-later-Piper, when she’s still creative – running her own soap company, engaged to a writer – but she’s grown up a little bit. I wanted it to be the same person, but at two different stages of her life. And hopefully that came off a little bit through the layers and the colour palette.
So now that season one of Orange Is the New Black is online at Netflix are you working on Girls again?
We are literally finishing season three this week and then it has to go to the editing room. I left the Girls set yesterday, jumped on a plane and came in overnight. I landed at 7am this morning and I’ll be back on set on Monday. So it’s a really quick trip.
I did a similar trip in January when the V&A had the Hollywood Costume exhibit. I was obsessed, I just felt like I couldn’t miss it. Thankfully New York and London are six hours apart. I literally dove on a plane, went to the exhibit, went shopping with a friend of mine and got back on a plane and went home!
Well one final question… what advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into costume design?
Test drive! As glamorous as it sounds and can be, there are more days that I am in some dusty thrift store digging for something that isn’t there on a HUGE deadline. And the hours are crazy long! For me I find all of those things are really exciting, but it may not be for everyone. And if it is for you you will know right away with your first 14-hour day! There are so many ways to be involved in clothes and fashion and storytelling, that if you have a chance to intern or be a production assistant give it a whirl. Get involved in a local theatre production or TV commercial – if it’s for you you’ll know and if not you can get involved in another element.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @jennrogien.