How Netflix Series 'Hollywood' Captures The Style and Elegance Of Post-War Tinseltown
Los Angeles- based costume designer Sarah Evelyn shares her experience on creating the memorable looks from Ryan Murphy’s latest mini-series
There's no business like show business - and in the case of Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Hollywood, Tinseltown's unscrupulous reputation is given the director's typically high-gloss, campy veneer.
Following the post-war trials and tribulations of aspiring young actors trying to make it big in Hollywood during the late 1940s, the show also explores various themes including racial injustices- like Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong’s controversial Oscar snub; or Hattie McDaniel's rejection from being allowed in the 'whites-only' auditorium to collect her Best Supporting Actress award for Gone With The Wind.
The show also takes a closer look at some of Hollywood's notorious history - like the male escort agency fronting as a gas station servicing the town's power players, fuelling the show’s salacious storyline.
While the series has drawn some criticism for its handling of the very serious issues faced by actors of the day such as racism and homophobia, the costumes wield its own alluring power on-screen and offer an insight into a bygone era where people valued the power of dressing 'up'.
Thanks to the detailed expertise of costume designers Lou Eyrich and Sarah Evelyn, both having previously worked on Ryan’s other TV projects including American Horror Story, Hollywood's costumes enhance the ambition of those seeking fame and fortune during this significant period of Hollywood's history - and ultimately their quest for the American dream.
Sarah Evelyn speaks from her home in Los Angeles about what it was like to re-create the fashions of the 1940s for the series, and working with acting heavyweights such as Patti LuPone and Queen Latifah.
How did this project come about for you and what the process was like working with Ryan Murphy and Lou Eyrich?
I had worked with Lou a little bit on American Horror Story: Hotel and we stayed in touch. I really loved working with her, and then for American Horror Story: Cult, she called me to co-design with her, so obviously I jumped at the opportunity.
We’ve worked together quite a bit before. I wanted to stay in town (I had just finished a movie in the UK for half a year) and I wanted to do a period project, so the stars aligned and Lou put Hollywood on the table!
Working with Lou is an absolute dream. She works directly with Ryan and I work with Lou. Ryan and Lou have developed an atheistic language so it makes sense and creates efficiencies to work like this. Lou and I are really like-minded I’d say we both believe that it's hard work, a good team, and a never-ending sense of curiosity that makes these projects a success. Lou and I prep together, we designed the first episode together, and then she moved on to Ryan’s forthcoming film Boys in the Band, and she transitioned to more of a costume producer. It's a fantastic resource to have a costume producer, especially on big demanding jobs.
We checked in every day, she worked on approvals and making sure Ryan is looped in, and then when we had some special requirements, she would get more involved. It really maximizes the design to have this kind of brain trust. If we have a last-minute big ask, our supervisor gets right on hiring, I get to designing and Lou can manage production; or if we had three units shooting I can be at one, our assistant costume designer Tiger Curran at another and Lou at the third.
That said, Lou is there for the big and small – if I needed to brainstorm, vent, cry, or if even if I needed help bedazzling something – she was there. Lou is always offering late-night help. Sometimes it would be 9 pm at night and Lou would call and swing by on her way home and dye garments, do the laundry or bring me juice. She’s like a fairy godmother.
The era that we see in the series is an interesting time for Hollywood and the world coming out of World War two and this idea of dressing frugally. Can you talk a little bit about how you considered the economic situation of the era when it came to the costumes for the show?
It was definitely a consideration because there was so much wealth in Hollywood and particularly in the movie business. If there wasn’t actual wealth, what we saw in the movies was aspirational, so it seemed rich and glamourous. Because the other side of this story was about the hopefuls - the people that wanted to break into the business that didn't have the money but did have a sense of natural glamour and style.
WATCH: Trailer for Hollywood
For the power players like Avis and Ace Amberg, Ellen Kincaid, Henry Wilson, Dick Samuels - we kept the fabrics luxe, built monochromatic outfits, sophisticated colour blocking or used high-end patterns (like houndstooth and pinstripe).
The hopefuls had more pattern, texture and youthful colours. We mixed pattern on pattern or more unexpected colour combinations because they would have been the style-makers and the trendsetters.
Beyond that, what I found so interesting about the way the period influenced fashion was how most everyone felt the effects of the second World War. Rationing for war supplies meant that certain fabrics weren’t available, or skirts had to be a specific length. Millinery supplies weren’t rationed or controlled, so we would have a very precise restrained skirt suit that had menswear military influences, but worn with wild and crazy hats, or really joyful costume jewellery, often very whimsical even sort of silly. I loved that tension.
There’s a lot of creative license in the show as you’d expect from Ryan’s body of work. Can you tell us a little how you and Lou used that creative freedom to explore a desired outcome for the characters and used that to inform some of the looks you created?
We worked really hard to keep the silhouettes true to the period, but we took creative license with the colours. Ryan came up with a really specific colour palette that he described as ‘harvest tones’ born out of the gold associated with the golden age of Hollywood. In addition, while we wanted to stay true to the period in terms of silhouette, we did need to finesse some of the men’s suits to fit the modern body and look sexy to the modern eye. In some cases, we could slim the legs a bit or the bodies a little more than they would have been in the 1940s.
We live in an interesting time where dressing up has been relegated to what we feel comfortable with wearing at home, so Hollywood does offer viewers plenty of escapism. What was it like for you to be able to escape into a very specific period in time and be able to think about the details that made this moment in time a unique one?
I loved it. I hadn’t designed a 40s project before and I really enjoyed this period. I myself am a real believer in wear whatever feels like you so I personally think I would have been miserable if I had to dress every day in girdles, stockings and tailored suits and hats and the whole thing. I think I would have found the conventions of the day, oppressive and frustrating, but who knows; maybe I would have loved it.
Having said this, it was a time of great creativity and it was really fun to completely immerse myself and take a break from the contemporary world with all its fast fashion, changing trends, non-stop images, endless fashion weeks, magazine, bloggers, stores, shops, Instagram, internet, Tik Tok and so on. Taking this break made me reconsider what I really need and how much I really want. So while living in the 1940s strikes me oppressive in some areas, it was incredibly freeing working in the 1940s and in many ways a totally transcendental experience.
There’s an emotional moment in the series where you recreate Hattie McDaniel’s iconic Oscar outfit on Queen Latifah, complete with white gardenias. What was it like researching and re-creating such an iconic and emotive look?
This was amazing. Queen Latifah has been someone on my mind, in my life, as an influence since college. The first day I met her in person I walked into her trailer and there she was, glowing with that light coming from the inside, singing along to the Sade album that was playing, I almost died.
But I kept it together (I hope she didn't notice that I was having a total geek out moment). Recreating Hattie McDaniel’s with Queen Latifah was really special, she would muse about her character's work as we did the fittings, and that was really special to be a part of. For the historical scene that we recreated (the 1940s Academy Awards) it was very important to Ryan, to Latifah and to us to be as true as possible to history.
We tapped a fashion historian to help us research Hattie so that we knew we could get it right. It was a challenge finding the colour of her dress, as all photos were black and white but Raissa Bretana our researcher and fashion historian finally found a series of written resources that described the colour and we cross-referenced this with our knowledge of 40s colours. What a great outfit Hattie wore to the Oscars. Those flowers were bananas- I just loved it. But there are some very stark realities and some really ugly parts of our history. It is emotional to go back there. It is difficult and painful to grapple with these truths, but if there's a safe place to do it, it's within the Ryan Murphy world where questioning all these things and staring down uncomfortable realities and what relationship we have to them - is what many of his stories speak to.
Tell us about the wardrobe team and what a typical day was like on set; from re-creating some of the 40s style garments to dressing the actors. What was that day to day process like?
So much happens in a day. We had a fantastic team - and that's the only way we got everything done and got it done well. We also have a champion in Ryan and Lou, and a supportive production crew. It takes all these things to get our job done well. Our assistant costume designer Tiger Curran was so crucial to making this all work. She's such a great talent with such a wealth of experience; we never could have done it without her.
I usually got into the office around 5:30am, our fabulous cutter fitter Joanne Mills generally gets in around then too, so we’ll usually talk about the day before anyone else is in. Then, I put together a to-do-list for the day, which is always massive so I break it down into a separate list for each person.
If we are ‘establishing people’ (seeing actors in new costumes for the first time), either Tiger or I make sure to be there when they are getting dressed. We were so lucky to have a super trailer person named Rebecca Adams who also really helped us in these situations. She sets the rooms, makes sure we know when people are getting dressed and sometimes establishes for us.
We had really strong set people too. Once costumes are established, they are all over it. On big background days our fantastic background key Jeanine McKiernan coordinates and oversees dressing all the background talent- sometimes hundreds, and often on our list of things to do in the morning will be approving the background looks.
Once everything is established we get back to the office, and the team gets down the business of getting the costumes made or pulled for the following days. Tiger helps coordinate a lot of that, making sure that everyone is doing what they need to be doing. Often we'll have fitting during the day and while I’m doing a fitting, Tiger might be doing another fitting; and Kit Scarbo, our production manager will be sourcing fabrics or coordinating with the cutter fitter or other builders we might be working with.
Meanwhile our shopper Lorraine Mahru-Toomey is out shopping for the things we need on our list, or looking for wish list items. She might also help with made to order items that are the priority. Lorraine is magical.
Suzy Freeman our supervisor is big picture thinking - she’s breaking down scripts, manuscript changes, fielding incoming casting, setting fittings, looking at the budgets and the upcoming labour needs; and we liaise a lot throughout the day, she was also such an essential part of the team. She was our mama bear. There are always endless problems and fires to put out or last-minute requests we need to address or casting that comes in late or schedule changes, so we just work on staying calm and sorting through all the issues and make sure to laugh a lot, because it's the absolute best way (at least for me) to get through it all.
The design crew day ends after 12 hours. Tiger usually stays a little later and once everyone leaves, I sit down to do the rest of my list - either design things that are outstanding, problem solve, read a script, do research, write an email, finish up everything I need to do so I can get in the next morning clear-headed and make my to-do list. Then I go home, kiss my sleeping kids and my husband, snuggle with my dog, fall asleep and start again the next day!
How collaborative were some of the actors from the show when it came to how their characters looked?
This show had a really special fantastic collaborative cast. Everyone was interested in their character and the way they wore clothing. We have lots of favourite stories about working with our actors. Holland Taylor who plays Ellen Kincaid, remembered her mother’s super chic wardrobe well from the 1940s, she brought us pictures and we used her mum's style as a reference point for her character's style. So special.
David Corenswet who plays Jack Castello, has a straw Panama hat that his grandpa wore in the 1940s and we found a place for it in the very last scene, so it was so meaningful.
Patti Lupone who plays Avis Amberg is such a generous spirit and really let us take risks and pulled them off - and she sang to us, all the time.
Dylan McDermott who plays Ernie West, came to us with really directed ideas and then let us run with them. We custom built a lot for him and he would make it work.
Jeremy Pope who plays Archie Coleman is such a light. He also sang to us and no one wears high waist pleated pants better.
Darren Criss who plays Raymond Ainsley sang and danced and walked right into vintage clothing.
Laura Harrier who plays Camille Washington was an absolute dream, and so invested in who her character was. We tortured her with that Oscar dress! she really took one for the team.
Samara Weaving who plays Claire Wood was dreamy. She gave us such good Veronica Lake and endured long fittings because you just can’t stop putting clothes on her.
Maude Aptaow as Henrietta transformed in period clothing and made it looks so cool. Jake Picking as Rock Hudson, really had a sense of what ‘felt like the character’ and we custom made some fun stuff for him together.
Jim Parsons as Henry Willson - I mean forget it. If you can have a fitting with him you should do it. It’s transcendental.
Joe Mantello who plays Dick Samuels really let us put him through the wringer. We made him all custom made suits and we had lots of tweaks but he was game and gave us endless time and encouragement.
Mira Sorvino as Jeanne Crandall is a total favourite. She's so thoughtful about what her character would wear, and she really helped us get there.
What’s your favourite personal look or item of clothing from the entire series and why?
I really can’t say just one. But one of my favourites is the pump jockey uniform. It was a really great collaboration. We worked really had on getting the silhouette and the feel right. Then we had to find the right fabrics that look period and draped correctly which proved to be a real challenge. We designed made the tie bar and belt buckles- that was so fun. We custom made the whole thing head to toe minus to boots. I loved the pump jockey jackets!
Old Hollywood glamour is so often referenced in fashion. What is it about this era that people love to reference and fantasize about? What does it say about the idea of dressing glamorously?
I suppose the very idea of glamour was born out of the 1930s and 1940s, or at least the modern notion of glamour, defined by the red carpets and the larger than life Hollywood stars of the era especially as they were portrayed by the photographer George Hurrell, dreamy, doe-eyed, sexy, effortless, revealed but still perfect in all their vulnerable essence.
I think this was the beginning of a sense that dressing should appear effortless. Beauty should seem effortless. It’s just the ultimate fantasy. Plus the silhouettes of the 1930s and 1940s are just so chic, perhaps the building block of modern fashion - from the bias-cut dress of the 1930s to the menswear tailoring of the 1940s. So glamourous.
One of the most unique and compelling storylines and characters was that of Anna May Wong. Can you talk a little about what you discovered about her sense of style and how that idea the Eastern influence during this period became an important influence on Hollywood style?
Ryan had a real vision for Anna May Wong. He saw her costumes having a faded glamour, lost in the 1930s and with some accents of Eastern inspiration.
We looked for rich colours, luxe fabrics, amazing jewellery and hair accessories and we leaned into visible wear and tear on otherwise very glamorous clothing.
As her storyline developed we got away from the wear and tear, since she was having some renewal and hope. Real-life Anna May Wong had an amazing sense of style, and when we saw her in more traditionally eastern clothing into the research I think often it was for the Hollywood lens. I think the West has always had a fascination with the East - as long as there has been trade, and why not - the Eastern design sensibility is breath-taking. I think the trouble we’ve seen in the past and the issues that Anna May Wong experienced were about the fetishization of the Eastern sensibility and its subjugation to the Western point of view or interpretation. So Anna May Wong was often fetishized, dressed up in an American idea of what a Chinese woman might look like.
She certainly wasn’t controlling her own image and was only seen as a trope by the movie industry, which kept the roles she could play to a very narrow scope and in the end, doesn't recognize her as a whole self-determined person - a Chinese American woman, an individual and artist, and all the other things that humans are made up of, beyond an ethnicity, culture, race or gender. I think the Hollywood storyline righted some of these wrongs….and I wish the show had actually changed history. But I hope we as a whole are getting more thoughtful, sensitive, nuanced and human about interfacing with people and cultures that we may view as different from ourselves.
What are you working on next?
Currently I've started a career in homeschooling and may be transitioning into camp counselor so well see. But I hope we are back to work soon and I have so many things I’d love to work on, once we are beyond all of this!