Romantic, heartbreaking, comedic and/or thrilling stories on the big and small-screens have inspired us to maybe try a new cuisine, explore a new destination or take a big risk throughout our lives. Similarly, transformative storytelling has inspired young creatives to pursue a career in costume design.
From comfort watches to cinematic classics, the current class of working costume designers have been shaped by a wide range of TV and film projects shaped. Now, they’re the ones bringing their points of view to the field, and they’re able to pay homage to those that opened their eyes to the profession in the first place.
“In ‘FP2: Beats of Rage,’ I designed and built everything from the ground up, all from reclaimed materials and doll parts. Someone compared the light-up headdresses and silhouettes the Ninjawa characters wore to Miyazaki cartoons — just that reference made my heart sing,” says Sarah Trost, costume designer for “The Righteous Gemstones.”
Ahead, 17 film and television costume designers share the on-screen moment that pushed them to pursue their the successful careers they have today — and in turn inspire us to experiment with a new style, creatively cosplay for Halloween or maybe have a go at the job ourselves.
Salvador Perez (“Hocus Pocus 2,” “Never Have I Ever,” “The Mindy Project”)
“Nolan Miller’s work on ‘Dynasty’ (1980-1989) and ‘The Love Boat’ (1977-1985) made me realize someone had to put all these clothes together, and I started paying attention to actors’ costumes. Then, watching ‘Flashdance’ (1983) starring Jennifer Beals really intrigued me — Michael Kaplan’s work was inspiring. I took a design job on a TV movie because Jennifer Beals was in it and I wanted to work with her and talk about the film. We became great friends and she signed a movie standee from ‘Flashdance’ to me that says, ‘You are a bright shining light in a fashion wilderness filled with darkness.’ It’s one of my most cherished possessions.
“When I designed ‘Four Weddings and Funeral,’ the Mindy Kaling series, she wrote a scene where the characters dressed up as their favorite characters from romantic comedies, so I was able to pay homage to so many classic costumes I grew up watching. The best part: I was able to call the original costume designers and get tips from them.”
Molly Rogers (“And Just Like That,” “Murphy Brown,” “Sex and the City 2”)
“I loved ‘The Munsters’ (1964). They wore the same thing every day — it was so impactful. I loved ‘Mommie Dearest’ (1981) and swoon over the costumes by Irene Sharaff in that movie (and the drag one-liners!) ‘Overboard’ (1987) with Goldie Hawn … Camp! Camp! Camp! So inspired. I’ve payed homage by heightening costumes on ‘And Just Like That.’ A good example is Nicole Ari Parker at the construction site scene in the Moschino safari outfit. Over the top! There’s a sense of humor.”
Whitney Anne Adams (“Three Months,” India Sweets and Spices,” “Freaky”)
“I got really sick in high school with a hereditary blood disorder right around the time the Baz Luhrmann film, ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001) came out on DVD. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. This film kept me sane while I was in and out of the hospital. I watched it every day for six months! Watching ‘Moulin Rouge’ distracted me from that anxiety and pain, and allowed me to escape into a fantastic fantasy world. So much of the effectiveness of that has to do with the visuals and the design. It’s still my favorite film to this day, and the costumes by Catherine Martin and Angus Straithe are breathtaking. Looking back, I think that was the huge first step on the path to my career.
“Through a costume design contest that I won for the film ‘Australia,’ I eventually got to work for Martin and Luhrmann, and was on their design team for many years. I still can’t believe that all happened. I learned so much from them both before I met them — and while I worked for them. They’re so generous and brilliant, and getting to tell them how much ‘Moulin Rouge’ meant to me in my young life was thrilling.”
Jill Bream (“The Other Two,” “John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch”)
“I remember watching ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) in high school and being struck by how much the costumes expanded the story. Everyone within Truman’s world is living in a TV show within the film. The costumes are slightly reminiscent of 1950s Americana: They’re unnecessarily cheerful and timeless. The wardrobe helped create the nightmarish existence Truman is a prisoner of — the forced ideation of the American dream. It’s a pretty complex idea to nail, and the layers are perfectly illustrated in Marilyn Matthews’s designs. It’s a movie that I’ve watched over and over again, and I’m always inspired by how perfectly everything works together.”
Janie Bryant (“1883,” “The Last Tycoon,” “Mad Men”)
“I’ve been watching old movies since I was a little girl. My mother used to take me to the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee to see classic films. It was also the family tradition to watch ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939), ‘Wizard of Oz’ (1939), ‘Sound of Music’ (1965) and ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956) every year all together.
“The film that inspired me the most to become a costume designer is ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Walter Plunkett’s vision and design inspires me every time I watch the movie, which I rewatch time and time again just to see new elements in the costume design that I haven’t noticed before. I was fortunate enough to get a private tour of ‘The Gone With The Wind’ exhibition a few years ago at UT’s Harry Ransom Center in Austin. I got to see Plunkett’s sketches and designs up close and personal and hold, feel and touch Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous green velvet gown and hat that was made from drapes. That was a dream come true! Plunkett was definitely with me on that day. I’d like to think that he was with me in spirit when I designed David Milch’s ‘Deadwood.'”
Vera Chow (“The Walking Dead,” “Boogie,” “The Modelizer”)
“When I was a teen growing up in ’90s Hong Kong, no one knew that costume design was a job. But I was aware what a fashion designer was and what a movie director was. At the time, I was gravitating towards John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, whose design work was more theatrical. Then Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element‘ (1997) came out, and I found out Gaultier designed it. That was confirmation for kid-me that costume design was, in fact, what I want, and what all that means!
“In the ’90s, the world was devoid of AAPI costume designer role models, until I found out about Tim Yip (‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’,) Eiko Ishioka (‘The Cell’) and Emi Wada (‘Ran,’ ‘House of Flying Daggers’) — Yip, in particular, because he was from Hong Kong. On ‘Marco Polo,’ I finally got to work with him; he was the designer and I was the supervisor. Young-me would probably have never believed it!”
Michelle Cole (“Grown-ish,” “Black-ish,” “#BlackAF”)
“I loved the time period and the theme of the film, ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964, above). We see Audrey Hepburn transform from a working class girl into someone who could be a part of high society in 1912. My favorite outfit is the one she wears at the horse race: the iconic one with the big black and white hat. Cecil Beaton was the costume designer and his design inspiration made me want to be a costume designer. The detail he put into his costumes was extraordinary. Interestingly enough, the first play that I was the Assistant Costume Designer on was ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Long Beach Civil Light Opera. Rex Harrison (who played Henry Higgins)’s son played his father’s role in the production.”
Derica Cole Washington (“Zola,” “True Story,” “Twenties”)
“My favorite film growing up was definitely ‘Clueless’ (1995) — that was just such an iconic movie for a teenager, and I don’t even think I was a teenager when that was out. Plus, ‘Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion’ (1997), which was also costume designed by Mona May. I just was like, ‘This is incredible.’ I also was watching ‘B*A*P*S’ (1997), designed by Ruth E. Carter. Obviously, I grew up knowing her work from Spike Lee ‘School Daze’ (1988). I love Francine Jamison-Tanchuk’s work in ‘Low Down Dirty Shame’ (1994). The red Frimi suit that Jada Pinkett Smith wears is absolutely iconic, hands down. These were the designers and films that definitely inspired me to really find my own sense of style and notice what costume design work was, and what it was doing in a film as a vehicle — for not only storytelling, but also the way that clothing worked on the body and as art.
“For Zola, there’s the idea that there’s a Black girl and a white girl on film together, which we really haven’t seen that prominently since ‘Clueless.’ So I was definitely inspired by ‘Clueless’ — and by ‘Romy & Michele’ — in how I did Zola [Taylour Paige] and Stephanie [Riley Keough] working opposite each other, and just everyone in that film as an ensemble.”
Suttirat Anne Larlarb (“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” “No Time to Die,” “Slumdog Millionaire”)
“Jenny Beavan’s and John Bright’s costume design in ‘Room With a View’ (1985) was the first time I’d seen period costumes that not only felt authentically observed, but also what struck me is that the choices were so specific and honest to each character, while being heightened to the perfect degree so as not to feel like a museum piece. This had an immeasurable effect on the actors’ inhabiting their characters: They felt real and incredibly romantic, and the film benefits so much from this. Before this film, I’m not convinced that such a balance was ever so masterfully achieved.
“Ever since, I’ve been such a big fan of Jenny Beavan, basically since the ’80s. The great variety of the films she’s contributed to are always so pitch-perfect in terms of costumes. About eight years ago, I happened to be reading an interview with her for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and, all of a sudden, I saw that she name-checked me in the article! I had to re-read to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Soon after, I found myself sitting with her on a costume designers panel. When I was working in the U.K. a few years later, she was working on something at the same studio in London, and we had the chance to have a few lunches and office visits, and that just meant so much to me. She really is my personal costume hero.”
Antoinette Messam (“The Harder They Fall,” “SuperFly,” “Creed”)
“I have a love/hate relationship with ’70s Blaxploitation films. As a kid I loved watching them. They were so cool! The action, the dialogue, the clothes — come on, ‘Foxy Brown!?’ As an adult, I knew that the name was coined because some felt it was exploiting negative stereotypes in the urban African American community. But seeing people that looked like me as heroes was uplifting and fun. Designing the film ‘SuperFly’ many years later was a full circle moment: Paying homage to Nate Adams, the costume designer of the original 1972 ‘Super Fly’ was a honor. His characters were the real deal — the perfect combination of street and fashion.”
Clint Ramos (“Respect,” “Lingua Franca,” “Frozen — Live at the Hyperion”)
“I loved all the Merchant Ivory films, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985) and Eiko Ishioka’s costumes for ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992). The attention to detail and the invention of new worlds were captivating to me. I was once in the same workroom as Eiko and I was able to peek at her process. She’s such an inspiration to me as an API person, designer and storyteller. She forged her own independent path.”
Jeriana San Juan (“Halston,” “The Plot Against America,” “The Get Down”)
“When I was young, I had a V.H.S. copy of ‘An American In Paris’ (1951) that I watched over and over again. It felt like a portal to a magical world, and the costumes designed by Orry-Kelly created beautiful imagery and highlighted the contours of the body so effortlessly in those early ’50s bodices and skirts.
“In the Versailles episode of ‘Halston,’ I drew from ‘An American In Paris’ tremendously. The real Battle of Versailles fashion show choreography was done by Kay Thompson, who was Liza Minelli’s godmother and mentor. I thought about what Kay would do in putting the theatrical elements of that show together, and thought the graphic nature of black-and-white with pops of red in ‘An American In Paris’ would be perfectly right for the set and the choreography. I’m very pleased with how that came together. It felt like it had a layered meaning, and still felt vibrant and fresh.”
Luis Sequeira (“Nightmare Alley,” “The Shape of Water,” “Cabinet of Curiosities”)
“I skipped school to see movies. I remember ‘Blade Runner’ (1982); Michael Kaplan did such an amazing job, and I’m a long admirer of his work. I think I saw that movie 23 times. I knew every line, and it was the first time that we saw future, with past period elements. Then ‘Out of Africa’ (1985), with Milena Canonero’s work. I had the opportunity to work with her once for a very short time, but I’m always awestruck by her aesthetic and her attention to detail. I always say, ‘It doesn’t matter ’til it matters — and it always matters.’ That’s what I love about both of those films: They had so many layers, so many details that you can watch it again and again and pick up something new each time. I’m totally awestruck by Milena’s creativity and her career. I’m a fellow nominee [for ‘Nightmare Alley] at the BAFTAs, so I’m looking forward to seeing her [nominated for ‘The French Dispatch’], because I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”
Anthony Tran (“How I Met Your Father,” “Andi Mack”)
“Growing up, there were so many shows that inspired me to want to be a costume designer, from Theadora Van Runkle’s work on ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967) to Ngila Dickson’s and Richard Taylor’s world-building designs for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to Kimberly Adam-Galligan’s quirky contemporary fashions for ‘Lizzie McGuire’ (2001-2002). Getting to design that ‘Lizzie McGuire’ reboot pilot was a real full-circle moment. Collaborating with Hilary Duff, who has such a clear understanding of that character, and then getting to infuse that with my own aesthetic while figuring out what she should look like at 30 was a fun challenge. Getting to work together again on ‘How I Met Your Father’ was such an added bonus.”
Sarah Trost (“The Righteous Gemstones,” “A.P. Bio,” “Vice Principals”)
“First and foremost, ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ followed closely by ’70s and ’80s fantasy films, with a heavy dose of Miyazaki and movies by filmmakers from James Cameron to Terry Gilliam to John Carpenter. I always tend to gravitate toward an alternate universe, whether it’s gritty and industrial, covered in textural sparkles and rich colors, or films with any element of magic.”
Melissa Walker (“Dollface,” “Pen15,” “Malcolm & Marie”)
“Ever since I was a child, I was very drawn to costumes. My mother always told me I used to make her pause ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964) to do my own costume changes along with the acts. Film and costumes have a big impact of the fashion of the time. The mid-90s had a clear resurgence of 1960s style, and I remember looking to ‘Now and Then’ (1995) and ‘That Thing You Do’ (1996) to investigate the looks and try to recreate on my own. Late-90s/Y2K trends moved to more of a 1970s aesthetic with the release of ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997), ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999) and ‘Almost Famous’ (2000). Pulling inspiration from the costumes I was drawn to in these films really helped shape my love for vintage and kept me on trend. I was lucky enough to come up under some of my idols by pure coincidence and worked with ‘Boogie Nights’ costume designer Mark Bridges on ‘Marriage Story,’ and it was amazing to see the way he worked on a contemporary piece with color and texture.”
Ariyela Wald-Cohain (“iCarly,” “Sherman’s Showcase,” “South Side”)
“‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994): just the fun and the creativity in the Oscar-winning costumes by Lizzie Gardiner and Tim Chappel. I remember the scene with Guy Pearce sitting on top the bus in the high-heeled shoe, and he has this amazing, just huge train of silver chiffon flowing behind him. It was so beautifully designed. Then Hugo Weaving’s flip-flop dress (the ‘thong dress,’ in Australian) — the details and the fun that was put into the costumes… I don’t think that until then I had seen something so creative and fun on something that could have been just plain and cool.
“I got to design a drag queen episode in season two of ‘iCarly.’ We had to custom-design three or four costumes so quickly. It was really fun to go from a sketch to on-camera within days, with that big of a costume. It brought me right back to ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’ There’s always something in the back of my head, with the colors and the size and the boldness.'”
The above interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.