From Mary Tyler Moore’s black capri pants to the waist-cinching corsets on Bridgerton, the costumes on television’s hottest shows over the past 70-plus years have influenced what we wear more than viewers may realize. That’s the premise of Hal Rubenstein’s just-released book, which is sure to spawn an escapist deep dive by even the most casual TV fan.
Dressing the Part: Television’s Most Stylish Shows (Harper, $36) explores the costume design of 50 high-profile TV series, from I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s, to Downton Abbey, Sex and the City, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and others. But it was Bridgerton that inspired the idea for the book. “Harper wanted to do a book on Bridgerton’s costume design, and my feeling was that it was a period costume show that [didn’t relate yet],” Rubenstein told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought we would see the ramifications of the look of the show soon, but people weren’t shopping it yet. The trickle-down effect hadn’t arrived. In the meantime, I had started to do some research, and I was kind of startled to notice that no one has ever done a book on TV costume design.”
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Rubenstein returned to Harper with his refined idea. “I rattled off maybe 50 important costumes I thought of,” he explained. “It was everything from Fonzie’s leather jacket on Happy Days to Marlo Thomas’ A-line dresses on That Girl, on through the extraordinary clothes worn by Jodie Comer on Killing Eve — the pink dress she wore [in 2018] was the number-one Halloween costume that year.”
The book explores the sartorial look of these and other shows, which Rubenstein has divided into themes, from period dramas like Mad Men and Brideshead Revisited to series that put an emphasis on female independence, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Scandal and Ally McBeal. The fashion excess that dominated the 1980s is showcased in a chapter titled “Now, Where’s My Black Card?” and kicks off with the fashion of Dynasty while also exploring more recent series like Emily in Paris and Schitt’s Creek. With each entry, Rubenstein offers not only behind-the-scenes details but also how the look of the show influenced the American psyche.
“The book is about clothes, but it’s also about style and how we regard each other,” he said. “The psychology of clothes has always been more important to me than costume design. If you’re creating a wardrobe for a very specific character, the costume designer reads the script to understand the plot of the program, gets to know the personality of the actor or actress playing the role, who that person is in real life and who they will be onscreen. How do you create a wardrobe that’s in sync with these ideas?”
Author and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis also lent a hand, assisting Rubenstein in getting in touch with several costume designers, past and present, for interviews. “She said, ‘No one is going to tell you no; this will be the easiest set of gets you’ve ever had,’” Rubenstein said. “And not a single costume designer said no to me because these stories haven’t been told before. The more I talked with them, the more my respect grew and grew. Such great stories of insight, warmth and respect.”
In the book, Emmy-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska discusses how her training as a painter informed her love of color and is reflected in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Scandal’s Lyn Paolo (who won an Emmy for Homefront in 1992 and was nominated this year for Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story) talks about the enduring popularity of the Tory Burch white trench coat worn by Kerry Washington, as well as the quantity of Prada handbags on set when the show wrapped (hint: it’s a big number). Rubenstein also interviewed Bob Mackie, whose legendary TV work famously included The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
“I also really loved interviewing the costume designer of The Mindy Project, Salvador Pérez Jr.,” Rubenstein says. “He talked about how he and Mindy Kaling would have fitting sessions that lasted four or five hours because she was just so excited about his designs. It was really lovely to watch this woman, who wrote and directed every episode of that series, but her sense of self changed with how his designs continued to transform her on the show. And you see that change still today, with how she has really embraced the red carpet. That’s the power of fashion.”
Rubenstein’s career as a fashion journalist and author aside (other books include 100 Unforgettable Dresses and Paisley Goes with Nothing), his love of fashion extends back to his childhood. His grandmother was a seamstress who oversaw a team of 40 sewers in New York City’s Garment District, and his earliest memories indeed include a passion for television clothes. “When I was a kid, I was crazy about the suits Dick Van Dyke wore on his [eponymous] show,” he said. “And at the end of every show, it said, ‘Dick Van Dyke’s suits by Botany 500,’ and I begged to get one of my own, because I was tall and gangly, just like him, and I loved the way he dressed.”
But Rubenstein also was keen enough to notice Mary Tyler Moore on that show as well, and how she ultimately revolutionized the idea of what the American housewife wore. “When CBS hired her to be Laura Petrie, she told the producers, ‘When I’m home, I don’t wear a dress, I wear pants and flat shoes — why would I walk around my house in heels?’” he noted. “It was quite liberating, and women in America loved it.”
That isn’t to say that one of TV’s chief style influencers wasn’t also one of its earliest. When it’s pointed out to Rubenstein that an image of Lucille Ball in a scene from I Love Lucy includes a highly coveted white shirtdress with a rose-embroidered print through the waistline, he quickly agrees. “I do wish we had a color image of that dress, but it couldn’t be found,” he said. “But the thing about Lucy, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal 75 years later, she went on TV wearing maternity clothes, which was simply unheard of at the time. Women didn’t show up in public when they were pregnant; they didn’t say the word ‘pregnant.’ It makes her all the more remarkable — also because she never reduced the amount of slapstick she did on the show, and her husband always saw her as beautiful and sexy. It was pretty epic, and I think she started the maternity fashion industry.”
These and other anecdotes make for compelling, enjoyable reading in Dressing the Part, while Rubenstein says he’s proud that he could pay tribute to a costume-design industry that’s always been admired, even if its behind-the-scenes details have lived in the shadows. “And it took a little while,” he added, “but if you’re wondering why longline gloves and corsets are now on all the runways and red carpets, that’s the Bridgerton influence.”
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