11 Secrets of a TV Costume Designer
By Kelly Bryant
It's not just the words that actors say or the way they move that tells a story. Wardrobe reveals a lot about a character. The cast of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. runs quite the gamut of characters, from ass-kicking agents to inhuman oddities to beloved comic book avengers—so the series’ Costume Designer, Ann Foley, has her work cut out for her. What does it really take to dress a TV cast? Foley reveals her secrets.
1. DRESS THE ACTOR FOR WHAT THE CHARACTER HAS TO DO.
TV lawyers need to look professional but sexy, TV doctors may require tailored scrubs, but for Foley’s cast, they need to be able to beat the bad guys. “The challenge in general for any character is to create a look that’s true to who they are as that person,” she says. “I always try to make sure, no matter what, everybody can move really freely in their clothes because of all of the stunts we have on our show. That’s always in the back of my head.”
2. COSTUMES NEED TO BE APPROVED.
Dressing a cast isn’t as easy as throwing clothes on a group of genetically-blessed actors—there’s an entire process of getting wardrobe approved by the powers that be. “I work really closely with Maurissa Tancharoen, who is one of our Executive Producers and co-creators on the show,” Foley says. “Together we have really created a wonderful look for all of the characters. If it’s one of the pre-existing characters from the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe), like Mockingbird, for example, then I illustrate and send the illustrations up to the creative committee at Marvel for their approval.”
3. COSTUME DESIGNERS ARE FILMING AND PREPPING AT THE SAME TIME.
Generally speaking, costume designers are pulling double duty working on the current episode in production and getting wardrobe ready for the next episode. “Shoot Day 1 of your current episode is Prep Day 1 of your next,” she says. “We’re constantly shooting and prepping at the same time. We start prepping an episode with concept meetings and I go into my one-on-one wardrobe meetings. Then we start fitting or we start building the costumes.”
4. SECRET STORYLINES MEAN SHORT LEAD TIMES.
Think about how hard it is for you to scrape together something to wear in the morning. Now consider how tough it is to create a look for a veritable superhero and multiply that by about 20. Given the secretive nature of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s storylines, Foley is only given a lengthy lead time to start a costume if it’s something huge—but those instances are few and far between. “They will give me a heads up if it’s a big [costume] build, then I’m given a really nice lead time on it.... I had about an eight-week lead time to work [on the Mockingbird costume]. That was for concept and building. In other situations, like Agent May and the silver sequined dress she wore earlier this season, I found out about that when I got the script. I had about a week, maybe 10 days. It just varies.”
5. DON’T ASK A COSTUME DESIGNER TO CHOOSE FAVORITES.
“That’s like asking me who my favorite child is,” says Foley. “I have had so much fun with all of them because they’re all great, but I guess some of the highlights for me were Agent May and her silver sequined dress, Mockingbird, and Kyle MacLachlan’s character Cal and his band of misfits.”
6. DRESSING HEROES AND VILLAINS CREATES INTERESTING CHALLENGES.
When you’re dealing with characters who have unusual traits, it makes for some interesting wardrobe obstacles. “We always have our challenges,” she notes. “For example, poor Drea (de Matteo, as Karla Faye Gideon) and her razor nails. That pops to mind. That created its own set of challenges. We always try to make it as easy as possible for the actors. It’s important to make sure their costumes are functional and practical for stunts, and for their comfort as well. Every now and then you do get something challenging, like the nails. Drea just needed a lot of help getting dressed and undressed.”
7. FITTINGS ARE FUN.
“One of my favorite things is when I’m doing fittings with the actors,” Foley says. “Iain [De Caestecker] for example, who plays Fitz, loves to use props in his fitting photos. He likes to put signs up to make the EPs laugh when they see the fitting photos. We have a blast.”
8. WORKING ON A SUPERHERO SHOW IS AN UNEXPECTED RESUME BOOSTER.
Foley, whose other credits include Star Trek Into Darkness, Behind the Candelabra, and Real Steel, among others, acknowledges she now has mad skills in one very specific area of costuming, thanks to the need for her actors to have flexibility while doing stunts. “I certainly know how to put a stretch panel in almost any piece of clothing, including a sequins wrap dress,” she says.”
9. YOU NEED TO HAVE INCREDIBLE ATTENTION TO DETAIL.
In an effort to visually show the characters evolving, Foley says she’s constantly doing research and trying to figure out where they are headed next. “At the beginning of the second season I knew there was going to be a bit of a time break from where we ended last season,” she says. “I remembered everything. I knew where we left off so the bigger question was, Where are we going? That was really sitting down with the writers and Maurissa to figure out what that next step was going to be.”
10. THE JOB REQUIRES RESEARCH.
When you’re dealing with the Marvel universe, there’s a lot of information to digest, and Foley admits she’s picking up facts all the time to apply to her job. “I’m learning it every day,” she says. “I just had an interesting conversation on set about the history of certain characters. We were discussing Ultron today. I’ve learned more than I ever thought was possible about the Marvel universe … and there’s more to learn! I’ve worked with so many people that have way more knowledge about this stuff than I do—all of the Marvel producers are so generous with their time and information. I love looking this stuff up online and going to Marvel’s database and checking things out. It’s great seeing the backstories and seeing what I can do to incorporate little, small things that are part of their backstories into who they are as characters.”
11. ON A MARVEL SHOW, IT'S GOOD TO PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT FANS ARE SAYING.
Marvel fans are a die-hard bunch and, in turn, very protective over some of the familiar characters who pop up on S.H.I.E.L.D. from time to time. So does Foley listen to what the show’s devotees have to say? “I do pay attention to the fans,” she admits. “I have a really wonderful interaction with them on Twitter and they’ve all been incredibly supportive. We have the best fans ever.”