Costume Designer Jenn Rogien on Dressing Female Inmates for Netflix's Orange Is the New Black

Netflix's latest original series Orange is the New Black debuted yesterday with its entire first season and if you haven't already seen it, we recommend setting some time aside for a marathon this weekend--it's good (and even got picked up for a second season before it actually aired). Created by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds) and based on a memoir of the same name, it's a dramedy that follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) on her challenging transition from living a comfortable life with her fiancé in New York to being an inmate at a women's prison with a colorful cast of characters (including Natasha Lyonne and Taryn Manning). For the most part, however, their outfits are a not-so-colorful khaki--except for newbies like Chapman, who wear the bright orange referenced in the show's title. This is something we learned while chatting with costume designer Jenn Rogien, who had a lot of fascinating research to do re: prison dress codes while prepping for this project--a far cry from her work on Girls.
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Netflix's latest original series Orange is the New Black debuted yesterday with its entire first season and if you haven't already seen it, we recommend setting some time aside for a marathon this weekend--it's good (and even got picked up for a second season before it actually aired). Created by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds) and based on a memoir of the same name, it's a dramedy that follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) on her challenging transition from living a comfortable life with her fiancé in New York to being an inmate at a women's prison with a colorful cast of characters (including Natasha Lyonne and Taryn Manning). For the most part, however, their outfits are a not-so-colorful khaki--except for newbies like Chapman, who wear the bright orange referenced in the show's title. This is something we learned while chatting with costume designer Jenn Rogien, who had a lot of fascinating research to do re: prison dress codes while prepping for this project--a far cry from her work on Girls.
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Netflix's latest original series Orange is the New Black debuted yesterday with its entire first season and if you haven't already seen it, we recommend setting some time aside for a marathon this weekend--it's good (and even got picked up for a second season before it actually aired).

Created by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds) and based on a memoir of the same name, it's a dramedy that follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) on her challenging transition from living a comfortable life with her fiancé in New York to being an inmate at a women's prison with a colorful cast of characters (including Natasha Lyonne and Taryn Manning).

For the most part, however, their outfits are a not-so-colorful khaki--except for newbies like Chapman, who wear the bright orange referenced in the show's title. This is something we learned while chatting with costume designer Jenn Rogien, who had a lot of fascinating research to do re: prison dress codes while prepping for this project--a far cry from her work on Girls.

She was also faced with the challenging task of creating different identities for characters who are essentially all wearing the same prison outfits. Read on for our interview to find out how she pulled that off.

How did you get involved with the show? My agent was looking for new projects that were on the horizon and she mentioned there was a show for Netflix, and I think I said, 'I’m in,' and she said, 'It’s created by Jenji Kohan,' and I said, 'Great.' I ended up having a Skype interview and then finding out a couple days later that I’d gotten the job.

What kind of research did you have to do in terms of making the prison look realistic? There was so much research that went into this particular project. There are so many rules about what inmates are allowed to do with their clothing, with what they can purchase at the commissary, what hours of the day that they can wear certain things. We wanted to ground our world in reality, so I wanted to know what the real rules were. We also looked to the parameters of our story and did we want to create our own rules to guide our characters through their everyday lives.

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What are some specific rules you learned about? We discovered that there are several counts that happen during an inmate's normal day and they're expected to be appropriately attired and in their required placement, whether that’s a job or if they’re supposed to be in their rooms or if they’re supposed to be with their counselor, they need to be in the proper wardrobe. In most cases, they’re not allowed to alter their uniforms or to deface their uniforms. Piper Kerman, whom our character Piper is based on, mentioned in her time in prison she found that there were groups of women who spent a lot of time ironing and pressing patterns into their uniforms, which is of course completely against the rules, but it was one way of personalizing the garments. We also considered the colors: Orange is the standout color and khaki’s a really dehumanizing, defeminizing, anonymous color. We found that prisons across the United States both at a federal level and a state level use a variety of uniform colors--everything from red to white to forest green, and in some places there are prisons that still use what you’d consider an old fashioned stripe. They can be used to indicate a specific facility, or medical condition...the learning curve was quite steep to start off the show last season.

So on the show why are some of the inmates wearing orange, while some wear khaki? This is where we started to create world of our own. We used orange to signify new inmates who have just been admitted to the prison and were going through orientation. In our world, the prison is underfunded and overstretched in terms of staffing and facilities and so the orientation could take anywhere from a couple of days to a month. The khaki is for the general population. There’s a line in the pilot where Dayonara, one of our newbies, asks, 'When do we get outfits like them?' And the inmate who’s been there for a while says, 'Don’t be so quick to want to lose the orange, because you’d just blend in in the beige.' That is part of the reason why it’s such a specific color choice.

How did you create different identities for characters who are essentially all wearing the same prison outfits? That is the challenge of this show--how do we take such a limited array of clothing choices and still convey characters, still convey that this character is an individual who’s a unique person who’s got a unique outlook and we do it a couple of ways. [We think about,] does this character follow all the rules and therefore is wearing the uniform in its truest most basic sense, nothing's rolled, nothing is folded, she’s wearing her standard issue work boots and she’s wearing a standard white t-shirt? Other inmates, they rolled things, they folded things, they’ve tried to cuff them up, they refuse to wear their boot laces or they always wear their shower slides, all of which is of course against the rules, but all of which indicates that that character in particular is a little bit of a rule breaker, which is why they’re in prison in the first place. There are a few items that are available at the commissary that inmates both in the real world and in our story are able to purchase if they have funds, so we would layer in things like sweatshirts, sweatpants, gray t-shirts, along with some contraband items to help support whichever characters would be able to make those choices. One of the characters that i think we went the farthest with was the character of Red--she’s in charge of the kitchen and has a little bit more access than other inmates. There’s a great scene where movie night happens and she’s in what appears to be a quite lovely pair of men’s pajamas and that’s exactly what they are because she has access to some contraband items. That was a great way of really signaling her out as a bit of a top dog.

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Where did you source the prison outfits? It was important to me that we use as many authentic prison suppliers as we could, so all of the uniforms that you see on screen are actual prison uniforms. We did stonewash them and and actually overdyed the orange uniforms because we didn’t want it to give the director of photography any trouble because it’s such a strong orange. If I remember correctly, we actually overdyed them in black, but they still read as very vibrant orange and that is the end result we were looking for. We learned a lot about working with suppliers as well--they’re definitely on a much slower time frame than I’m used to in terms of TV and film production--we turn things around overnight and that’s just not how it works in that world.

The show also jumps around through different time periods via flashbacks--what kind of research did you do for that? We had flashbacks as far back as the late ‘70s, late '80s, late '90s, early 2000s and each one of those is a very different time period that has very unique looks. We have accumulated a library of probably a half dozen vintage JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, Sears catalogs from that whole span of time, as well as a couple years prior to each of the actual dates of the flashbacks because most characters and most real people would never go out and get a completely brand new wardrobe head to toe for the year that we’re dressing them. So we tried to go even as far back as five years to six years in advance of the actual scripted year to get a look that’s a little bit more authentic.

Did you ever personally visit a prison for research? It’s very difficult to speak with a prison inmate if you’re not directly connected with them. I have shot in prisons before and when we started the show we had a technical advisor right away, so I didn’t get the chance to go and visit a prison, but I have visited prisons as part of a production crew in the past, and we did that again on this job, and whenever we go I usually find one of the prison staff and we ask them all kinds of questions. We also have a technical advisor who had actually worked in the New York State prison system, which was invaluable for that kind of information.

Jenn Rogien

Jenn Rogien

Jumping to an entirely different topic, anything you can tell us about the Girls' style evolution in season three? All the girls are moving forward with their stories so we’re trying to keep up with that, but I don’t want to get too specific because I don’t want to be the one who spoils the next season! We’re still in the middle of shooting the season so I’m waiting to find out where it’s going to go. Of course we’ve had some exciting guest stars joining the cast this season--equally as exciting as the earlier season and it’s been really fun to dress those guys as well, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it air because that’s always gratifying.

Any other projects in the works? Right now I’m finishing up Girls, starting up Orange [season two], looking forward to hopefully a couple of collaborations starting this fall--we’re still working out details.