How the 'Transparent' Costume Designer Revived a Lost Era of Trans History in Season 2

We spoke to Emmy Award-winning costume director Marie Schley about the Weimar Berlin, Maura's caftans and Ali's colorful, androgynous style.
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We spoke to Emmy Award-winning costume director Marie Schley about the Weimar Berlin, Maura's caftans and Ali's colorful, androgynous style.
Rose and Gittel. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Rose and Gittel. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

"No one stays the same on 'Transparent,'" says costume designer Marie Schley, putting it mildly. The second season of Jill Soloway's groundbreaking Amazon show, which critics have called transformative and transcendent (puns!), went live last week and continues to tackle themes of gender, spirituality, self-discovery and family through the colorful Pfefferman family. But Soloway expands the scope beyond present day L.A., weaving in a parallel storyline that takes place in 1930s Berlin and, as Schley explained, brings a forgotten part of history to life on screen.

"We did a lot of research on that time period and it’s something that’s specifically in our show for many reasons, one of which is the fact that this trans history has been erased," says Schley, who won an Emmy Award for her work on "Transparent" this year. The flashback scenes depict the Institute for Sexology that physician Magnus Hirschfeld founded in Berlin in 1919. All his documents and books were destroyed when the Nazis shut the space down in 1933, but Schley was able to reference images of events held there, in addition to speaking to an expert in Berlin and referring to the book "Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity.”

Gittel and Rose. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Gittel and Rose. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Schley says Holloway told her, "I don't want it to necessarily look completely period-esque, I want it to look like one of the most fun, hip places that could [exist]." The episodes depict three party scenes at the institute, including a festive Adam and Eve play featuring many whimsical animal costumes. "They are playing constantly with gender at the institute, too, so we tried to put in sort of different stereotypes of masculinity or femininity that people would be experimenting with, or smoking jackets or garters — all the things that are assigned to a gender."

At the center of the Berlin scenes is model Hari Nef in her debut TV role as Tante Gittel, a fearless transgender woman with a penchant for lace, white gloves and a loose-fitting, delicate pink robe. "Gittel in those scenes is very rarely wearing any undergarments or any slip... so we often showed off [her] chest," said Schley. "She doesn’t have the same inhibitions as someone who has grown up as a woman in society, feeling the same constructs." Most of Nef's looks and the animal costumes were made for the show, while the majority of the other period looks were rented.

Maura, Sarah and Ali Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Maura, Sarah and Ali Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

But the richly appointed Weimar Berlin scenes only account for a small part of the second season, in which all the Pfeffermans continue to evolve. Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) might undergo the most change: she is experimenting with her sexuality, taking gender studies classes and has a crazy cool undercut hairstyle. "We kind of gave her a gender queer look," says Schley, who says she based Ali's style on an androgynous look that she and Soloway have seen "in the arty areas" of Los Angeles.
"[Ali's] playing with a lot of '80s patterns and cuts... there's an irony to it, but also a celebration of color and humor," says Schley. In addition to sourcing vintage and rented pieces, Schley shopped for her at Urban Outfitters and Civilianaire.

Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor)'s style is also more feminine this season. Schley made several "earthy and feminine" dresses for her, including a white one she wears to Sarah Pfefferman's wedding. For accessories, Schley notes, "I think she has a slightly '70s style and she has to wear clip earrings, so vintage works well with that."

Ali and Maura Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Ali and Maura Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Meanwhile son Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) is no longer the flashy hipster man-child of season one, reflecting the new adult responsibilities he encounters. "He's still wearing expensive clothing, Paul Smith and Steve Alan and things like that... We did a lot of monochromatic looks on him, too," says Schley, citing a desire for "stillness" in his style instead of the patterned shirts he wore buttoned all the way up before.

Raquel Fein and Josh Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Raquel Fein and Josh Pfefferman. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

Of course, "Transparent" has so many more distinctly styled characters: Cherry Jones as the alluring lesbian poet Leslie Mackinaw (styled after a 1950s guy); Judith Light's pantsuit- and tracksuit-loving Shelly Pfefferman; Kathryn Hahn as the conservative-yet-cool Rabbi Raquel Fein ("We try to keep her modest and feminine to counterpoint the Pffeferman women."); Carrie Brownstein's consistently confident Syd Feldman; and Melora Hardin's Tammy Cashman with her shiny blazers and Alexander McQueen high tops ("She becomes much more slick looking... We were joking that we were calling her Tamye, like Kanye.").

Schley says she's already gotten positive feedback about the costumes in the Berlin scenes, but also looks forward to the opposite response. "A thrill about working at this show is that I'm always pushing at the front edge and some people either understand the clothes or they don't, and both reactions work," she says. "We try to do stuff that's very specific to the character, tells a specific story line and is always evolving... You try to ride in a place that's beyond fashion or something that's ahead of it." The show's costumes, just like its characters, do not seek likability or approval from the audience. And girl, does that make for great TV. 

The extended Pfefferman family. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios

The extended Pfefferman family. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Studios