'Buffy the Vampire Slayer''s Costume Designer on the Show's Undying Message of Female Empowerment

Twenty years later, Cynthia Bergstrom shares some throwback behind-the-scenes fun facts (and her sketches!).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in a classic Buffy look. Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

Even though "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" hit the big 2-0 this year (that's like... a whole Zendaya), the beloved TV show's influence can be felt decades later. The inventive and groundbreaking series starring badass teenage female lead Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) — who slayed demons and vampires in her literal Hellmouth of a town — also served as an allegory for all the shit teens and young adults go through figuring out life. 

The show's writer-creator Joss Whedon has dominated Twitter in the past week due to an essay by his ex-wife that reveals less than feminist personal beliefs and behavior (cheating), but we refuse to let those disheartening (to say the least) allegations tarnish "Buffy"'s legacy. The show paved the way for so much we enjoy today: more kick-ass female-led shows (see: "Alias," "Veronica Mars," "Orphan Black"), musical episodes that we need more of (see: "The Flash") and, of course, the late '90s and early aughts fashion, which has cycled back in a major way. (By the way, the 20th anniversary collectible "Buffy" DVD box set drops on Sept. 19.)

From 1997 to 2003, Buffy and her Scooby Gang — adorkable witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), sarcastic BFF Xander (Nicholas Brendon), mean-girl-turned-fellow-outcast Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), plus vampires/love interests broody Angel (David Boreanaz) and bad boy Spike (James Marsters) — wore seven seasons of very memorable looks. Who can forget Willow's now-infamous fuzzy, animal-knit sweaters and Buffy's signature slayer look of mid-length leather jackets and bootcut stretchy pants? The internet sure hasn't.

On left, clockwise from top: Buffy, Cordelia, Xander, Willow, Buffy and Willow. On right, clockwise from top: Glory, demon, Buffy at Anya and Xander's wedding, Cordelia at prom, Buffy's first day at college (remember the cherry dress?!). Sketches: courtesy Cynthia Bergstrom

So I tracked down costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom, who handled the characters' formative years from seasons two (junior year at Sunnydale High) through six — you know, when Buffy came back from death a second time and the Scooby Gang transitioned into adulthood — or not, in the case of century-old vamps Angel and Spike. (Susanna Puisto designed season one and Terry Dresbach, of "Outlander" fame and Matthew Van Dyne designed the final season.)

Bergstrom, who previously designed Wes Craven's "Scream," was on board for the show's most iconic episodes, including the heart-wrenching "The Prom," the musical "Once More With Feeling," the parents-gone-wild "Band Candy" and the silent and forever terrifying "Hush." After moving on to hit shows including "CSI: Miami" and "Private Practice" (and Gellar’s canceled 2011 series "Ringer"), Bergstrom left the industry in 2013 to earn a Master's Degree in Spiritual Psychology and became a therapist.

"I'm really concentrating on teen girls and letting them know that they're okay just the way they are and they don't have to live in a world where they feel like they're not enough and feel like they have to compare themselves to others," she says over the phone, bringing it all full circle, since that sounds a lot like the underlying theme of "Buffy." Lucky for all of us forever "Buffy" fans, the incredibly friendly (and fun) costume designer was more than happy to revisit her time on the show to discuss Buffy's sartorial legacy, how 'Once More With Feeling' might have influenced a recent Oscar-winning musical and what she really thinks of the Bad Buffy Outfits Twitter account. 

Read on for the highlights.

Watcher Giles (Anthony Head) and Buffy. Where can I get that cami now?. Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Your first episode was the season two premiere, "When She Was Bad," featuring a traumatized Buffy returning from summer break after kinda vanquishing The Master (and coming back from the dead, the first time). What was your vision in bringing her character into her next stage?

One of my directives [was a lot of color and having the clothes not match] and that sort of broke up the paradigm of how I had been trained as a costume designer and [previously] creating really cohesive, pretty packages. I remember just letting go and letting an explosion of color take place. Remember, too, it was 1997, so fashion was quite a bit different. 

Because Buffy had settled into the fact that she was the slayer — and had let go of being the little girl — and really took ownership of who she was and what her purpose was, I wanted to reflect that in the clothes. It was almost like she had her day looks and her evening looks: her school outfits and then her fight outfits. So she had a very distinctive look when she would fight and [it's] what I carried out through all the seasons I did. I wanted things to be either the cutting edge of trends — starting the trend — or on-trend and, mostly, I just wanted things that we hadn't seen before. Also mixing the feminine with sort of the warrior-esque, slightly masculine aspect of her job as a slayer.

Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy and her bra straps. Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Of the era's cutting edge trends that you incorporated, what were some highlights?

I remember really utilizing Mark Wong Nark tops and pants [on Buffy]. The pants were great because they were form-fitting and stretchy. She could wear her little ankle boots with the slight chunky heel. Oh my god, do you remember those boots that they wore back then? They had square toes and chunky heels. Please do not bring those back. [Sorry, they did.] They were cool at the time. 

I remember her bra straps would show through her tank top. So a lot of the fans of age starting drinking games. They would take a drink of a beer or a shot of whisky or whatever when they saw a bra strap. I would get fan mail about that and then people would try and figure out what the hidden dark meaning was, which was nothing. Definitely her leather jackets. I think the Buffy quintessential fight look — leather jacket, low-cut top, push-up bra, her cross pendant — that was a staple look and it's still referred to today. Like, 'oh, that's a Buffy Outfit.' Even Hot Topic, they sell that look.

Dark Willow. Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

You created the costumes during the Scooby Gang's formative years. What are your highlights in terms of using costume and fashion of the time to evolve the rest of the Scooby Gang?

In terms of the cast, I really wanted to tone up Xander. My producer and I always thought Nicholas [Brendon] had such a great look and he was a very handsome guy. A couple of times we gave him a stronger and a little bit more of a dashing look, as opposed to [being] one of the Scooby Gang with baggy pants and t-shirt and printed over-shirt. In Halloween episodes, I put him in this tuxedo [as a James Bond costume in 'Fear Itself,' season four, episode four] and a soldier outfit ['Halloween,' season two, episode six]. 

I also loved the arc of Willow [Alyson Hannigan]. Willow was this little girl who wore overalls and pink fuzzy sweaters and I have been razzed a little bit about that online. [@BadBuffyOutfits is] like: oh the horrible outfits on 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' which cracks me up. It's like, I was dressing a character, you know? I thought it was funny that this woman was going all out, but eventually Willow came into her power as well and that was reflected in her clothing. The first time was really when she became Bad Willow [the Anya and Cordelia-induced doppelgänger Willow from season three's 'The Wish'] and when she went to the Dark Side. Her clothing became more somber and more form-fitted and a little — a lot — more contemporary.

Drusilla [Juliet Landau], Angel (David Boreanaz) and Spike (James Marsden). #TeamAngel or #TeamSpike? Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

What was it like costume designing for the vampires and all the demons?

I remember my first day on the job, Joss came to me and said, 'I have these two new characters coming on board. It's gonna be a couple episodes in, but I want you to start thinking about them.' And he was speaking of Drusilla [Juliet Landau] and Spike [James Marsden, above]. That was just really fun and it was really fun to have enough time to think about Drusilla. I grew up watching horror films and creature features from the '60s and '70s on rainy Saturday afternoons. I just remember the women were always dressed in ethereal sort of Josephine-esque bodices, very much like the Napoleonic-era, and I did draw on a painting of Josephine Bonaparte. I was just like, 'that is so Drusilla.' That was the white dress.

And then Spike. I mean, he basically wore the same thing for seven years [laughs]. Spike was pretty straightforward. We literally — my team and I bought several beautiful leather coats and then we beat the shit out of them. We actually got transpo to chain up the jackets to the back of a tractor and drive the tractor around the lot with the jackets dragging behind to get a really nice aged effect. And then poor James was like, 'I have to wear that now?' I was like, 'yeah, the inside isn't being touched at all... ' When we did the flashbacks of Angel [David Boreanaz], Spike and Drusilla, that was extraordinary. I love period costume. It was so much fun to see who Spike was before he became a vampire and to dress him as that demure poet type. 

Angel was always kind of a hottie. I would go to these stores on Melrose that dressed some of the hottest rock stars at the time and talk to the owners of the stores and they'd call me up and they'd say, 'Cynthia, you gotta come see this. This is perfect for Angel.' His pants and some of his shirts were Henry Duarte. He was always that sexy rock'n roller.

And all the demons. It was so much fun to expand my imagination and do the research and look at European fashion magazines and avant garde fashion and go, 'oh my gosh, that's perfect for such and such,' just tweak it there and there and I had a great team to help build the costumes. I would show my seamstress the sketch and we would resource everything.

Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) in the realized version of Bergstrom's above sketch. Photo: © 1997-2003 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

There were also pretty memorable costume moments that helped tell the stories on the very iconic episodes. What are your favorite costume moments from the show?

The 'Halloween' episode was such a memorable moment. It was the sixth episode of the season and the first season that I was on board and I remember reading about all these costumes and all the little goblins and it was a huge undertaking. I said to my team, 'We really gotta be sharp on this, there's a lot of moving pieces here.' Every time you start a show, you gotta find a rhythm and, in that episode, we found the rhythm of the show. So Buffy's [18th century/circa-Angel's siring gown]: I just had this vision of the colors and the trims in my mind and I just sat down and I sketched it. I'll be honest, I was a young costume designer, I was concerned, 'are they going to like it?' and everybody loved it. It was fantastic. It was a moment where I could breathe and let go. That was a real pivotal moment for me.

'Once More With Feeling' was probably my favorite episode and l... [laughs] 'La La Land!' The director, the writer, [32-year-old Damien Chazelle] — I think he grew up watching 'Buffy' because it does remind me of [the musical number 'They Got the Mustard Out']. [The performers are] coming from the dry cleaner — and actually one of our writers, David Fury, is the lead guy in that — and they're dancing with colorful garments on hangers and they're all wearing pretty bright primary colors. With Emma [Caulfield] and Nicholas, when they did their dance as Anya and Xander ['I'll Never Tell'], that was just so, so adorable. It just felt like it was old time Hollywood: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. That's why I went with the silk pajamas [for Xander] and silk little tap pant and camisole top [for Anya].

Buffy in her classic look. Photo: 20th Century Fox

I feel like society has moved ahead in the discussion of strong women being taken seriously while still embracing fashion and femininity in the way they dress. But what was that like in the late '90s regarding Buffy's look?

I don't think it ever really did play in. Buffy was known to be a really powerful young woman and certainly by Joss [Whedon] who created Buffy — even going back to the original movie [which he wrote]. His original intent was that he wanted to see a superwoman. He wanted to see a powerful woman save the world. And I think he was — I'm maybe paraphrasing here — but I think he was a little over the hero always being a guy. He really embraced the strength and power that women really do have. [Ed's note: This interview was conducted before news broke that Whedon is allegedly a hypocritical dirtbag.]

The show ran before Instagram and Twitter, but Buffy’s '90s/early aughts costumes have a strong social media presence with right now with Buffy the Style Slayer and Every Outfit Buffy Slayed. How different do you think your job would have been if social media existed when the show was on?

I just read [the story about 'Insecure' costumes] and the designer was saying the fans have instant access to her and she gets a lot of input. I got a lot of fan mail, but I got snail mail.

It would have been really engaging to talk to some of the fans. There are a few now that find me and they want to ask me certain questions or if I have pieces that they can buy. Or they want to know how I made something or where something was bought or purchased. It would be really really fun to have the audience participation via social media — and it would increase ratings.

Maybe someday, I'll be resurrected and I can come back and do an iconic show like 'Buffy' or a movie like 'Scream' and experience it through social media.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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