While a few of the most enthralling scenes from "How to Get Away With Murder" might have more to do what star Viola Davis isn't wearing (you know exactly what I'm talking about), it would be remiss to not discuss the wardrobe on this season's breakout hit. Because if you look closely enough, the characters' outfits — what they wear and how they wear it — provide hints into their conflicted, mysterious and continuously surprising backstories and desperate motivations. Plus, we're always interested in learning more about Davis, both on-screen as the morally ambiguous lawyer/professor Annalise Keating, and off-screen accepting her recent SAG Award (much deserved) in a sexy white Max Mara gown.
Fans of the latest Shonda Rhimes-produced hit have veteran costume designer Linda Bass to thank for thoughtfully dressing an extensive cast. Bass has been in the costume design business for over three decades (including "Weeds" and the Oscar-winning movie "Crash"). You'll recognize her most recent work as part of the ultra-addictive Rhimes empire. She collaborated on the costumes for the first season of "Grey's Anatomy" and four seasons of the spin-off "Private Practice." While Bass is busy outfitting that shady crew at Middleton University, she's also working on a secret new project. But she was gracious (and patient) enough to have a long phone conversation with me to discuss Annalise's not totally courtroom-appropriate body-con dresses, Michaela's aspirational socialite outfits and Frank's sartorial security blanket.
I've heard Annalise's wig and makeup described as her "armor." How would you describe such an analogy regarding her clothes?
You know it’s so funny because I’ve always been quoted as saying her clothes are like her armor, but it’s the whole package. Annalise is a complicated and, as Viola says, 'a messy woman.' Her life is very complicated, but she is totally put together in hair and makeup and what she wears. So that when she walks out of the house, when she’s in the courtroom, she is very together. She’s an imposing force partly because she is so pulled together in what she looks like.
Annalise's courtroom and office dresses are fashion forward for the environment and flattering to her figure. How did you select the pieces and who makes them?
I have been a big fan of Max Mara for a really long time and I had a feeling that Viola would look really great in them. They do a lot of really beautiful sheaths — that’s my favorite silhouette — that nip in at the bottom of the leg. And I had a feeling Viola would look good in it, but I wanted to make sure she would be comfortable in it, too, because it’s so body hugging. It looked great on her and she took to it immediately. I vary from that [look] every now and again because, like anyone, Annalise doesn’t wear the same thing all the time. If you love clothes, you veer off and do something else every now and again, which is what we do. But for the most part, her look is that fitted sheath that she just wears really well.
I also noticed that Annalise wears very bold jewelry: chunky necklaces, bracelets and earrings. What’s the story behind the accessories?
Viola really likes big earrings and not everyone can wear them. If an actress has a very narrow face, the earrings almost get in the way. Or if someone has a less distinctive face, too much attention is put on the earring than the face. But Viola has such an amazing face and is so striking. She can carry it off better than any actress I’ve ever worked with. So I have really a lot of fun finding the earrings because it’s not something I always use. And again it’s all part of her armor. She’s very put together. A beautiful sheath is a beautiful sheath, but with accessories it all comes to life and really encapsulates that very together look. Viola loves [the jewelry] so I just kept it as a theme.
Has Viola Davis taken anything home from her Annalise wardrobe?
She will borrow something every now and again. If she has a last-minute interview or something, she might borrow something or a pair of shoes that are more comfortable than hers. In her real life Viola doesn’t dress anything like Annalise; I think she has a much more casual, comfortable look.
What are the brands you like to work with most for Annalise?
My three favorites for her are Max Mara, Alexander McQueen and Victoria Beckham.
During the mid-season finale, Annalise's hair and makeup removal scene was one of the most discussed moments on TV. How did the wardrobe support that scene?
You know it all goes back to at the top of that scene. I wanted her to look like the together Annalise. She had a really beautiful silk robe on. It would be easy to go to the terry robe, but it would have revealed too much. Annalise dressed in that very elegant robe made it much more of a surprise, I think, when she took off her makeup and her wig. It was a much bigger reveal.
I have lots of questions about the rest of the characters and it's such a large cast. Let’s start with Wes (Alfred Enoch). Tell me more about that scarf he wears. It always reminds me that he's a Hogwarts alum.
I don’t travel usually, so I didn’t do the pilot. But all of my actors did. And as every body knows it was a really, really cold winter last year in Philadelphia. So the actor, Alfie, himself, wore a lot of scarves himself in Philadelphia in the winter. It was how he kept warm. Even if he didn’t have a heavy coat on, if he wore a scarf, he’d be more comfortable. So it was at his request that we went with the scarf. It was something he felt that was a necessary part of that reality.
Bonnie (Liza Weil, aka Paris Geller forever) dresses in a demure way with ladylike blouses and pretty dresses. How does that play into her character and all those secrets she’s probably keeping?
Bonnie is as she is in personality. She doesn’t dress in any way to detract from Annalise. Bonnie dresses well and, as you say, demure. but you would never look at what Bonnie was wearing if she was in a room with Annalise. And I think that is done on purpose and I think she consciously will never take the attention away from Annalise.
What designers do you dress Bonnie in?
Amazingly enough, we do a combination of ALC and Ann Taylor. It works really well for her [laughs]. It’s very eclectic, but it works for her.
I love Rebecca (Katie Findlay)'s goth look, but then we see her courtroom scenes in which she looks completely different. Tell me about her contrasting looks.
Well, I always jokingly said, Rebecca became Amish. Annalise dressed her. I think Bonnie took her shopping on Annalise’s orders to make her look as non-threatening as absolutely possible. Rebecca is very chameleon-like. When her hair is in cornrows and she’s wearing her makeup and ripped jeans, she looks so much harder than when her hair goes curly and she doesn’t have the makeup on and she has soft clothes on. She becomes Snow White.
Michaela (Aja Naomi King) has very nice coats and society girl dresses. How does her wardrobe tell her story and where do you find those pieces?
My analogy for Michaela was whatever Princess Kate would wear, Michaela would wear. That was my prototype. It’s out there a lot. Michaela wears a combination of Rag & Bone and Alice + Olivia — it makes up a lot of it. It's very thought out. As we know, Michaela didn’t always come from money, she didn’t always dress this way. She is someone who thinks about her clothes every time she gets dressed. It’s a very thought out image of herself.
On the flip side, Laurel (Karla Souza) — who always look amazing — doesn’t seem like the type of person who really thinks about her clothes. What's your approach to dressing her?
On the flip side of Michaela, Laurel comes from a wealthy family, so clothes were always available to her. So she almost rejects the really pulled-together look. She’s a little more bohemian, she’s a little more adventurous and I like to keep her layered. It’s always t-shirts and tights and skirts and sweaters that lend themselves to being comfortable, but there’s just a layered look about her that adds a casual lushness to her. And she’s also into layering jewelry.
What brands do you look to for Laurel?
Laurel is, she everything. She’s so eclectic. There’s a store in Los Angeles called Ron Herman. It's where Laurel would shop. They carry contemporary, not inexpensive, but very casual clothes. And I do a lot of James Perse and Vince and that kind of thing.
Next up: Asher, a fan favorite, largely due to actor Matt McGorry’s awesomeness. Asher's bright polos and v-neck sweaters totally embody his preppy-bro persona. What is your philosophy for dressing him?
I mean, Asher, he’s just so secure in who he is. I just like to think he really grew up in the dressing rooms of Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. And he is secure enough to wear an orange sweater when everyone is all bundled up and in some horrible situation and he is also the most naive of them because he is the only one who doesn’t know about the murder night or any of that. So I like to keep him in light and lively colors because he's not carrying the burden that the other kids are carrying.
And how did you decide that he’s a boxers man? Because I noticed his underwear when he and Bonnie had their murder night "moment."
I always talk to Pete Nowalk, our creator, about things like, 'What is the underwear going to reveal?' and we always ask the actors what they're most comfortable in too. But he’s the only one on our show that really wears boxers because he’s the only one that can carry them off. Sometimes [boxer shorts] can look really clown-like or they take up too much room on a frame of film. It’s something you notice, but Asher could carry it off.
Speaking of underwear, let's talk about Connor [Jack Falahee].
He’s really fun, he’s our fashion guy and he wears everything from Sandro to John Varvatos to whatever’s out there. And he wears his pants in that shorter length. When we were still in the summer months he wore oxford shoes and no socks to let his ankle bones show, which is that great new length on men’s pants that I love. All the guys want to dress like Connor.
He has the sexiest scenes. How do you factor the action in those scenes into how you dress him?
As opposed to Asher’s boxer shorts, Connor is a cotton knit brief kind of guy. He has a really great body, he’s really adorable and is not self conscious about what he looks like and he goes for it. [Aside: uh yeah he does.] But he’s fun to dress in what is fashion-forward for men now: clothes that are tight fitting and jackets and pants that are shorter. He accommodates that really well.
We should talk about Frank (Charlie Weber), too, especially his vests. What’s the inspiration behind his look and how that plays into his character?
In the pilot, I think he wore a vest just once, but as I started to evolve Frank, the vest just seemed to really depict Frank for me. Frank is not an attorney. He is a Philadelphia guy who got hired by Annalise to be her main man. I think that for Frank the vest lends him the respectability that he needs. I think there’s a real insecurity in Frank because he isn’t educated. Because he doesn’t come from mainline Philly, good education, yet he’s working for Annalise and I think that for Frank the vest became a character thing that made him feel secure.
Even though you didn’t do the pilot, you did have to work on flashbacks back to that episode, which requires the entire cast wearing the exact same clothes for the first half of the season. Hwas that as the costume designer?
It's really interesting because when those clothes were established it was freezing in Philadelphia in the winter and yet we started shooting flashbacks with that same wardrobe in the heat of the summer in California. In August and September we were shooting flashbacks. And they are really heavy warm clothes and the actors were really, really uncomfortable. So for some of them, they’re wearing ice vests. They're wearing vests that you put little trays of ice all in, so that they don’t die while they’re shooting.
And also things like — I have to be careful, I don’t want to reveal any spoilers here — but there are scenes when Wes is carrying Rebecca up the steps right after Sam was killed. She was sprayed with blood and he’s carrying her up to wash her off and we realize that we had to be really careful because the viewers saw his jacket and all his outerwear after this happened and he never had any blood on him. So we decided that we would take everything off and he would just be wearing his t-shirt because that was never revealed before. However, we started getting further into the story we had to figure out places — he’s wearing like four layers — where he would lose each layer to get down to his t-shirt in other shows we shot. So it gets really complicated because you want to follow a real continuity with it. So although I didn't have anything to do with what those costumes were I dealt with them all season in various ways.
If you could put Annalise in your dream outfit in future episodes, what would you do?
I would have the time to design fabulous sheaths and coats for her. Our schedule is so quick and so rapid fire, I don’t really get much chance to design anything and I would love to design my own personal line of dresses and coats for her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the time for that to happen.
Do you have any plans outside of costume design in the works now?
No, I’m starting a new show really soon, but my secret ambition when I retire would be to design a line of really great, hip modern wear for chubby teenage girls. Because I just don't think it's out there. I would like all the really thin girls in the world to envy my chubby girls’ clothes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.