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How 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story' Explores Sexism, Feminism and Race Through Wardrobe

Plus, costume designer Hala Bahmet tells us how she found inspiration to dress all of the Kardashians, from Kris Jenner to a teenage Kim.
O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) takes a polygraph. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) takes a polygraph. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

From 1994 to 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial and its surrounding events — from the brutal murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman to the live Bronco chase to the televised courtroom drama — captivated the country. Starting on February 2, mega-producer Ryan Murphy, the mad genius behind the "American Horror Story" anthology, "Scream Queens" and the award-winning HIV-AIDS drama "The Normal Heart," revisits the historical case and its societal impact with the 10-episode series "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." The trial and ultimate acquittal remain seminal moments in 20th century history, with themes that still ring true two decades later.

"It was the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle and pre-TMZ type of celebrity news," said the series' costume designer Hala Bahmet, pointing out the trial's significance. "It's about race and gender. It's about feminism, with [trial prosecutor] Marcia Clark's story." At the time, American society was also experiencing a "cultural shift," also expressed through wardrobe. "There were so many different cultural groups and different styles of fashion happening simultaneously," Bahment explained. "Gangster rap was taking over. We had Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love — grunge was huge. That whole Seattle scene was happening and that was a completely different aesthetic. And we had the '80s hangover with power suits on a lot of the lawyers."  

To put all this together into one series, Bahmet immersed herself in research — not just of general '90s fashion trends, but also the vast number of real people portrayed in the anthology. The costume designer and her team pored over old Sears and JCPenney catalogs to outfit the "average American" players in the story. They also looked to GQ, Vogue and other high fashion magazines to dress the more "affluent and fashion forward" roles. "Our Faye Resnick, our Kris Jenner, our Shapiros," Bahmet said. "These people were not wearing the 'regular' stuff. They were really high-end — quite polished and quite fashionable." 

She also watched hours of documentary and archival video footage of the trial and collaborated with the hair and makeup teams as well as the actors, who conducted their own research prep. Despite the flamboyant style of the '90s, the retro costumes played a supporting role to not overshadow or distract from the gravity of the events. "We are there to further the stories," the costume designer said. "We are there to have the costumes be part of telling the story."

In the beginning, producers urged the cast not to meet with their real life counterparts in researching their roles and costumes, but hey, Hollywood is a small town. After a fitting for her role as Nicole Brown Simpson's friend Kris Jenner, Selma Blair ended up running into the Kardashian momager at a fundraising dinner. "[Blair was] like, 'I'm sorry, I just had a fitting. I'm playing you in this new Ryan Murphy series. I'm delighted to meet you,'" Bahmet explained. "The two of them became friends." The newly formed relationship helped the actress and costume designer work together to authentically recreate Jenner's looks, which consisted of a black and white palette that she still wears today, plus vintage jewelry and "a lot of Versace and Chanel." 

As the trailer featuring David Schwimmer as defense attorney Robert Kardashian hinted ("Do not kill yourself in Kimmy's room!" he yells to Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a suicidal Simpson), the show will feature "a sprinkling" of the young Kardashian children. Along with studying old photos of the now-ubiquitous family, Bahmet thought about the present day styles of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé and Rob and "dialed it back" to whom they could have been 20 years ago. "Kim [is] just a little more stylish than her siblings, even at that time, because the photo records show that," said Bahmet, referring to a white cheongsam that the future Mrs. West wore to her eighth-grade graduation. "I thought that was a very sophisticated choice for a young teenager, and so we took it from there and decided to give it more style." She also noted that the family — like today — had a penchant for wearing coordinating outfits. (See: the Kardashian holiday cards.) "I can't say too much, but there are scenes where we are mimicking what the family did in real life and showing similar color palettes for various events, and that was really fun," she added. 

Also fashion forward: Connie Britton as Brown Simpson's friend Faye Resnick — or the "morally corrupt" friend of Kyle Richards, as "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" fans might recall. And they're not alone. "I became familiar with [Resnick] before I started this project because of 'Real Housewives,'" Bahmet admitted. The costume designer went vintage — as in vintage even for the '90s — for Resnick's outfits. "I have her in a '40s jacket at one point, just because she was quite a fashionable person," Bahmet said. "We have her in Moschino, Chanel and some Donna Karan from the '90s and some really, really great jewelry."

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Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) ready for her live TV close-ups with Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson). Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) ready for her live TV close-ups with Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson). Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

To dress Murphy-muse Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Bahmet showed restraint to reflect the spotlight-averse prosecutor's conservative, professional style. During the live TV media circus surrounding the trial, the highest profile female in the courtroom was subject to unwarranted scrutiny and persecution — not paid to her male counterparts — for her hair, makeup and clothing. During the course of the trial, Clark went through a series of reactive "makeovers" to soften her overall aesthetic. The costuming transitions her from a more severe black and white palette to lighter creams and more color. "It's very accurate to what happened with Marcia Clark," said Bahmet, who looked to Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and "department store" labels for costumes.

Bahmet went very authentic when it came to dressing the men in the courtroom, including John Travolta as lead defense attorney Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as his colleague Johnnie Cochran and Gooding as Simpson. To custom build the shirting, she actually went to the same shirtmaker as the real Shapiro and Simpson once had. "[That's how] we got the special collars and the cuffs just right," Bahmet said. "They had inside information for us." She also found the designer who supplied the suiting for Simpson's defense "Dream Team," as they were called. Fortuitously, he still had an archive of distinctively loud '90s ties, which were practically attention stealing members of the Dream Team in the courtroom. "He kindly let us buy something like 150 ties from that era," she said. 

Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Shapiro's snazzy '90s tie. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Shapiro's snazzy '90s tie. Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Followers of the trial and pop culture savants may also remember that fashion items and labels played integral roles in the trial. "Ugly-ass" Bruno Magli shoes and bloody brown Isotoner Lights gloves by Aris Glove Co. were possibly damning, then exonerating evidence exhibits. ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.") "The props department handled those pieces, but we all worked together," explained Bahmet about the group research effort to find the perfect ones.

All in all, the show features approximately 2,000 head-to-toe costumes for the speaking parts, 3,000 for background players, plus a plethora of law enforcement uniforms needed for a courtroom-set show. To source it all, Bahmet and her team scoured Etsy, paid through the nose for designer looks from high-end Los Angeles vintage boutiques and custom built a great deal of the suiting. For the background players featured outside of the courtroom and cheering during that famous Bronco chase, they shopped Goodwill and thrift stores. 

Considering the resurgence of '90s fashion taking place now, finding key wardrobe pieces proved a challenge. "It was really hard for us to find high-waisted things from the '90s," Bahmet said. "All of the younger people have rediscovered this trend and are wearing them, so they're quite expensive." She did find a new appreciation for throwback detailing, though. "Now I'm completely in love with double-breasted suits, bigger shoulders and crazy wild beautiful silk ties," Bahmet sighed. "I just see skinny jeans and slim suits and they look dated to me now."

"The People v. O.J. Simpson" premieres at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 2 on FX.

Homepage image: Screengrab "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" trailer.