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Why The Costumes on 'Girls' Were as Groundbreaking as The Show Itself

Costume designer Jenn Rogien reflects back on six seasons of prioritizing believability over making the characters look good.
Hannah and Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed) in season six. Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

Hannah and Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed) in season six. Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

Whether you loved it or hate-watched it, believed Lena Dunham to be the voice of her generation or found her irritating (or both), you can't deny that as a TV show, HBO's "Girls" was influential, boundary-pushing and relatable to many a millennial. And the show's wardrobe was a major part of that.

Having interviewed the show's costume designer Jenn Rogien many times over the years, I think it's safe to say Dunham had a big hand in her characters' sartorial directions, and that for Rogien, executing her vision was a unique six-year challenge. Unlike most of what people were used to seeing on TV, the team behind "Girls" was committed to making things look and feel real. With the caveat that the show may not have represented the "real" lives of all groups of people, it often achieved that goal — even if public response wasn't always positive. The show's wardrobe became as frequent a topic of discussion as its nudity and characters' questionable life decisions. "I certainly wasn't setting out to break ground," explains Rogien ahead of the show's final season premiere. "I was just responding to notes from Lena and Jenni [Konner] and Judd [Apatow] about the characters needing to look realistic to be believable."

Before season six begins on Sunday, read on for our final "Girls"-related interview with Rogien about where the ladies are headed sartorially this season, the biggest challenges she faced and lessons she learned throughout all six and why dressing different body types on TV was not revolutionary — but dressing them in the way Dunham wanted her to was.

So let's start off with whatever hints you can give about each character's sartorial direction going into the final season. How is Hannah's style evolving?
She's traveling and wearing a lot more resortwear or beachwear; it was fun to see her in a completely different set of circumstances. She's still Hannah, so the prints are there, the colors are there, it's not necessarily the best-fitting stuff you've ever seen but it's been really fun to take Hannah to literally a different place, and then see her return to her life.

We see her really in fitness mode, so we wanted to move her forward a little bit. It was paring her down a little from the slightly over-the-top music stuff we've seen her doing. It's still Marnie, so we'll still see her overshooting. The core of the characters are still there, but their looks are just taking a step forward to keep pace with what they're doing in their various stories. I know that's a little abstract, but I don't want to give too much away.

Shoshanna in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Shoshanna in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Shosh is working, so we see a little bit more of her workwear stuff than we have in previous seasons.

And Jessa?
I think Jessa's evolution is probably the most subtle for this final season.

Whose would you say is the least subtle?
It's actually probably [Hannah's mom] Loreen; we kind of continue what we started with her in season five when her life gets a little bit upended and we just kept going with that this season. I wanted to sort of maintain that and also push it at the same time, the sort of rock-and-roll mom thing.

Tad and Loreen Horvath in season five. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Tad and Loreen Horvath in season five. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

What sticks out when you think back on the series? Are you sad to see it end?
What's kind of amazing as I look back is that I don't have a feeling of great sadness. I actually have a feeling of joy and warmth because of the way that the characters have grown and the way that I have grown as a costume designer in connection to the show, and just having such positive and collaborative working experiences with everyone. Lena and Jenni and Matt Munn, our production designer.... We just had a really wonderful collaborative crew and team. 'Girls' just had a really special chemistry to it.

What would you say is the biggest thing you've learned from the experience that you're taking away?
One is to really trust the creator of the characters. In this case, Lena and Jenni created these characters and created these stories. We made a lot of costume choices that weren't conventional and weren't what were considered normal for television, and it was amazing to be able to make those choices in the creative space that 'Girls' had. One of the things that I did very much learn from 'Girls' was to stay true to the character. There was so much [external] discussion of the clothing and so much discussion of what each character wore and how bad they looked on set a lot of times, how realistic it was. I do read that stuff, but I also had to learn to set all that stuff aside and focus on the characters when we were in the fitting room, because that's the only way that the girls would stay the girls.

Marnie in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Marnie in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

I was reading this New York Times article about how 'Girls' changed television. One of the biggest things was, they said, recasting the female body. I'm curious how you look at that from a costume perspective.
It's so interesting because I ran across a quote from Edith Head, a legendary costume designer, one of the greats. She was quoted as saying, 'There's no such thing as a standard-size movie star, or woman for that matter.' It rings as true now as it did when she was quoted as saying that in the '50s or '60s. It never occurred to me that dressing a range of sizes was novel. Throughout my career, yes I've worked with some very slender actresses. I've worked with some very slender actors.

In television, specifically in episodic, you see a range of body types. I think it was size in conjunction with fit. Deliberately going against everyone on the show looking great all the time was, in retrospect, groundbreaking. I certainly wasn't setting out to break ground, I was just responding to notes from Lena and Jenni and Judd about the characters needing to look realistic to be believable. I talked about taking all the Spanx and the heels and the belts out of Hannah's closet in season one and that was a deliberate effort to help support the story. It's not unusual to address a range of body sizes and body types and heights and characters as a costume designer. That's why I love it, because it's not a runway show. It's not all one size, and that's what helps tell the story.

Maybe it's that costume designers don't usually dress people of those body types in the way that Hannah dressed.
Right, Hannah was willing to wear those things that she loved, that made her happy. I had to learn how to do that, because coming from other television shows, the objective is usually to make your leading ladies look great.

The objective of 'Girls' was to have the leading ladies look real, and it was so refreshing and it took me four weeks of prep in the first episode of the series to learn a new perspective. I'm so grateful for that, in retrospect.

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Jessa in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Jessa in season six. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Whose style do you think has matured or improved the most from the very beginning of the show to this season?
The characters who actually seemed the most stable were Adam and Ray. I think that that's maybe because they started with a strong sense of identity and perspective, so we reflected that in the clothing. The clothes were a little bit more stripped down. They were also two characters that were not very fashion conscious, where the girls to some extent and Elijah were more fashion conscious as characters. I think they've all evolved a lot.

I think the one that's probably, if you look at a photo array, the most significant is Jessa, because she went from so outlandish to so stripped down.

Jessa in season one. Photo: HBO

Jessa in season one. Photo: HBO

Over the whole series, what was the most difficult scene to costume design?
It's always something random. It's more about the logistics than about the design sometimes. I remember it taking me a long time to sit down and sketch Marnie's red dress [in season five's 'The Panic in Central Park'], because there were so many factors at play. There were the Bob Mackie jokes in the script. There were all of the incidents that happened, whether it was falling in a pond or going to the hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. There were the logistical factors: We shot [a scene that took place] after [she fell in] the pond, that was before we shot the actual pond. We ended up needing to paint a dress to look wet and muddy and dirty so that Allison wouldn't be wearing an actually wet dress.

It took me a long time to actually get out my drawing supplies and put that down on paper. I did a lot of research for that, and I couldn't quite get my head around it. It looks like it's a very simple design, but there was a lot of thought that went into that.

Marnie in season five. Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

Marnie in season five. Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

Other things were like, the Poler sleeping bag. There was an amazing joke in the script about Hannah looking like a glow worm, and I actually thought it was going to be a nightmare to find something that plays the joke that supports the moment in the story. Actually, one of my team members at the time started with a light google and up came [the above sleeping bag jacket] and what we thought was going to be an incredibly hard challenge — we were getting ready to make a sleeping bag with a hood on it and all these other things — and it existed out there in the world.

It's all those little moments like that, that I'll get to carry with me, that give me a warm, fuzzy feeling about the show.

Elijah and Hannah in season two. Photo: HBO

Elijah and Hannah in season two. Photo: HBO

You said you don't really think of the show in terms of your favorite or least favorite moment, but do you have any that are the most memorable to you?
Yeah, because there's so many and sometimes they stand out for reasons that are completely inane and not exciting to anyone but me. I'm definitely thinking of our last night on set. It was not warm and in the script Hannah doesn't have any pants on, and we had a wet-down that night to make the streets shine. I was there on set because it was the last show. I wanted to be there for it. We were all running around trying to keep Lena warm, and the water truck was standing by and just as we called cut, honestly the water truck went by and sprayed me and my full team and all the clothes and all the warming gear. We were all thinking, my god what are we going to do, we don't have any dry clothes.

It was just one of those moments where it's like, of course that's going to happen on the last night of shooting. I'll never forget that. 

Do you have any costume moments over the years that you look back and it kind of makes you cringe or you didn't like it for some reason?
There's absolutely a moment. There's a moment in season one where Marnie puts on her party dress to go get Charlie back. We had this amazing white dress fit and ready to go, and I had a conversation with the DP [director of photography]. He knew the location, he knew the lighting and he was really worried that the white was going to bounce super hard. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to dye the dress to a slightly off-white color and have the integrity of the dress come through that process.

I ended up doing a second fitting and we ended up finding a different dress, and to this day I still wish I'd gone with the first one. I still wish I'd figured out how to turn the dress off-white so we could have used that dress for that moment. The dress that I ended up shooting was fine. It totally worked, but the dress that we started with was amazing.

What's next for you? What are you working on now?
I am loving having a little bit of time off. I just finished shooting 'Orange is the New Black' at the beginning of January, so I've had about three weeks off. I've been doing some traveling which has been really lovely, and I'm about to start working with Lafayette 148 as a brand ambassador. I'm doing some in-store work with them, which I'm really excited about. Then, I'm interviewing. For the first time in six years, I have a hole in my schedule. I'm in the process of meeting with some pilots and looking for a new job, so hopefully the next one will be just as exciting and as intense as 'Girls' was.

Follow Jenn Rogien on Twitter and Instagram.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Homepage photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO