How the 'Feud: Bette and Joan' Costume Designer Revisits Old Hollywood Glamour (and Drama) Through Wardrobe

Emmy winning costume designer Lou Eyrich dishes on dressing Hollywood legends Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange — as they portray Hollywood legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
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Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

After exploring feminism and race in last year's award-winning "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," prolific hit-maker Ryan Murphy continues with a deep dive into sexism and ageism, Hollywood-style, in "Feud: Bette and Joan." The eight-episode series, premiering on March 5, focuses on the intense real-life rivalry between two major Hollywood icons, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — portrayed by two of today's biggest Hollywood icons, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively — when they co-starred in the 1962 classic creepy thriller, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane."

The series explores a later stage in the actresses' careers, which occured during the dawn of '60s second wave feminism, meaning the anthology delves into societal topics that are especially relevant to a post-2016-election America. And the period costumes, by longtime Murphy collaborator and three-time Emmy-winning costume designer Lou Eyrich help depict the glamorous Hollywood era (and grittier offscreen life) along the way. (And Eyrich also just won her eighth Costume Designers Guild Award for Murphy's "American Horror Story: Roanoke," so congrats!)

While enjoying a very Hollywood morning at a Los Angeles juice bar, Eyrich took a moment to chat with Fashionista on the phone and discuss re-creating an Edith Head-designed 1963 Oscars gown on a limited budget, working with Sarandon and Lange to make Davis's and Crawford's costumes come to life and always being surprised by visionary Ryan Murphy. Read on for the highlights.

Sarandon as Crawford. Photo: FX

Sarandon as Crawford. Photo: FX

What was your research process like to create the costumes for such a glamorous era?

This one was unique to me because we were creating historical characters; it wasn't designing our own characters. So there was a ton of research on Joan and Bette and that era of the early '60s Hollywood. A lot of it was done in research libraries and on the good old internet. There's a lot of YouTube videos, and Joan Crawford had her book on tape ['My Way of Life'] that she read. So that was really fun.

How much did you re-create real life outfits from archival footage versus your own original period looks?

It was an evolution, because in the beginning, I really studied the research and tried to very much mimic their silhouettes. Joan Crawford definitely had a signature silhouette that she wore. It was never empire-waisted, [but] always waisted. Usually sleeveless and a ton of jewelry and her purse always matched shoes. She was very match-y, match-y. And then Bette Davis was much more casual with her wear. She wore a lot of capris and sweats and her own silhouette, a lot of shirt-dresses and much less jewelry. Maybe some pearls and her signature charm bracelet. 

So I tried to really follow silhouettes and, in the first couple fittings I did with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, we studied together as we did the fittings. Then we started loosening up more because as you could see Jessica playing Joan and Susan playing Bette, the way they would stand and that they would walk and then we just tweaked it a bit to fit both personalities. That did shift a bit. Also, the color palette. We wanted to make sure Joan was always wearing cool icy tones and that Bette was always wearing warm, autumnal colors.

Lange as Crawford on set on 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.' Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Lange as Crawford on set on 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.' Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

How did you use costume to show where these actresses were at that later point in their careers and how Hollywood was in treating women at that time?

Well, the period, especially of the early '60s, really defined that itself, because basically the skirt levels for women were all exactly the same length. They all wore them around the knee area and a little tiny bit below the knee. And the silhouettes — especially for, what I don't want to call 'middle-aged,' I guess, and I'm middle-aged, so hope that’s not offensive to anyone — weren't terribly risqué or anything. [Davis and Crawford] were grown women and they were movie stars, so they showed a certain aspect of that in their costumes. Especially Joan wouldn't go out of the house unless she was dressed head-to-toe. And Bette would wear her fur in the middle of summer with her capris and a plain shirt. They both were very comfortable in their own skin and [with] who they were. I just tried to make them look affluent and [with] definitely a touch of Hollywood to them. A Hollywood star.

What was it like for you creating the costumes for the movies within the TV show?

It was a lot of work and we did a lot of them. We did 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.' We did snippets from 'All about Eve,' 'Sudden Fear.' [There were about] seven shows within the show that we had to re-create. But for 'Whatever Happens to Baby Jane,' we wanted to replicate it enough so that people would know it was obviously from the show. But we didn't want to just copy completely, and I wouldn't want to disrespect the costume designer [Norma Koch] by trying to make it as good as the original.

What sort of tweaks did you make to make it referential enough but not total copies?

A lot of the [movie] research was in black and white, so we really didn't know what color a lot of things were, so we were doing a lot of guesswork there. But I would just say: fabric content, color and different accents and trims. We try to keep the same silhouette, but other than that, we do our own thing.

What's the detective work like in trying to determine colors from black and white?

You know when you're taking a photo in black and white on your phone? If you photograph a piece of fabric in black and white it looks different. So we did a lot of testing to see. Some things we tried to get really close and others we just made it our own and didn't worry so much about it, especially because nobody else knew. There were several times that we actually did take our iPhones and shoot stuff in black and white so we could tell if it was close. And then we 'd lay out our swatches and we would shoot them in black and white and choose the closest to the actual photograph. It's not an exact science by any means, but it was close enough for us.

Davis and Crawford have their Oscars showdown. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Davis and Crawford have their Oscars showdown. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

What was it like meticulously re-creating the gowns for the (in)famous 1963 Academy Awards, when Crawford enacted her revenge upon Davis during what the latter thought would be her Oscar moment?

There was a lot of research on it, so that made part of our job very easy. The hardest part was sourcing the fabrics because it's hard to find good vintage fabrics. It's all about the fabrics when you're re-creating something like that. For the silver beaded dress that Joan Crawford wore, Edith Head was the designer, and to get that dress hand-beaded would have cost $10,000 to $20,000 and would have taken weeks. On TV, you get four days. And you don't get to spend $10,000, so one of my amazing colleagues sourced the fabric from New York, had it shipped, then we over-dyed it and found a good silver backing to pop it. Then our amazing tailor Joanne found a way to not only make the dress look very similar, they sat and hand-beaded more beads onto the dress to make it look more like the original. My tailor Joanne is like a goddess. She was whipping out those dresses in a matter of days. All of them: Catherine Zeta Jones [as Olivia de Havilland], Kathy Bates [as Joan Blondell], Jessica, Susan.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland. CR: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland. CR: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Ryan Murphy and his imagination for anthology concepts know no bounds, and you've worked with him on so many. What's your process like creating costumes for his shows?

I don't know anyone like him. I can't imagine what the inside of his head looks like. He's just constantly creating and thinking and spewing and challenging himself and challenging all of us, and for me — the beauty of working with him — is he does challenge me with every single show. I have to think outside of the box that I put myself in and say, 'okay, I don't know how to do this, but this is going to be exciting trying to figuring it out.' 

In one year, I can go from 'Scream Queens' to 'American Horror Story' to 'Feud' and they're all really different shows. And he's writing these at the same time. So I don't know how he does it. It's an exciting and dizzying world to be involved in with him, but he allows me to be very creative. I show him all the sketches in the beginning. All the ideas. All the color palettes. We go through everything, every character together and then he pretty much lets me just run free and then I come back and check in with him on different characters. He's very hands-on for every single project.

Can you read each other's minds at this point?

I can pretty much guess what he wants most of the time, but every once in awhile he'll surprise me. If I give him three choices and I try to guess which one he's going to pick, he doesn't pick it. So I don't know his formula, but I am constantly amazed and surprised by him. I feel like a very lucky lady to get to design on his show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

'Feud: Bette and Joan' premieres on Sunday, March 5 at 10pm on FX.

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