Why It's Time for Television Costume Designers to Receive Public Recognition for Their Work - Fashionista

Why It's Time for Television Costume Designers to Receive Public Recognition for Their Work

You won't see any costume design awards on Sunday's Emmys; they already happened behind-the-scenes. That needs to change.
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'Game of Thrones' and 'The Crown' costume designer Michele Clapton at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images 

'Game of Thrones' and 'The Crown' costume designer Michele Clapton at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images 

Though both fields have been marginalized as unimportant or frivolous in academic contexts, television and fashion, historically, have not shared a symbiotic relationship. Costume designers in the "Netflix and chill" era navigate this space as they work through faster production schedules, tighter budgets, rising demand and insufficient recognition.

For readers who may not be television award ceremony aficionados, a series of other categories are presented a week before the primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, known as the Creative Arts Emmys. Outstanding work in costume design is presented among other "behind the scenes" awards in lighting design, sound mixing, casting for a reality program, character voice-over performance and so on. The category is then separated by period/fantasy design, contemporary design and nonfiction or reality programming.

From Hollywood's inception, fashion designers were quick to recognize film's impact on an audience starved for glamour. By the 1930s, 75 million Americans went to the movies weekly, film becoming a primary source of fashion for many. Costume is understood to be critically important to a film's success, and is honored as such; at the Oscars, the prestigiously singular costume design award is presented at the main ceremony. Film and the fashion industry mutually inform and benefit from each other.

Academia has positioned film as art, or high culture — worthy of having a discipline of its own. Scholars have developed theories and frameworks that are crucial to analyzing and understanding a film. On the other hand, television has been positioned as low culture, often lumped in with media or cultural studies programs in university. Television was treated as a 'domestic' and feminized medium, and therefore not studied like film. Feminist scholarship in the 1970s and beyond began taking television more seriously, but to this day, costume is still severely under-researched.

Fashion, too, held a reputation as frivolous and unimportant in academia until scholars began undoing these assumptions. If this seems like an overgeneralization, consider this: there were no academic books on television and fashion until Helen Warner's Fashion on Television: Identity and Celebrity Culture in 2014. Her book uses case studies on "fashion-forward" shows that captured audiences like "Gossip Girl," "Sex and the City," "Mad Men," and "The OC."

Warner began her scholarly inquiry in the 1990s, when her viewing of "Sex and the City" coincided with Fabrications by Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, a book on costume and film. "Costume and fashion was becoming central to narrative," she told Fashionista by email. "And from then, other shows popped up doing similar things and it became clear that this was a cultural (and economic) phenomenon that required attention."

Elizabeth and her father, King George VI (Jared Harris) during her wedding on 'The Crown'. Photo: @thecrownnetflix/Instagram

Elizabeth and her father, King George VI (Jared Harris) during her wedding on 'The Crown'. Photo: @thecrownnetflix/Instagram

The "post-network" or "post-broadcast" era has led to major changes in television; the streaming gold rush, shorter seasons, nuanced and representational storytelling and increasing production budgets. HBO's "Westworld" required a rumored $100 million budget for ten episodes; Netflix's "The Crown" cost $136 million; and the budget for "Game of Thrones" jumped from $50-60 million in its first season to more than $100 million in its sixth season. Each of these shows allocate ample resources to making sure their costumes shape the aesthetic DNA of the series.

"For a long time I've been troubled by the ways in which the work of not only costume designers, but assistant costume designers, illustrators, costumers — basically anyone in the wardrobe department — is overlooked," Warner said. "They contribute a huge amount (creatively) to the final product but are rarely recognized as doing so."

Sonu Mishra styling on the set of 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy 

Sonu Mishra styling on the set of 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy 

Costume designers on television often earn less than hair and makeup artists, and are expected to work in increasingly difficult conditions, like faster production schedules and tighter budgets. "As academics and critical thinkers, we need to be advocates and draw attention to these inequalities. I also don't think it's a coincidence that the areas of the creative industries dominated by women are among the most overlooked," Warner said.

Sonu Mishra is an Emmy-nominated costume designer for "Genius," a National Geographic anthology series that follows 70 years in the life of Albert Einstein. She is nominated alongside the show's assistant costume designer and costume supervisor for their seventh episode. Her work for "Genius" is nominated with the winning design team led by Michele Clapton for "The Crown," as well as other period/fantasy nominees "FEUD: Bette and Joan," "The Handmaid’s Tale," and "Westworld."

Elsa Einstein (Emily Watson) in 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic

Elsa Einstein (Emily Watson) in 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic

"I feel grateful, really happy," Mishra says. "I go in, I do my work; some you love more, some you love less, but I love the process of making the work happen. I felt so happy to be recognized amongst such amazing designers — I didn't know there were so many shows out there."

Mishra began designing for Broadway in the early 1990s, before making her way through feature films, commercials, and most recently, "Prison Break’s" fifth season reboot. Although she admits "Genius" was stimulating and successful due to a "fantastic team, from top to bottom," time is a waning luxury in the television industry.

"Everything is becoming faster — it's not just 'Genius.' Everybody is trying to shoot faster, produce faster, edit faster,” she says. "In the past, when I started out, you'd have four to six months of prep, which is almost unheard of now. If you get two months, you're really lucky."

 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy

 'Genius'. Photo: Courtesy

"It's this whole, big universe, you can't do everything," Mishra says. "Time has to be used in a proper manner, and focus has to be channeled. You need to tell a story — it's not a documentary. You have to make it all work in a harmonious manner."

While critics continue writing and dissecting the "golden age" of "peak TV," it may be important to keep in mind demands that surge to satisfy our binge-watching needs, particularly in regards to the labor associated with fashion-making, and how costume designers may be left out of the conversation.

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