The Unique Challenge of Designing Semi-Autobiographical Costumes - Fashionista

If you were to write a script, create a show or even star in a series about your life, how would you want to dress to best tell your story? 

What a person wears plays a special role in subliminally sharing crucial information — a monumental life change as told through skinny jeans on "Unorthodox" or a resistance to the "white gaze" patriarchy through a Gucci tracksuit on "#BlackAF" (above). Of course, costume designers are experts in building a character through their wardrobe. But when their subject is written, created and sometimes even played by the same person, unique challenges arise.

"We're also doing a bit of a translation," says Staci Greenbaum, over the phone. And she would know: Her talents are in high-demand by writers, producers and creators, who also play small-screen versions of themselves, such as Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson on "Broad City," producer Jill Kargman on "Odd Mom Out" and Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner on "Difficult People." 

Most recently, Greenbaum costume-designed "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens," a spot-on, hilarious comedy inspired by the titular star's experiences growing up Chinese-Korean-American in New York City. Although, a jobless Nora Lin in her late 20s day-smoking pot while living at home with two older generations — would be very different from Nora "Awkwafina" Lum, who was probably shooting "Ocean's 8" or "Crazy Rich Asians" at the same point in the real-life timeline. 

"The first thing we try to establish is the understanding of how they are portraying this character and what that dividing line is," Greenbaum explains. "A lot of these versions of themselves were pre-success and notoriety and usually scrappier versions of who they are now." Instead of taking inspiration from online red carpet images of Awkwafina, the costume designer scrolls through Instagram locations pertinent to the storyline to study images of real people in their habitat, be it Bushwick or Manhattan's Chinatown.

Hey, over here! Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, right) in a Mindy Lahiri-inspired yellow top (and Paxton Hall-Yoshida, as played by Darren Barnet, left) on 'Never Have I Ever.'

Hey, over here! Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, right) in a Mindy Lahiri-inspired yellow top (and Paxton Hall-Yoshida, as played by Darren Barnet, left) on 'Never Have I Ever.'

Reimagining Mindy Kaling's teenage wardrobe on Devi Vishwakumar (17-year-old first-timer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) in "Never Have I Ever," Salvador Perez had to think about time period and geographical shifts as well. "[Kaling] grew up in the '80s in Boston and this is 2020 in Sherman Oaks, California," he says, over the phone. So Kaling's longtime costume designer (and sometimes couturier and stylist) drew on his collective experience with the multi-hyphenate for a fix. 

"I just said loosely that I would base her on Mindy Lahiri," laughs Perez, about Kaling's fictional, fashion-loving alter-ego on "The Mindy Project." "So it was sort of autobiographical, but a play on it. Mindy's personal look is bright color and prints, so we adapted that to a teenage girl." He also incorporated Kaling's personal preferences, like bright earrings to pop against dark hair and a rainbow of colorful — not muted or printed — saris for the Ganesh Puja episode.

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In "Unorthodox," costume designer Justine Seymour took on a different challenge. The Netflix mini-series is inspired by Deborah Feldman's bestselling memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots." Creator Anna Winger based the Williamsburg-set scenes on Feldman's real experiences living in and leaving her Satmar Hasidic Jewish community. But Esty's (Shira Haas) journey to finding herself and building a new life in Berlin is fictional. 

As a show co-writer and a regular on set, Feldman proved a valuable resource for Seymour to create a subliminal wardrobe through-line bridging reality and fiction, while juxtaposing different cultures and attitudes. Initially, the two discussed the writer's own experiences adjusting to the secular world, which Seymour illustrated through a sunny yellow (but still buttoned-all-the-way-up) cardigan, tea-length skirts with bare legs and denim.

Esty (Shira Haas) shops for a new wardrobe in Berlin in 'Unorthodox.'

Esty (Shira Haas) shops for a new wardrobe in Berlin in 'Unorthodox.'

"[Feldman said she] had bought herself a pair of jeans when she was in Williamsburg and she used to sometimes wear them around the house and imagine what it was like to be able to wear jeans outside," explains Seymour, over the phone. "Of course, we didn't represent that in the script, but we did represent her awe of experiencing this new sensation on her body and the freedom that it gave her." 

Esty's moving wedding sequence was inspired by Feldman's own, but Seymour translated the significance of that moment through a heightened lace-embroidered and pearl-encrusted gown. "I had an image of [Feldman's] wedding dress, but I did go a little bit more over-the-top and 'princess'-y for story-telling reasons," says Seymour. She also studied traditions and clothing customs for Hasidic Jewish ceremonies, and spent a week in Williamsburg researching with the crew. 

Seymour bought the elaborate, but still modest, dress on eBay and worked with her tailor, Matthieu Niemeier, to "cut it to pieces" and rework to fit the petite Haas. Some of the details on it reflect the significance of that moment as well: "The imagery of the pearls and the corsetry represented the restrictions of what was about to occur, whether or not anyone would notice that. But to me, it really was the turning point of a young woman living at home, with a certain amount of freedom, and then going into this really structured lifestyle," she explains. 

The wedding of Yanki (Amit Rahav, second from left) and Esty in 'Unorthodox.'

The wedding of Yanki (Amit Rahav, second from left) and Esty in 'Unorthodox.'

Seymour's creative liberties looked visually stunning and poignant — especially to the person being portrayed. "Feldman just couldn't believe how I just really captured the essence of what she experienced on that day," the costume designer adds.

With the source material on set, setting boundaries becomes essential for costume designers in determining how to portray the character through wardrobe. 

Greenbaum has open talks from the outset with her writer-actor-bosses to establish the lines — for instance, on "Broad City," Jacobson prefers a clear distinction and separation between her real self and the Abbi in the series. "If there was something on the rack she felt she would wear in her real life, we would right skip over it; whereas, Nora would embrace it more," she explains. "Like we would dress her for the character and she would be like, 'That's fire. I want to wear that in my real life.'" (As I hear Awkwafina's raspy voice in my head.)

Michelle Cole designs for "black-ish," plus the Yara Shahidi-starring spin-off, "grown-ish." So, when Kenya Barris wanted to expand his entertainment empire by playing himself in his latest series, "#BlackAF," he enlisted his "magic fashion elf," as he told Vanity Fair, to handle wardrobe. 

For the Netflix series, Cole leans into an even bigger fashion flex to double down on Barris's intent of demonstrating the pride and nuances of being successful and wealthy as a Black family. The writer, creator and star is very specific and hands-on when it comes to his own costumes. "Yes, some of the clothes came out of [Barris's] personal closet," Cole says, over the phone. "Like the closet scene, when he's touching the clothes — all those clothes — that's what his closet looks like." 

How the 'Barris' family dresses for travel on '#BlackAF.'

How the 'Barris' family dresses for travel on '#BlackAF.'

Working with Barris for seven years (and counting), Cole also understands the meaning behind how Barris wears his clothes. She remembers a day when he changed out of one designer look into another mid-shoot, going against the script and throwing off continuity.

"[My wardrobe supervisor] was like, 'Kenya, Kenya! You're not supposed to change your clothes.' And he's like, 'But I would change my clothes,'" laughs Cole. "I was like, 'Well, let him change his clothes.' He's the boss. It's his show. He knows what he would do. If he wanted to change three times in one day, we're gonna let him."

There's also a precise art in interpreting the scripted costume to represent what's on the page but also meet the comfort levels of the actor, who may have also written the lines. Greenbaum laughs at one of the racier moments in "Nora From Queens," when Nora does her version of the male gaze-y bikini car-washing trope — meaning: She wore a baggy beach cover-with a painted-on two-piece (below).

"The irony is that [Awkwafina] wrote the script that episode," laughs Greenbaum. "She's like, 'I'm not going to wear a bikini.' But that's what the script says... She's like, 'Let's not do that.'"

Nora (Awkwafina) blowing up that bikini car wash trope in 'Awkwafina is Nora From Queens.'

Nora (Awkwafina) blowing up that bikini car wash trope in 'Awkwafina is Nora From Queens.'

Another "sexy" scene involving a thwarted viewing of "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" (and a "Watchmen"-size vibrator) was adjusted to Nora wearing an oversize T-shirt, instead of, say, lingerie, and dropping "full-cut" briefs onto the floor.

"She is also the writer and the creator, so there's the leeway to change it," Greenbaum adds. "So we have the ability to make sure everyone is happy and that the story is being told without compromising the integrity of it."

Costume designers have to translate and establish boundaries to create visual stories for family members, too. In the case of "#BlackAF," Barris's on-screen brood almost mirrors its real-life inspiration: six children, aged three to early 20s and a professionally-accomplished, biracial spouse. (The kids are also written to have similar characteristics and interests to their actual counterparts.) 

"It's his private life, but you do know [his children's'] personalities when you talk to them, like who's quiet, etc.," says Cole, who translates their traits into impeccable, designer-filled wardrobes. For instance, aspiring filmmaker Drea (Iman Benson) channels college bound "nerd" — as tough-love dad often calls her — through a "cool preppy" aesthetic filled with Rag & Bone, Alice & Olivia and Rebecca Taylor. (Before starting college at U.S.C., Barris's eldest daughter worked as a P.A. on "black-ish" and Cole would pick her brain as research for costume designing the fictional California University-set "grown-ish." How's that for coming full circle?)

Nora, Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) and Wally (B.D. Wong) chilling at home.

Nora, Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) and Wally (B.D. Wong) chilling at home.

But even if characters share personalities and quirks with their IRL counterparts, duplicating wardrobes won't always work. Greenbaum studied real photos of Awkwafina's father Wally (as played by national treasure B.D. Wong on the show). She even friend requested him on Facebook, but he never accepted. 

"Her dad, Wally, has swagger," says Greenbaum. "So he would wear things that were really traditional, but it didn't feel traditional. It felt like 'cool Queens dad.'" But on Wong, "traditional" pieces didn't give off the same vibe, so she tweaked his wardrobe into cut-off T-shirts, gym-rat shorts, gold chains and a tuxedo top and no pants for the perfect bro-dad effect.

"Everyone carries clothes differently," she explains. "So we have to be flexible in that respect if we're trying to emulate a character because just copying what someone else does doesn't necessarily give the same indication." Greenbaum also adjusted Grandma's costumes to translate the boldness of Awkwafina's actual grandmother and her closeness to her granddaughter, while also celebrating the actor playing her, Lori Tan Chinn, who pulled that swaggy banana-embellished leopard-print look out of her own closet.

"The best part is, the day Nora's grandma came to set, she and Lori were almost wearing the same outfit. I'm like, 'I nailed it,'" Greenbaum says. "That is the biggest compliment when someone who's the real person is visiting and you really captured it."

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