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Remember the effort that went into dressing up for the first day of school? Just that one outfit conveys so much: excitement to reunite with friends, pursue new goals and maybe even flex about how you spent the summer. And the same goes for the teachers, too. 

At the fictional subject "Abbott Elementary" in West Philly, nerdy history buff and low-key hypebeast Jacob (Chris Perfetti) volunteered in Peru and learned ESL, while ride-or-die teaching vets Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) and vacationed on the high seas (or Jersey Shore, in the case of the latter South Philadelphian.) Meanwhile, protagonist Janine — played by the ABC mockumentary's creator, showrunner and Emmy-winning writer Quinta Brunson — valiantly tries to reinvent herself as put together. But the second grade teacher is still reeling from her breakup with boyfriend since middle school (yes, middle school), Tariq (Zack Fox). 

"[Janine] is incredibly endearing and sweet," says returning costume designer Susan Michalek ("Sunnyside," "Spin City"), over Zoom. "She's just trying with the clothes, but she doesn't quite hit it. She's what Quinta refers to as 'Mrs. Frizzle' a lot."

Janine (Quinta Brunson), selling her latest idea, to principal Ava (Janelle James), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph).

Janine (Quinta Brunson), selling her latest idea, to principal Ava (Janelle James), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph).

Like her colleagues, Janine's signature of vibrantly printed maxi-dresses, from accessibly-priced brands and retailers like Target, Old Navy, H&M and Zara (with an Anthropologie-splurge here and there) reflect a real teacher's budget — but heightened a tad for television comedy. "Also, they're fashion-conscious in a real-person way," says Michalek, who conducted "a ton of research" on how educators dress. "Then Quinta is the ultimate 'Philly' editor." 

Brunson was born and raised in West Philadelphia where her mother, Norma Jean, taught kindergarten. Brunson has said in interviews that Janine and Barbara are both based on her now-retired mom. With "Abbott Elementary" as her baby, Brunson is involved in every aspect of her hit show, including the distinctive costumes highlighting each character. "We talk about everything and she looks at everything before it's shot," says Michalek, who sources high volumes of "interesting" pieces for the eternally optimistic Janine and will leave "a chunk of it" in Brunson's fitting room to discuss later.

Of course, as we saw from the Emmys, when Brunson walked the red carpet — and accepted her award — in a sequined and molded-bodice rose-gold gown by Dolce & Gabbana, she's nothing like Janine when it comes to style. "Quinta in real life compared to Janine... It's a diametric opposite," says Michalek.

Ahead, Michalek takes a look back at Season One costumes, while providing a preview into the comedy's much-anticipated sophomore run.

Janine makes a strong pitch, supported by a signature statement belt.

Janine makes a strong pitch, supported by a signature statement belt.

Janine's 'Weird' Belts Drive the Improv Comedy

"Are those jellybeans on your belt?" asked Barbara, whom Janine all but coerces into being her mentor with her eternal positivity and enthusiasm. Last season, Barbara dropped the sick burn, directed toward's Janine's ever-growing collection of quirky statement accessories, after a rare moment of vulnerability involving iPad assistance.

"[Brunson] just wanted to wear belts, so I tried to get weird ones and then it just worked," says Michalek. Janine's taste in belts often looks like the budget-strapped teacher shopped them at flea markets or thrift stores. But Michalek scours her usual go-to retailers for conversation-starting ones, like a Zara-procured '80s-esque gold coil with a circular buckle, pair with a '60s-style shirt from Aritzia and lilac pleated maxi-skirt from H&M (above).

"Last year, [the jokes were] improvised," says the costume designer, about Barbara's digs on Janine's irrepressible style. "Quinta, as Janine, would wear something and then [Brunson and Ralph] would make up the dialogue." She recalls Brunson unveiling the "jellybean belt" on set and the duo made a game-time decision to riff on it. This season, Michalek is planning ahead with especially "odd or interesting or Janine-esque" belts to present to Brunson: "She says, 'Oh! That'd be great for Barbara to make a joke on later."

Michalek also found some inspiration in fan suggestions, although Brunson would need to incorporate it into the script. "Someone who was a fan of the show [wrote online], 'I can't wait to see Janine wearing jewelry that the kids made,' and I'm like, "That's a great idea. I gotta do that.'"

Dynamic duo Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) give Janine some advice.

Dynamic duo Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) give Janine some advice.

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The Abbott Elementary Staff Has a Brighter Outlook (Sartorially Speaking, At Least)

"Everybody's colors are bumped up a little bit this year," says Michalek, which also feels right since the teachers — and terminally uninterested principal Ava (Janelle James) — have come together as a team with a common goal, reluctantly or not. The amped-up vibrancy of the lead cast's wardrobes also reflect the success of the show, from awards accolades to across-the-board critical raves to the excitement of the fanbase of upwards of 8 million viewers (and counting.)

"Invariably, everybody's clothes are a little bit brighter and happier," says Michalek. "It's just organic to what everybody on this show wants." She also points out that Jacob's bolder hues reflect that he's more comfortable being his nerdy, oversharing self in the teacher's lounge, too. "He's a little more accepting of who he is and fitting in with the group," she hints. 

Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph, second from left), in a Zara shirt, cardigan from Macy's Charter Club and Sanita clogs, welcomes the new kindergarteners. 

Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph, second from left), in a Zara shirt, cardigan from Macy's Charter Club and Sanita clogs, welcomes the new kindergarteners. 

Barbara's Sheryl Lee Ralph-Inspired Cardigans
 

Just like "sea Barbara is different from land Barbara," as the kindergarten teacher says, with a sly grin, in the season premiere, Barbara is not anything like the ultra-glamorous actor who plays her. Most recent case in point: Ralph not only won her first — and long-deserved — Emmy for the role, but also the ceremony itself by blowing audiences away when singing "Endangered Species" during her acceptance speech. Ralph also made red carpet history in a strapless, black velvet leg-baring look: the first-ever gown by Jamaican American handbag designer Brandon Blackwood

The original inspiration for Barbara's costumes began with another formidable force: Brunson's mom. "[Barbara's look] started there in the pilot and then it got a little more... Sheryl Lee," says Michalek, about Barbara's elegantly no-nonsense button-up shirts and impressive collection of colorful knit cardigans, like a highlighter pink one from Zara (above). "Sheryl is effervescent, and so glamorous. But the cardigans do make her a little less glamorous than what she is in real life. We're trying to make her a little bit more like Barbara Howard."

Even Barbara isn't immune to Janine's infectious optimism, and it shows through in her bolder color palette. "She's becoming slightly less, or not so hardened in opposition to Janine," says Michalek. "She appreciates Janine's constant positive, hopeful attitude. So Barbara has colors that are a little bit brighter this year — and her jewelry, it's more pearls. It's just a large range of pearl necklaces."

Ava (Janelle James, far right) violating some HR rules with Gregory (Tyler James Williams, center) as Melissa looks on.

Ava (Janelle James, far right) violating some HR rules with Gregory (Tyler James Williams, center) as Melissa looks on.

Gregory Loosens Up in Sweaters and Polos

As a part-time substitute teacher, Gregory commanded authority — and expressed his tightly-wound self — through a reserved wardrobe of button-down shirts, ties and educator slacks. But this season, the now-full-time teacher's steady rotation of collared fine-knits hark back to that moment last season when he delightfully revealed his undercover dance skills with the students, backed to the beats of Tariq's anti-drug rhymes. ("I don't think I've ever seen him experience joy before. It's weird," marvels Jacob to an also-flummoxed Janine.)

"He was more fastidious last year, but this season, he's just in sweaters," says Michalek, who also dressed Gregory in business-casual, and bicep-clinging, polos.  Ava's HR-violating thirst for Gregory may have some influence, too. "Also, the women really liked his arms in [the sweater] when he first wore it in the dancing episode last year," says Michalek, with a laugh. "They really liked him, so that's fun. But it's more that the character is becoming more relaxed."

Principal Ava (Janelle James) is an Eagles fan.

Principal Ava (Janelle James) is an Eagles fan.

Ava's Still Dressing for the Job She's Not Taking All That Seriously

"I feel like I got a real knack for this, like I could be president, maybe... even mayor of a school. Who would you call that?" asks the deliciously self-unaware (and never filtered) Ava, to camera, at the end of episode two. Dressed in a standout fuchsia wrap-front jacquard dress from Zara (second from top), Ava always has an aptitude for style, too — just usually not one adhering to a school administrator dress code. 

Since Ava can no longer blackmail the philandering superintendent, she has to at least try and take her job seriously. But she's still Ava, and always has a side-hustle going — like double-booking the school parking lot for Eagles Game Day concurring with the school's Development Week preparing for the new academic year. However, Ava is properly dressed for the former occasion in full football merch, including a quilted logo-embellished belt bag, and T-shirt tucked into a chic faux-leather pencil skirt, in Eagles green, from Aritzia. 

But similar to wearing that extremely fire, but not quite appropriate Adidas x Marimekko track suit to DJ the parents' open house night last season, Ava swans into Janine's classroom in a silky and printed kimono robe from Zara — a look that definitely feels more cocktails by the pool in Palm Springs than study period. "It was pretty," says Michalek, about the louche-loungewear-at-school choice. "Because she doesn't hold to logic. She just has a lot of irreverence, and she's not going to [follow] anybody's real rules."

"The character's fundamentally self-focused," continues Michalek, who put Ava in a caftan and kimono theme this season. "She's in whatever is glamorous or whatever is sexy or whatever is attractive, and she just has to continue the flow of it."

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