We spoke with Costume Designer Daniel Lawson about his extensive career in television. He gave us lots of insight and great stories!
Costume Designer Daniel Lawson: An Interview
You’ve been nominated for two Emmys for your work on The Good Wife. You had your finger on the pulse of a brand of feminism that allows women to be simultaneously strong and feminine. How important do you think it is for women to express themselves through fashion?
From the beginning of my work on TGW, I knew that I wanted my three strong leading ladies to look feminine. I had not designed the pilot for the series. The clothing in that was much more masculine in feeling – gray pantsuits on Diane (Christine Baranski), boxy suits on Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and a leather jacket and jeans on Kalinda (Archie Panjabi).
I didn’t understand why 3 strong women weren’t celebrating being women. The work place is already full of men in suits and dress shirts and ties. Alicia had been through so much scandal and change leading up to what we see in the first episode of the series and she survived all that strife and was returning to work for the first time in over a decade. I wanted her wardrobe to have a bit of that “I am woman: hear me roar!” Jules loved that I wanted to get her out of mundane pantsuits and into chic wardrobe that had one foot in the classic and one foot in the modern.
Just as with characters in a TV show or movie or play, clothing is a visual calling card. It’s the first thing people see, and, for better or for worse, it’s the first thing on which one is usually judged, making one’s clothing choices incredibly important. Expressing one’s personality, individuality, and style through clothing is key. Individuality takes a sense of knowing oneself, which means that there is a confidence underlying the clothing you are wearing. We are drawn to confident people because confidence is attractive.
In life, our wardrobe choices are dictated by our moods, the events that we attend and who we expect to see. Do you work with actors to compliment their understanding of the scene they’re playing? Do actors give you ideas that you might not have thought of?
I work very closely with my actors. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a million times, I’m not the one up there wearing the clothing. They are. It is critical that the clothing I select for my actors to wear supports what they are doing with their characters. If it doesn’t support that, no matter how incredible the costume is, it will not be believed by the audience, and thus it will have been a failure. We are helping to create a world, whether that world is real or the most bizarre, “out there” made up place. And if our audience doesn’t believe that particular world we are creating, it’s all over. Costumes are key in selling that believability.
So, yes, I listen to my actors very carefully, and they always come up with ideas or idiosyncrasies that I had not thought of, just as I come up with things that they had not thought of. That’s the beauty of collaboration. For me, it’s all about telling that story. If someone has an idea that helps tell that story better, fantastic! The more the merrier!
And it’s not just the actor who weighs in. The writers, directors, producers, the studio, the network – they all have a say in the creation of a costume and a character’s look, especially on a new show. It’s up to me as the designer to take all that input, mix it with my own thoughts and feelings and then create the eventual costume that is worn. As I think many costume designers will attest to, when I have a particularly exciting, productive, creative fitting where ideas are being shared back and forth with the actor and we are literally building a new character visually right there in my fitting room, I feel like I am experiencing the equivalent of a runner’s high.
Do you find pieces that you fall in love with, without knowing how they’ll be used? Do items ever sit in the wardrobe closet until you have an “aha” moment with them?
Absolutely! I’ve had pieces that I have picked up that completely resonate with a character, but I don’t have a place for them at the time. And they have been in their closets for years waiting for that one perfect moment. And then, bam! The scene is written and I have the absolute perfect piece.
I had a stunning navy blue Alexander McQueen dress for Diane in TGW. It had strong shoulders and put me in mind of Joan Crawford a bit. I had this dress for a couple of years. I loved it so; there was something so special about it. I didn’t want to use it just for an office scene though, although that is what I originally thought it would be good for. Then the scene came when Diane goes to the JOP at City Hall to get married. I knew it was the dress’ moment to shine. I still get fan letters about that dress. It was the perfect outfit for the perfect moment.
Again, with Diane, I had a spectacular black wool crepe Fendi jacket with mink sleeves. It weighed about a million pounds. I had that jacket for at least 4 years on TGW without ever having the perfect scene for it. When the show ended, I can honestly say that it broke my heart that I didn’t get to use it. Then good fortune intervened and the TGF spin-off was created. And right there in the pilot episode, was the perfect spot to use this jacket. I was so happy it got its moment!
Are there times when the best choice is not so aesthetically pleasing?
Definitely. On BrainDead, I had to put Tony Shalhoub and Jan Maxwell in really ugly nasty colored polyester suits that were, on top of everything else, ill-fitting. They also wore fat suits underneath making them even dumpier. They wore this look so that when they are “infected” by the bugs, we see a spectacular transformation into a svelte, elegant look. It “bugged” me that I had to go a couple of episodes with Tony and Jan really looking terrible before they changed. I worried that the audience wouldn’t understand that they were supposed to look like this and that I hadn’t just done a really bad job. Of course, it’s all about the storytelling. So I had to stick to my guns and go for it because it was right for the story. But, wow, did it hurt me to have them look so dumpy. Tony and Jan LOVED it because it supported the story so well. I also think they loved it because they knew that they were going to get to wear some beautiful things once their characters changed.
How far in advance are you aware of a character’s arc and how does that effect your planning?
It’s very rare that I get to know a character’s full arc on a show or even through a season of a show. Sometimes I’m told certain things will happen down the road, especially on a guest star’s arc, that will help define what I want to do with a character’s look. But on BrainDead, I had a pretty good idea of where we were heading with our principle characters. The same thing was true for the first season of TGF.
Not knowing the whole story can be hard sometimes, but on the whole I kind of like it because in real life we don’t know what’s coming down the pike. I think it keeps a certain spontaneity to the wardrobe. We dress for what’s happening in the moment, that day and not for some unknown event weeks or even years down the road.
To counter that theory, however, I just finished Alan Cumming’s new pilot for CBS called “Instinct”. And it was great fun to be able to completely design the wardrobe arc for not only his character but the leading lady’s as well. That was very satisfying for me as a designer to see a conceptualized design carried all the way through to the end of shooting.
You’ve begun work on The Good Fight, the spin off of The Good Wife. Do you consider this to be a new world or a continuation of what you already created?
It’s both actually. We wanted to have a familiarity to the mother ship because that is what the audience fell in love with. So we didn’t want to make it something completely unrecognizable. At the same time, we wanted and needed to have the new show be able to stand on its own and be its own entity. I think Robert and Michelle have done that brilliantly. We start with the familiar world of the TGW law firm albeit much more successful than when we last saw it. But we quickly leave those known offices and move to Chicago’s most successful all black law firm – a whole new world for the show and audience. The diversity is off the charts on the new show which is really exciting, especially in our current political climate both in this country as well as globally.
I wanted the wardrobe to have the same chic, high-end look that everyone loved from TGW, but I also wanted to up the ante on it; somehow make it more interesting without drawing focus in a bad way. I think I pushed character even more than I did previously. I’ve certainly used more pattern and texture, which wholly supported the new story. I think I’ve been riskier with looks, which has paid off very well for the design of the show.
Particularly when a costume designer is just starting out, how important is resourcefulness? Can you share any examples of early lessons that you learned?
We had such a small budget on the HBO series “Bored To Death” and started with no wardrobe stock. On the first day of shooting, my amazing assistant, Jenn Rogein, (now the most incredible costume designer) and I found an abandoned pair of shoes and pants on the sidewalk. It was like we struck gold! We scooped them up, cleaned them, and put them in our stock. Literally we had one pair of pants hanging in stock – we even put a size tag on them! We would be in a fitting and we would say, “should we try THE pants?” or we’d say, “THE pants might be the perfect thing, especially since it’s the only pair we have.” We would laugh ourselves silly about it.
A costume designer must always be resourceful. Even when you have a huge budget, you have to be fiscally smart and budget friendly. Just because you have the money to do a 10 step process in preparing a garment for screen doesn’t mean that is the best thing to do. Simpler is often better.
Also on “Board To Death” I remember I had a character with a $400 budget. I found a necklace for him that for me was the character hands down. I bought it at $300. I got a call from accounting who scolded me for spending so much on what to them was just a piece of jewelry. I had to explain to them that this was absolutely the linchpin to the look and I assured them I wouldn’t go over his $400 budget. In my mind I was yelling my head off about how dare they question an expenditure that was not over budget. But on the outside, I had to see it from their side and be patient and explain how this one particular piece fit in the whole puzzle. They understood and I did not go over budget! Being patient and being a real team player is another form of resourcefulness – you don’t want to alienate anybody you work with because when you do you have eliminated one of your resources as well as someone who could come to your rescue when you need them.
When did you first hear of Manhattan Wardrobe Supply? How has your relationship with the store evolved through the years?
I believe the first time I heard about Manhattan Wardrobe Supply was during the pilot of “Kings”. The wardrobe supervisor, Roseann Milano, mentioned going there, and she said that I had to come with her because it was such an awesome place. At that time the store wasn’t very big but it was already fast becoming the industry gold standard for all things “wardrobe”. Now it is the absolute “go to”. I don’t know any wardrobe supervisor or show that doesn’t use you. I’m always amazed when someone finds something that is missing in the world and creates it. And that is exactly what happened with MWS. MWS is such a staple on any show I work on that now we just have a MWS budget line for each episode – it’s like you have become the Kleenex of the tissue world! Everyone asks for you by name!
Thanks, Daniel! We at MWS are big fans and love learning about your process!