Featured Image courtesy of Cynthia Summers
Costume design is one of the most unique aspects of a film or TV series. Certain ensembles can take your breath away, but the art of the design is that it’s just as effective when you don’t notice it at all. Aspects of time, place, circumstance, and even the personality and unconscious thoughts of the main character must be considered when picking out something as simple as their shoes. In The Devil Wears Prada, the famous monologue by Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly points out the protagonist’s woeful ignorance to the fact that her carelessly thrown-together outfit was actually carefully curated and chosen for her by the fashion experts surrounding her.
One of the people who curates even those most simplistic of outfits is Hollywood costume designer Cynthia Summers. A two-time Emmy nominee, Summers has risen to the top of her craft as an expert in fantastical settings and modern ensembles infused with uniqueness.
TV Wasteland talked with Summers about the process of a costume designer, how she approaches even the most wacky of ideas, and the benefits of her favorite projects.
The 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago set the first spark of Summers’ love of costumes on screen. The Russian period aspects drew her in, and the darkness of it all caught her eye in particular. This was in direct opposition to her other biggest inspiration, the biopic Frida (starring Salma Hayek as the titular Frida Kahlo). Frida’s world was one of rich hues and bright fabrics, a strong contrast to the bleakness of Phyllis Dalton’s Russian furs and hats in Zhivago. “Both [were] period, both completely different in the color spectrum… perhaps that’s why I like varied genres within film… dark, colorful, fantastical, real, period, and everything in between.”
One of Summers’ most significant projects in the early 2000s was the groundbreaking LGBTQ+ drama The L Word. Cynthia’s career was already ten years deep, but she emphasized the pressure on “getting the show right.” It was pushing so many boundaries in terms of representation, and with the show not having a defined direction, the creative team was able to explore frontiers in a creative sense as well. “The L Word was a show made by women, for women, all about women. What we learned really quickly was: Regardless of who you are as a woman, every woman loves fashion.” She noted that this doesn’t just mean dresses and high heels in the typical sense, but simply that the clothes women wear on a daily basis are so essential to their own selves. “Whether you wear jeans and a T-shirt or a leopard dress… you’re making a statement.” Summers did joke that she was happy that the characters’ wardrobes could grow bigger as the show caught on and progressed with more seasons, but “that’s the beauty of television,” a medium where you have the space and time to see how trends and personal styles evolve. “If the characters grow in those seasons, you can grow with them. It’s really invigorating.” On the other hand, the rapid-fire nature of television means that you have to be ready for anything. “There’s always going to be a hiccup,” and you may not have a lot of time to fix it, meaning that the job is never boring.
Summers then joined Netflix’s TV adaptation of the classic book series A Series of Unfortunate Events. Most series give you five to ten days to prepare for each episode before shooting, but Netflix gave the ASOUE production crew twenty-four days to prepare for a twenty-four day shoot. However, since nearly every episode was part of a two-part installment taking place in one location (like the Grim Grotto or the Miserable Mill), both parts were shot at once. It seems like a lot of time, but as soon as you see the show, the production and costume design are so elaborate and intricate that it becomes obvious that every moment was needed. Of course, multiple copies of every costume needed to be made as well for necessary shooting requirements: some for every level of decay if the story required the characters to get dirty, some for the stunt doubles, some for the stand-ins, some clean ones as spares, and so on. “You see one costume on Malina [Weissman], for instance, and you’ve got to know that there are at least ten or twelve of those costumes… A lot of the time we would dye our own fabrics and create our own fabrics because the color and the tone of the show was very theatrical. It was really precise, and everything had to complement or match the sets.”
Of course, many of those costumes, especially Esmé Squalor’s outlandish (but very “in”) outfits, were lifted straight from the pages of Lemony Snicket’s writing. However, as they weren’t often described in extreme detail, Cynthia had to get creative. The tentacle outfit in The Grim Grotto posed a particular challenge, as she originally wasn’t sure how to go about creating an “octopus dress.” She went to Barry Sonnenfeld, director and producer of the series, and simply asked what he wanted the dress to do. With most costumes, he would only give his basic ideas on the function and maybe a specific shade of color, leaving everything else up to Summers. Cynthia would then go draft four or five versions of that outfit and whittle them down to what would work and look best for everyone involved. With the octopus dress, Sonnenfeld originally wanted it to be very animated and move around on its own, but following challenges relating to set size and CGI budget, Summers created the “buoyant” tentacle-infused jumpsuit that would end up bouncing and moving as the actress moved on screen. Each tentacle had to be bicycle-pumped full of air and carefully watched to make sure they didn’t pop against the grates on the floor.
Any ASOUE fan will remember the famous dragonfly dress that Beatrice wears in a flashback, and Summers counts it as maybe her favorite costume she’s ever produced. The wings were laser-cut aluminum, and their extreme price meant they could only have one pair made. “There’s a scene with her where she [Beatrice] actually dies. We see her death before we see her life, and in the scene where she dies, they hadn’t cast her yet.” Morena Baccarin ended up being cast, but a shadowy double was used for that scene. The dress was made before the designer knew who they were actually making it for, and while such an elaborate piece like wings would be made with CGI, they wanted to create it in real life. Summers fashioned a corset under the backless dress that provided a bracket for the wings to clip onto. Once everything was bolted together and made flesh-colored, it all became seamless, as if the wings were actually growing out of her back.
The most difficult costume on the show? Strangely enough, it was Count Olaf’s Detective Dupin disguise in the Vile Village. “That costume was the most difficult because it was the simplest.” She found it hard to find something that could be as simple as a leather jacket and jeans but still speak loudly among all the other eccentric clothes that surrounded and preceded it.
Of course, one thing that’s just as essential as the costume is the person wearing it. Sometimes an actor is searching for a specific look for their character, or other times it’s impossible to know which outfit will work until each of them are worn and considered. The longer gestation period for film allows for more time for the creative team to work together, but “television is fast. Often, we don’t get to see the cast until the day before they’re working.” Most of the process for the costumes and overall “looks” for specific characters occurs between the designer, directors, and producers before the actor is brought into the conversation. Sometimes Cynthia gets the chance to talk to them beforehand, but oftentimes, their first day on set is the first time she’s able to speak with them. “For me, it’s like a big pitch. I’m usually the first person they see when they arrive on the film set. I have to really know what I’m talking about, really have a lot of reasons and backstories to why we have them in what they’re wearing, the journey of their character, just to make them feel at ease.” So much personality and backstory can be inferred from what someone’s wearing, and explaining all of those intricacies can go a long way to making an actors’ first day on set a lot easier and allowing them to place themselves within the story a little better. Summers has also worked with a lot of child actors (many of whom were on A Series of Unfortunate Events), and she did admit, “I almost find kids a bit easier to work with,” explaining that they’re extremely open to collaboration.
Another project that Summers recently worked on with child actors was The Baby-Sitters Club, another Netflix adaptation of a children’s book series (although this one much less maudlin and dark). In terms of projects that already had film or TV versions, “what was important to me were the books.” Those previous adaptations were products of their time just as our current films are a product of ours, and what worked back then may not have been what would work now. With Baby-Sitters, Cynthia focused especially on bringing the fashion to the present day, still inspired by the original cover art. “For me, it felt like that was the best way to marry past and present.” Interestingly enough, Kristy’s look from the original book was something that hadn’t changed much in the past few decades, so much of her outfit was able to stay intact in translation. Summers also complimented Sophie Grace’s performance and dedication to her role, and she ensured that Kristy’s costumes reflected that energy.
One outfit that created a lot of chatter online was Claudia Kishi’s plaid yellow suit, a cheeky homage to Clueless. Summers admitted that it wasn’t entirely intentional, but as soon as she saw that suit in a store near the filming location, she knew Momona had to wear it. It wasn’t until after the fitting when an offhand comment by Cynthia’s assistant made her realize the subconscious connection. “Of course, we have Miss Clueless [Alicia Silverstone] herself on our show, so it was all very kismet.”
Continuing her strong relationship with Netflix, Summers joined the second season of Altered Carbon. This is yet another example of her genre versatility, as the science fiction world of shapeshifting people is vastly different from the fantastical world of A Series of Unfortunate Events or the modern-day fashion of The L Word. “The difference on that show is volume. It’s a huge show, huge amount of cast, huge amount of stunts.” The strict divisions between social classes made it easier to differentiate costume types, and while she was joining an already-established world, the second season took place largely on a new planet, offering up great opportunities for fresh designs. Most of the filming took place on various stages, which Cynthia actually enjoyed, as everything felt more contained, “a little easier to keep up with… When it’s in a studio, it’s much more manageable.”
As if she wasn’t already having the most packed year ever, Summers’ latest works to hit the screen were in Snowpiercer, the television reboot of Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian film. “We knew early on that the series was going to look different from the movie for various reasons… They made it more contemporary, in a sense.” Previous characters were updated, and new characters were built from the ground up. Cynthia’s personal favorite was the Night Car, a nightclub-esque car on the train that brought lots of creative fashion to the series. “It’s where you can go and lose yourself and get crazy, which is great because you’re stuck on a train for seven years.” This project also required a lot of multiple costumes in various stages of disarray and cleanliness, not to mention the additional stunt double outfits.
What can we see next from Summers? First up is Resident Alien, a Syfy adaptation of the Dark Horse comic of the same name. Unfortunately, there were still four weeks left of filming before COVID-19 forced everything to shut down, but Summers is excited for everyone to see it (especially seeing as how she doesn’t get to work on a lot of comedies).
Costume design may not be something that a lot of people notice when they’re watching a film or TV show, and while “people may never know these small details, it makes a world of difference to the people creating it and the people wearing it, because they can feel all the backstory.” Next time you’re watching a movie or show, take a look at the costumes, and remember that every shoe, hat, and piece of jewelry has an essential piece of the storytelling to tell, and someone a lot like Summers is dedicated to upholding that little piece of a character’s personal history.