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Maybe it was the episode when Hannah, the main character on the HBO series "Girls," wore a cardigan festooned with tomatoes to her first paid job, at a law office. Or the one in which Marnie, her uptight best friend, wore a bright little cocktail dress to a Bushwick loft party. Or the one where Jessa wore a long see-through eyelet dress over hot pink underwear to her gig as a nanny.
It's hard to pin down the exact moment, but at some point while watching the show last spring, I had an unexpected flashback to an ensemble I wore when I was just out of college: a black romper with knickers paired with a white oxford shirt, a red necktie and tights with Lichtenstein-esque cartoons on them. I referred to this get-up as my "signature outfit" and wore it primarily on job interviews.
Such is the difference between "Girls," whose second season begins on Jan. 13, and its most obvious predecessor, "Sex and the City." You watched Sarah Jessica Parker et al and thought, I wish I had those shoes. You watch Lena Dunham and crew and think, There, with the grace of God, I wenteth.
The fashions on "Girls" may not be aspirational, but they are very much intentional. "We are very conscious about what the girls are wearing," said Dunham, the show's 26-year-old creator/writer/director, who plays Hannah. "We spend a lot of time talking about that outfit you can't believe you wore but you know you spent three days dreaming up."
The show's costume designer, Jennifer Rogien, agreed. "The overall theme of the show is all the mistakes we go through when we're trying to find our footing," she said. "We wanted to embrace all those factors — the youth, the first job, the insecurity in relationships, both romantic and friendship — and see if we could reflect that through the clothing."
Where "Sex and the City" created a high-end designer-driven fantasy, "Girls" strives above all else for authenticity. "We were really concerned about realism, verisimilitude," Dunham said, adding that Jenni Konner, an executive producer, "is always there at my costume fittings to say, 'That fits a little too well.'"
''She's always calling out the potential for any TV-matchy-cutesy-ness," Dunham said.
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Key to this ethos, Konner said, is "never having things that are beyond what these girls can afford." The show's most polished looks come from designers like Theory and Tibi, and the decidedly un-Carrie Bradshaw Ann Taylor. Characters also wear some clothes repeatedly.
''Hannah had a pair of very well-loved Rachel Antonoff for Bass loafers that she wore a lot in Season 1," Rogien said.
Dunham said that whenever she saw those shoes, "I was like: 'Oh, yay! My loafers!'"
(Side fact: Those shoes were designed by the sister of Jack Antonoff, who is a member of the Grammy-nominated band Fun., and also Dunham's boyfriend.)
''It always makes me so crazy when people on shows have a new winter coat every day," Dunham said. "I wore the same winter coat for three years after college, even after my dog peed on it."
Like the experiences portrayed on the show, wardrobes are often imbued with autobiographical specificity. "I once got in a fight with one of my best friends while she was wearing a plastic dress," Dunham said. "And the plastic dress became an example of our conflict — like, 'You're changing, you're wearing a plastic dress.' The plastic dress found a home in Season 2."
The show often draws the viewer's attention to its characters' sartorial crimes. When Hannah reports to her first day of work at a coffee shop in a white dress, her boss tells her to go home and change, saying, "This isn't a consumptive women's hospital." Seeing Marnie in a low-cut floral dress, a character greets her with, "Hello, J.Lo at the Grammys." In a memorable moment early in Season 2, Marnie, played by Allison Williams, calls Hannah out on her hilariously awful neon mesh top by saying, "What are you wearing?"
''Girls" may be antiglamour, but, in keeping with the show's larger search-for-identity theme, it is very much about personal style.
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The wardrobes, said Rogien, who previously worked on "The Good Wife" and "Bored to Death," ''are extremely character-driven."
For these characters, outfits are an important form of self-expression, Dunham said. "The clothes are really meant to reflect the fantasy the girls have about themselves and are sort of unsuccessfully fulfilling," she said.
Each girl has her own distinct style. Hannah, Rogien said, is "lovingly disheveled."
Many of Hannah's mix-and-match outfits come from vintage and thrift stores and sometimes yield looks that don't look that flattering on the character. "But she's fully committed to them," Rogien explained. In fact, she said, "sometimes we tailor the clothes to fit her even worse."
Marnie, Hannah's uptight best friend, suffers from the opposite problem. "She's very put together," Rogien said. Marnie favors structured sheath dresses and wears pieces from Black Halo and DVF. "She's trying really hard to be professional, to be grown-up, and sometimes she overshoots." As in Season 1, when she dons a Tibi dress and pumps for a party in Bushwick. "She's wearing essentially a bat mitzvah dress to a grungy loft party," Rogien said.
Shoshanna, the quirkily nervous New York University student played by Zosia Mamet, is the most concerned with outfit propriety. "She's someone whose reading every book, every magazine and kind of using every fashion rule together at once," Konner said.
And she shops, as Rogien explained. "She's got both time and potentially a little money to do a little bit of shopping, she said. "We shop her in Bloomingdale's and Saks."
Shoshanna is also a big fan of loungewear. She has been known to sport a Juicy Couture sweatsuit, and memorably watched TV in a purple peace-sign snuggy. ("I love that snuggy," Rogien said.)
Mamet said: "It's about the proper attire for every moment. Even her pajamas match."
And the bohemian Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke, is, Dunham said, "a girl with an innately cool sense of style whose confidence can veer into the crazily inappropriate." Not only did Jessa wear the aforementioned sheer dress to baby-sit ("it's floor-length," she said, by way of justification), but she also wore a bathrobe, Ugg boots and geisha-esque hair and makeup to meet up with an ex-boyfriend for a stroll in the park.
The character's style is, in fact, quite similar to Kirke's in real life. "I went to high school with Jemima," Dunham said, "and dressing like Jemima was the top pursuit of every girl."
Many of Jessa's clothes have, in fact, been based on Kirke's real-life outfits, and, in the case of some pieces, like her quickie wedding dress, culled from Geminola, the West Village store owned by her mother, the designer Lorraine Kirke. The elder Kirke's repurposed vintage designs were featured on "Sex and the City," and Dunham herself worked at Geminola during college.
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The store, a small space on a quaint street with ripped wallpaper and tasseled chandeliers where the majority of prices fall in the $295-to-$695 range, seems like a place Jessa could grow up to own. "It's a little bit Moulin Rouge brothel," Dunham said, "but also sort of a sophisticated French salon. Jemima's house is kind of that way, too."
Dunham recalled that, when she worked there, "It would be like no one would come in all day, and then like some really fancy model would come in and buy 15 chandeliers and nine dresses."
In a recent phone interview, Kirke, the designer/proprietor, said that she didn't recall Dunham's time in her store. "But Jemima" — who could be heard in the background — "says I was horrible to her," she added. "Basically, I started the store to give my daughters' friends weekend jobs."
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Dunham's own long connection to fashion raises an obvious question. Not only did Dunham, a child of two artists and a graduate of Brooklyn's St. Ann's School, work at Geminola, but she also was recently shot by Annie Leibovitz in the outfit that her baby sitter, the designer Zac Posen, made her for her high-school graduation.
Surely, Dunham's personal style must diverge from Hannah's? After all, she did wear Prada to the Emmys.
''Hannah dresses similarly to the way I dressed in late college or when I just graduated," Dunham said. "I was less concerned with things looking good on me and more concerned with things being funny or interesting or quirky. I was a really big proponent of the sacklike bubble dress, unfortunately."
Konner described Dunham's look. "Lena dresses not only much older than Hannah, but much older than her age," she said. "She's very ladylike. I rarely see her wearing jeans, and when she does it's with some kind of stylish blazer."
Dunham said: "I always like to think of myself as dressing like a fancy lady at Radcliffe. That's my fantasy about what's going on."
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In this respect, Dunham, who has drawn much attention for her willingness to expose her decidedly non-Hollywood body, is equally notable for her choices when clothed.
When given creative control, few actresses have decided to create characters who look worse on television than they themselves do in life. Lucille Ball had no problem stuffing chocolates in her mouth off an assembly line or crushing grapes with her feet, but she did so in perfect hair and makeup. Tina Fey's Liz Lemon makes self-deprecating jokes about her still-quite attractive appearance. Even Roseanne Barr, the foremother of female-driven sitcom realism, grew prettier, slimmer and more made-up as her show continued its run.
''The first time I met Lena," Konner recalled, "was after seeing 'Tiny Furniture,'" Dunham's debut feature film. "I remember being like, Oh, my God, you're so pretty! She plays herself down so much, which was surprising because it's so unusual."
Dunham said she knew "it wouldn't be everyone's choice." But, she added: "I'm never tortured by seeing bad photographs of myself either. It's not an 'I need to do this for the sisterhood' thing. It's just a sense of trying to stay true to the characters and what we're writing about."
TO THINE OWN CHARACTER BE TRUE: GIRLS BEFORE THE 'GIRLS'
By STUART EMMRICH
The women of "Girls" are hardly the first ones for whom the outfits they wear are an essential part of their characters' makeup. Here are three memorable characters from past television shows in which clothes very much helped to make the woman.
'THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW' (1970-1977)
For Mary Tyler Moore, the look of Mary Richards was modeled largely on her own style, especially as the character evolved from a Midwestern girl newly moved to the big city (that beret!) to a successful newsroom producer earning a decent salary. Over the years, Moore would go to the showroom of the designer Norman Todd and pick out many of the outfits she would later wear on the show. "As I'm supposed to be an office worker, I very much wear the same outfit more than once," she told a newspaper in 1974. "The clothes are the property of the studio, but when they've 'had it,' I'm allowed to take them home. I try to stick to tailored styles for dresses and neat, chic fashions for pantsuits. Off screen those are the styles I go for, too."
'ALLY MCBEAL' (1997-2002)
For Ally McBeal, the Boston lawyer portrayed by Calista Flockhart, no skirt seemed to be too short, despite the protestations of other characters. ("No real lawyer wears a short skirt like that!" one prospective client exclaimed early in the show's run. "I want pants.") A judge once even ruled her in contempt of court for not dressing more modestly. Though her look proved something of a flash point among viewers, including some women who thought she was undermining her credibility as a lawyer with her miniskirts, others defended her fashion choices. "We can all look at Ally McBeal and see her as some kind of icon," Jane Pratt said in 1998, when she was the editor in chief of Jane magazine. "Women find themselves emulating her, feeling OK wearing shorter skirts to the office because of her. She's freeing women up."
'SEX AND THE CITY' (1998-2004)
Whether it was an Azzedine Alaia jacket paired with Prada capri pants, or her cherished Fendi baguette, or that John Galliano newspaper-print dress, or floor-sweeping gowns from Oscar de la Renta or Versace, or even some pieces from her own short-lived Halston Heritage collection, Sarah Jessica Parker made sure her character, Carrie Bradshaw, was always fashion-forward. And if anyone wondered how she managed to afford all of those designer duds and Manolo Blahnik shoes on a freelance-writer's salary, Carrie had a ready answer. "I like my money right where I can see it," she said in one episode. "Right in my closet."