Interview: American Woman Costume Designer Judy Gellman

June 14, 2018-

By Lauren

Judy Gellman American Woman Costume Designer

We first tuned into Paramount Network’s American Woman because of its ties to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards, whose childhood the series is based on. Now we are turning our televisions back on for the storyline and the fashion. Although many may not realize it, endless amounts of work and strategy went into the perfectly curated 1970’s inspired wardrobe for the show. That is where American Woman’s seasoned costume designer Judy Gellman comes into play. And whether you’re a Bonnie, Kathleen or Diana, she has the scoop on what inspired their style, what really went into the costume design process and how you can vintage shop like an expert.

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Big Blonde Hair: You have been a costume designer for an impressive list of well known movies and shows dating back to the mid 1970’s. Tell us a bit about how you ended up working on American Woman.

Judy Gellman: I knew John [Riggi] who created American Woman along with Kyle [Richards].  John and I previously worked together on a show called Super Fun Night with Rebel Wilson. When he was starting to think about American Woman and pitch it around town, he asked me to help him out with costuming and give him some research that he could show to people.  So John and I knew each other before the project was bought, and he brought me in.

BBH: That is awesome!  There is a lot of great 1970’s fashion in the show.  Did you draw inspiration from specific people of the time, or is it just based on the overall style of the era?

JG: The way Kyle’s mother (Kathleen Richards) dressed at that time was a big influence on what I did (for Bonnie Nolan).  As far as other individuals from the time period, no.  I felt each character needed to be unique, refer back to the period, the fashion, and the life that kind of person had.  We did a lot of research and melded all of that into each character in different ways.

American Woman

BBH: I have heard that Kyle Richards was very hands on.   What did she bring to the table in terms of the costuming process? 

JG: Kyle is really great, I like her a lot.  In a situation like this, you can run into people that insist things are done a certain way. But she was never like that and was very collaborative, supportive, and helpful. 

When I had certain scenes I could say, “Okay so what did your mom wear here? What kind of things would she wear?” Kyle would say, “Oh, she always wore a lot of jewelry. She wore this kind of thing.” Or I would show her pictures and the two of us and would go “Oh my God! We have to see if we can find something like this!” 

BBH: Are the characters’ outfits mostly vintage?  Are there custom pieces? 

JG: As the costume designer, my personal selfishness is to see to it that the clothes that these characters wore were authentic, so the optimal choice was that they wore vintage.  I would say 9 times out of 10 that was true.  The shoes, the underwear, the jewelry—we really worked hard to make them as legitimate as we could.  The things that we could not find, we made.

BBH: Wow, I cannot imagine how long that took.

JG: It was a real challenge because in the first season of a show, you do not often have the time or money that you need to really do it the way you want.  It is such a thrill to have the opportunity to do something like this, so you want to do a great job. 

It was really important to me and all of the producers that the show not be a runway fashion show, and that we did not say, “Oh well here is a piece, lets just show the audience that we know what 1975 looks like.” The clothes were really what these characters would wear and helped the actors become the characters without being showy and obnoxious about it.

When you are doing a vintage show, you never know what you are going to find.  So [we shopped at] all of the vintage shops, Etsy, elsewhere online, private collectors and a lot of stores.  In Los Angeles there are a number of places I would go that curated modern and vintage together, and those were some of my favorites.  

BBH: I never would have thought of Etsy, I would not even have thought that you could do it online.

American Woman

You never know what you are going to find online.  I bought things from all over really: England, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other places.  You just do not know where these people are, so you are digging for diamonds.

BBH: Bonnie (Alicia Silverstone) is the main character of the show and is based on Kyle’s mother. Can you describe her style?

JG: Even though her style was very much influenced by what Kyle told me about her mom, Bonnie’s character really is an invention of the creators of the show. Same with Kathleen (Mena Suvari), and Diana (Jennifer Bartels). So you will find many influences of what Kyle told me of her mother, and you will also find that we have tried our best to just create Bonnie’s character.  She is a wealthy woman who has lead a primarily secluded life in the 1970’s, in a marriage where her husband is the peacock and the breadwinner.  In the show, we watch her trying very hard to be her own woman.  As her character arc grows, you find out that it is very much within her, and there is a transition from “Oh my God, I have never had to do this” or “I do not know how to do this,” to “I can do this.”  That had to be a part of how she dressed too. For example, her character’s wardrobe has her own unique color palette of pastel and color that no one else on the show wears.

BBH: What about Kathleen (Mena Suvari)?

JG: Kathleen is like a Texas debutant that basically just wants to land a man and that is her motivation.  She starts a business with a guy that she thinks she is going to marry, and then ends up realizing she is actually really good at the business.  We had her wear a lot of prints and sexy things.

Mena knows a lot about vintage which was really nice.  She appreciated it and had opinions on certain items that I tried on her, and that was a lot of fun. She would see something and say “Oh my God, where did you find this?”  I think she was a previous collector at one point.

BBH: And Diana?

JG: Her character is really helpful in the story. She is the one that shows the two other girls that when you are working, you have to sublimate yourself because the men otherwise give you a hard time. She wants to do well at her job at the bank and to be taken seriously, so she is very conscious of how she dresses and tries be business like with the appropriate outfits. But she also knows how to be sexy on her days off. Her clothes are mostly solid colors and you see her in a lot of suits. In this time period, designers like Calvin Klein and Anne Klein were the great sportswear designers of the day.

BBH: Do you have any favorite looks or designers that stand out to you in our current fashion season?

JG: I started out as a fashion designer, and there are three designers that I always watch. Self-Portrait. I adore all of those beautiful lace dresses. I love Chloe’s fluid, draped, gorgeous pieces. And Isabelle Marant is one of my favorites as well. She has this way of combining self confidence with boho chic and European style that I have always liked.

American Woman Cast

BBH: As an expert, do you have any additional tips for people who are vintage shoppers?

JG: I will give you a little trade secret that is not exactly a secret. In my travels as a costume designer, and on a project like this, I found that a lot of the suppliers who are collectors of vintage things also sell to fashion designers. The designers go to the collectors, they buy vintage pieces, and they knock them off. 

Lately you see so much 1970’s inspired stuff everywhere. It is from fashion designers doing research on things that they think the public can respond to.  I remember walking into Neiman Marcus after a shoot and looking at a very expensive coat (I will not say whose line it was). It was actually this coat that I had back in the shop for somebody, and mine was cheaper and the real thing. The one at Neiman Marcus was almost a line for line knock off!

BBH: That is crazy!

JG: But that happens. The truth is I think anybody who is into fashion, whether you are in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles (I do not care if you are in Rhode Island), can walk into a vintage store and find an amazing lace blouse from the 1950’s, wear it with a great pair of jeans, and look incredible.  

Real fashion to me is not just going to a store or reading Vogue. A costume designer is trained to build characters. You are looking at all these things, and trying to curate who you are and who you are not usually just a t-shirt and jeans, although it may be that’s what you wear every day.  Most women I know, I do not care if they are 14 or 84, have an idea of what they are comfortable in, and what their uniform is.  You wander through the decades, the influence of designers, the movement of the Country, and what you feel comfortable in changes.  

Judy Gellman

What I am getting at is that people should not be shy.  Sometimes going into a vintage store can be overwhelming. There is so much stuff, and you do not know what you are looking at, and sizing is very different than what you are used to.  I would say give it a chance and you will find something that speaks to you that you decide you are willing to experiment with.  

BBH: Thank you this has been so interesting for me, and I can tell that you are so passionate about what you do.  I do not think people realize how much goes into costume design, and this is a great window into that!

JG: It is my pleasure and one of the things that I would love for your (audience) to understand, on behalf of my fellow costume designers, is the difference between “costume design” and “styling.”  A costume designer creates characters, is educated in what they do, has a background, and an individual process.  Most people do not realize that you have to learn the period, the character, how they move through the period, your budgets, and the directives from the producers, creators, directors, and actors. Plus, if you are working with with vintage, you are dealing with size differences and tailoring and all that kind of stuff to help those actors become the characters.  It is not just opening Harper’s Bazaar and going, “Okay well this is what is in style now.”  There is a big difference and a completely different process that costume designers go through, which is why I am really proud of this show!

A Big Blonde thank you to Judy Gellman for taking the time to chat with us. Tune in to American Woman Thursday nights on the Paramount Network at 10/9c.

Photo Credits: Paramount Network and Judy Gellman

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