Kentucky-born costume designer Ane Crabtree took a trip to the 50s this summer, as she designed the costumes for Showtime’s latest series, Masters of Sex. Set in 1958 St. Louis, the drama centers on the research of Virginia Johnson and William Masters (played by Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, respectively)—findings that ultimately launched a sexual revolution in America. We caught up with Crabtree—who has designed costumes for Justified, Rectify, Luck and the pilot of The Sopranos—about where she found her inspiration for the show’s wardrobe, whether she saw Mad Men as a competitor, and how she went beyond the Peter Pan collar. Highlights from our chat:
The Hollywood Blog: You’re designing for Masters of Sex, which is set in the late 50s. What are your favorite pieces that characterize that period of time in the United States?
Ane Crabtree: You have to remember this is set in St. Louis. This is the Midwest and it is a very collegiate world—a conservative world of doctors and educators and folks that are into presentation of self. It was a gamut. I was really lucky in that we got to make more than 80 percent of the clothes—we had to. We did unearth some delicious finds on the Internet, but, it was the kind of show where everyone was a giant. And then in the women, I mean Allison Janney, six feet tall, Caitlin Fitzgerald, five feet 10 inches. And the boys, we had two actors, Teddy Sears and Nicholas D’Agosto, who are six feet one inch and six feet four inches. Tall does not translate to vintage clothing. Even for Michael Sheen, everything was made—and I mean every single thing. Not the shoes—that’s next year!
My tailor, who is very old world, said we were making couture in two hours, but it should’ve taken two weeks for each piece.
I imagine a lot of research goes into dressing them and designing. What is that process like?
You start with 58 because you know that’s your story. For the Midwest, I went back in time, five years prior, perhaps even eight years prior, because the Midwest moves less fast than Chicago, New York, or L.A., especially in 58. My go-to cheater Cliff Notes for costumes is Life magazine. It covers so many facets of life, all over the place, globally, internationally and locally. My cheat is that I get sort of everything in that year. Then, I start going backwards and finding out—what were the news stories?
Beyond that, I start collecting. That’s my favorite part of the job: the research. I start collecting art books on the prominent painters and sculptors. Then, I start buying fashion magazines. Looking at Harper’s Bazaar, I was amazed. I was showing the cast pages of this magazine, because it was 1958 and it was so timeless. I mean not everything, but the models and the clothing—somehow it translated to today.
In [this show] we are talking about a subject like sex and not just sex, but the study of sex. Yes, it’s titillating, but on the other hand it’s incredibly hilarious and awkward. And so, I thought It has to have some humor in the clothing. There has to be a conflict and a balance in each outfit.
Take a show like Mad Men, which takes place around the same time as Masters—was there any worry in setting yourself apart?
This sounds awful but it’s the truth: I don’t watch TV and if I do I see it sort of five years later. It’s terrible. I know Janie Bryant and I really respect what she does and she’s obviously done it well. I don’t watch Mad Men. I’ve seen some stills. I think one reporter put [together] a dress of someone’s and then a dress of mine, from Pan Am and was saying, “Look at the similarities!” But here’s the story, both of us were culling inspiration from Grace Kelly, who was giant at the time. I think the most Zen and intellectual way to deal with it is to not notice it, because then your concept and your creativity and your approach to your work is very pure. You are absorbing the information that goes with 50s society in St. Louis and it’s not always from the white, middle class perspective. It’s also from other immigrants and people in the 50s. If I were to think, “What would Mad Men do?” that would be about Mad Men and that’s so specifically advertising. It’s a completely different world.
Do you have a favorite anecdotal fashion moment that stands out?
My moments with Michael were very special, because he’s very serious about turning into the character. You become mesmerized by this process and it’s like you literally have given birth after four hours in a fitting. He’s very cerebral and all you want to do is jump up and elevate yourself to this place of pure creativity. With Lizzy, she’s so smart and so funny, and she’s a designer’sdream in that her body just looks glorious, effortlessly! Her body is so oddly specific to the time—but she is such a modern girl and such a tomboy that she hates walking in shoes, and yet, she’s this beautiful, fascinating, sexual creature.
Anyone's watching this show? I saw the pilot yesterday and it's so much better than I imagined.