Clothing & Comedy
Maeve Kelly, Amber Nelson, and Melina Root Photography: Rachael Pena
This interview is based on a transcript of the conversation recorded on July 30, 2017. It has been edited and condensed by Rachel Kinnard.
Maeve Kelly is a costume designer who lives and works in NYC. She has worked on films including Sisters, The Big Sick, and Brigsby Bear. Amber Nelson is a stand up comedian and writer. You can find her on Almost Genius on TruTv and Netflix Characters . Melina Root is a costume designer who lives and works in Los Angeles. She is currently Costume Designer on CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She’s also worked on SNL, That ‘70s Show, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and Superstore.
Melina and Maeve, you work on opposite coasts, NYC and LA. I'm curious if you could talk about your process from the idea to seeing it on a screen.
MAEVE KELLY: I mostly assist costume designers right now. It starts with the costume designer's boards or whatever the concept is that she brings to the director and producer and the writers when they start. They collaborate and my understanding is there's a lot more input from a lot of other people, than just you. It seems like you're the person who decides, but there're a lot of other people that throw in their opinions, including the actors. That's the part that I thought was most the interesting, like, the farther along I got with [working in costume design], the actors really have to weigh in. You want to say, "I'm the costume designer. You wear what I say." They have to feel right in the clothes, which we all get, right? If you put on something that doesn't feel right and it doesn't work, then you have to change. They just can't function correctly, so I think [the collaboration] is a huge part of the job of costume designer.
MELINA ROOT: It works differently in New York and L.A and it works differently in all the mediums, but I think you're right. I think ultimately, it [depends on] your ability to work with an actor. In the long run, it comes down to that. Most directors, producers and writers want you to keep the actors safe and happy. It's taken me years to admit this but, I have to reverse engineer and ask myself, how do I make this [actor] be part of the storytelling?
How do you know when a costume is successful?
AMBER NELSON: You have to feel right in it. I think that's a successful costume, absolutely.
MELINA: You know, I've been in fittings where, "Oh my god, you love this. This is the greatest outfit." Then, you show it to a producer and they don't see it. They don't see what you thought was so great. You have to sell it or you have two or three backups.
AMBER: Speaking as a woman in my 30's, usually the producer's like, "Put her in some khaki pants,” and you're like, I feel like a sexless sack of flour!
Comedy is infamous for being a boy's club. I would think being costume designers you're often the only women on set. If so, how does that gender dynamic play out? How does it impact your creativity?
AMBER: It's interesting. I don't know. I'm just kind of used to it, I guess. But, I also gravitate towards women. I love women. Sometimes on a show I am the only woman, because the producers are like, "We need one woman and she's got a have a voice to fill all women." As long as you're yourself and you feel like you have a voice. You speak from your diaphragm. I think it works and then people pay attention.
MAEVE: I have definitely experienced working in a boy's club environment. It happens in dramas too, it happens everywhere, but depending on who the writers are and whoever is in charge, there can be a lot of mansplaining. At least towards the costume designers. It happens more than on female dominated sets. You can be friends with other men on set, but then you don't get invited to the drinks after. It’s fine, but it’s there for sure.
What makes costumes funny for each of you?
MAEVE: Lately something that's just been really funny to me are things that are so on the nose. I was at a concert the other night and there was a guy there. He was in khaki's and a dress shirt and was carrying a computer bag, but he was dancing. It was so funny to me. He was straight from work, but then there was something was a little bit weird and off about it. What makes something funny is something that you see and then it’s just a little bit off or a lot off.
AMBER: For me it would be character. In comedy that's also about timing, something a little bit off and being very committed to who you are. I think a good example of clothing and comedy is the show The Golden Girls. All their outfits fit their character. It just really drives the comedy forward. Rose has the more conservative dress. Blanche has the cleavage and you don't know what's up with Dorothy.
MELINA: I think it definitely comes from the character. If you find a funny person or a funny situation, then the costume becomes funny. For example, in some Tom Hanks movie, there was this crazy secretary. She comes in wearing her bra on the outside of her shirt. It's so extreme, but it’s a dead on visual. She was sort of this nutty secretary.
I remember my very first fitting with Chris Farley, I pulled a pair of pants for him that had Belushi's name in it. [Farley] was like, 'Oh my God, I want to be just like him!' And I'm like, dead? - Melina Root
I feel the 1980's and the 1990's were real high points for outrageous costumes. I don't know if it's just because the characters then were really outrageous. What's your take?
Melina: I thought the early, first version SNL was funnier. I thought those clothes were funnier. It was just really raw. I mean, they weren't so terribly concerned about whatever they looked like so they went for it. When I showed up there, the wardrobe room was a tiny area. They worked out of a closet. And the 80's were such an awful fashion period, it was built-in comedy.
MAEVE: I remember in the book, Live From New York, there's this one part where they talk about how after the Adam Sandler era, maybe Will Ferrell forward, how these fresh people began working at SNL. And they were coming to work sober…so my instinct is drug use. I don't mean to oversimplify it, but just like based on [that book] I think [the change of cast members] must have had something to do with it.
MELINA: I remember my very first fitting with Chris Farley, I pulled a pair of pants for him that had Belushi's name in it. [Farley] was like, "Oh my God, I want to be just like him!" And I'm like, "Dead?" It wasn't until Tina Fey came in and people were like, "We don't have to kill ourselves to be funny."
What are some of your favorite comedic costumes?
Melina: Well, I have to say 3rd Rock from the Sun would be my favorite comedy costumes. It was actually created by Bonnie and Terry Turner who were SNL writers and they had moved down here and they were hired by Carsey Werner who was the company that created Mork & Mindy. So, they were like, "We want a show about aliens who are going to tell us about the human experience."
When they hired me it was like, what should they wear? They should be naked when they get here, because they didn’t have any clothes, but they wouldn't let me make them be naked. It was fun to conceive that show, because it was completely conceptual. Lithgow was like a combination of various different periods of what we thought a professor should look like.
I’ve had managers and agents that are like, "Why don't you wear a sexy dress on stage?" And like, you can't really move, because a lot of my comedy's very physical – and also, fuck you for telling me what to wear. - Amber Nelson
MAEVE: One of my favorite moments from 3rd Rock from the Sun is where Sally gets married and her wedding dress. They shoot it from behind while she's standing in a mirror and there's a long train. Everyone comes in and they're like, "Sally, you look so beautiful," and then she turns around and it's like a long train and then, like, a mini dress. Of course you know the dress. And I just did a prom movie in Atlanta, and so we had to look up what kids are wearing to prom these days, and that is all anyone wants to wear now-- a short dress with a long train!
Left: 3rd Rock from the Sun, "A Dick on One Knee" (1997), Right: Demi Moore attending the Academy Awards (1989).
MELINA: I remember it was like what would be beautiful and then what would be inappropriate? So, how did she think it was beautiful and then what was wrong about it? It was loosely based on a Demi Moore outfit. She went to the Academy Awards wearing bike shorts and a big skirt. To me that's hideously inappropriate. That was part of the inspiration.
Amber, are there any creative references that you are drawn to when you're coming up with your characters?
AMBER: It really depends on the character. I have this jacket and it's full of sparkles and sequins. I just picked that up at a thrift store and I was like, I don’t know maybe and I put it on my arm. I had all these crazy alcoholic women come up to me that were like, "I will pay you for that jacket." I was like, you know what? I'm keeping this. I had it for, like, 15 years. I still have it.
MELINA: I think for comedy actors, that's always where it starts. Mike Myers had a really specific idea [for the Wayne’s World costumes]. He was just like, “I think I’ll wear a crew neck black t-shirt with a pocket and white converse and black jeans." He knew exactly what he wanted. Austin Powers was the same, he'd say, "I want a blue velvet suit like little Lord Fauntleroy suit with a ruffly collar." He knew it. It was in his head. So, that's how he was.
AMBER: It was always a strange shift when you're working with a company, . You have a character, and then the costume comes to you and you're like, "Well, it's different than what I imagined." But then as an actor, you never want to be a problem. There's a fine line between being a problem and also sticking up for yourself, and usually, the costume designer spent so long making the costume, you don't want to be like, "I hate it!" Then you'll never work again. So, you just have to adjust to fit the characters. But so, I think coming in with a costume piece or writing it your self with a costume in mind is way better.
MELINA: I ask actors to bring in what they wore at the audition. There was something in what they wore that the producer or director saw and spoke to them. You know, it's always a good place to start.
As a stand-up, are there do’s and don'ts with what to wear onstage?
AMBER: Sure. You do have a sense of a uniform. I love black. But you really want to be comfortable and fun at the same time. I’ve had managers and agents that are like, "Why don't you wear a sexy dress on stage?" And like, you can't really move, because a lot of my comedy's very physical -- and also, fuck you for telling me what to wear.
I’ve heard for male stand-ups that they can’t wear shorts on stage.
AMBER: Even in New York in summer, when you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, they still wear pants. If you’re out during the day, you pack a pair of pants to bring with you. It just looks like you don't care, so then why should I care to watch you? You should always have a little bit of an extra to piece together, just to show that you care, that you took a little bit of time thinking about it.