On its hanger, the shearling coat wasn’t much to look at. It was made of “horrible, cheap offcuts”, and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye remembers buying it on sale at the “scuzzy end” of Oxford Street in 1980.
Worn by Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, it was reminiscent of the coats worn by the used car salesmen she’d observed. This, she says, lent verisimilitude to the character. “When he put it on over a Gabicci shirt – a red one with black suede pockets – it worked, but we really didn’t think more on it.”
The coat would become as iconic as its wearer, a blueprint for TV character clothing that contrasted with the bells and whistles of costume drama. “Some things just strike a chord, but you can’t predict what,” says De Gaye. “When you create a character’s costume on TV, you’re aiming to build something realistic. For some reason, the coat did that while, I suppose, also capturing the zeitgeist.”
To me, the best costumes [in dramas] are the ones that don’t even register because they look so real.
If there were few victors in 2020, TV was surely one of them. From the jaw-dropping I May Destroy You to The Crown, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe to ritzy costume dramas such as The Queen’s Gambit and Mrs America, television has dominated the year by default, with other forms of entertainment poleaxed by the pandemic.
These programmes offered some relief from a taxing year. But with a real life drama unfolding around us that would prove wilder than anything shown on TV, they also provided a connection to newness and culture, away from the endless pull of “doomscrolling” and leggings. Big stories were being told on the small screen, and fresh realities – historical, current and true – depicted. TV costumes have been a vital part of this. If the clothing worn by characters is not right, these worlds will fall apart.
“It’s always the costume dramas that win things but, to me, the best costumes are the ones that don’t even register because they look so real,” says Lynsey Moore, costume designer on BBC’s I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s dark and sharp consent drama based on her own sexual assault five years ago. “[Contemporary costume design] is also the hardest because the viewer is an expert on it. You have to believe the clothes have been plucked from their wardrobe that morning.”
Coel’s character, Arabella, is a writer and a social influencer, and her clothing toggles quickly between identities. One minute she’s in baggy jeans and long-sleeved T-shirts. The next, box-fresh Champion sportswear “and Kim Kardashian hair”. But she is also a detective, and, at times, an agent of chaos.
“People wanted to see themselves reflected in her, or even just recognise her as one of those people who appears confident, despite awful things happening to her,” says Moore, who used her wardrobe to subvert every stereotype, dressing her in an oversized Ikat jacket and high-waisted jeans for the assault itself, or a pinafore and clean-shaven head for a self-help meeting.
“In popular culture, the woman who has been raped is always scantily clad, or seems physically vulnerable. But that wasn’t Arabella’s experience, just as it wasn’t most women’s, and we needed to show that,” she says. “The script said pink hair but the rest was up for discussion.”
“You’re using the psychology of clothes to create a character, but mainly you’re using clothes as a plot device,” says De Gaye, who put Killing Eve’s Villanelle in Molly Goddard tulle for therapy and a Dries Van Noten suit to commit murder.
“Obviously, we’re not immune to what’s happening on the catwalk – it comes from the same toolbox – but catwalk is fantasy. Villanelle is a magpie, not a fashion follower. Yet somehow Killing Eve became a shopping show.”
Moore, who is currently working on a period drama about Anne Boleyn slated for 2021, agrees: “I love fashion in my personal life, and it’s tempting to let the catwalk inform, but the centre-point is the storytelling.”
The appeal of lockdown TV has not simply been about watching other people dress up. It’s about watching people get dressed. If the costumes in Killing Eve’s three seasons were diverting and delightful, an escape from life in lockdown, then Arabella’s pandemic-friendly wardrobe in I May Destroy You is more akin to Del Boy’s in its care for something that feels real to the streets of London. For a show as universally lauded as Coel’s, the styling manages to be curiously normal, an absolute tonic in these abnormal times.
“Of course, reality requires real clothes – and a more downbeat look, but we have been desperate to lose ourselves in the glamour of the past too,” says Tom Loxley, editor of Radio Times. In the absence of getting dressed not simply for work, but for someone else to see, and the peculiarity of the social events that usually require flair or sequins instead taking place outside in boots and coats, we have dressed vicariously through these characters.
“The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s sleeper hit, made the most of meticulous recreation of period detail, as did Cate Blanchett’s Mrs America, specifically around the mid-century modern outfits, a phenomenon that began with Mad Men and arguably peaked this year,” says Loxley.
“That said, anyone who thinks reality has to be drab should rifle through the rails of Marianne’s wardrobe in Normal People.”
The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel was an early lockdown hit, in part because it was presciently sentimental about the student experience. If Connell’s much-discussed gold chain said a lot more about his class politics than Connell could himself, the success (and objectification) of Marianne’s Tuscan wardrobe became a surrogate for our own cancelled holidays.
Television is often seen as something akin to a modern-day opium of the masses, and this year only intensified that. At times, unable to leave the house, the screen has been our only escape. Nostalgia thrives in uncertain times like our own, and a raft of shows have allowed us to escape into other times and other places, their costumes a pleasing part of the diversion.
But with more and more information about different times and places available via the internet – and more and more competing opinions on what is and isn’t right – the role the costume designer plays in creating something that looks and feels authentic has never been more vital.
Of course, this doesn’t always have to amount to checking out of the real world. In Mangrove, the first of the Small Axe series, the racism of the London Met and of British postwar society is conveyed all the more effectively because of the pitch-perfect costume design – black hats, tracksuits and what costumier Lisa Duncan describes as “spice-coloured” polyester. That costume design combines with the sights and sounds of Notting Hill’s black community to create a believable, beautiful and sometimes devastating picture of a time and place.
“I never wanted it to feel like a costume drama,” says Bina Daigler, costume designer on Mrs America, who mixed custom-made blouses and jeans with real Yves Saint Laurent and Diane Von Furstenberg. “There was a certain glamour to Gloria Steinem and even Phyllis Schlafly, but I didn’t want people to look at the show and say: ah, that was the 1970s. I want people to look at the issues of racism and inequality and see that we are still there.”