Q&A With Costume Designer Jenn Rogien of ‘Girls’

Jenn Rogien on ‘Girls,’ ‘Orange is the New Black’ and Ray Ploshansky’s polos

04.13.16

By way of Hamlet and a slightly more complex sentence structure, Shakespeare’s Polonius said, “Clothes make the man.” The same quote is also attributed Mark Twain, along with the addendum: “Naked people have little or no influence in society.”

If Lena Dunham has spent the five-seasons-long run of Girls challenging Twain at every turn — and she has — then Girls costume designer Jenn Rogian has simultaneously made the case that when it comes to dressing (or undressing) fictional characters, clothes have the ability to transform them into real women. Even if they act like spoiled children.

Below, a Q&A with Jenn Rogien of Girls on the story-telling power of clothes.

Costume-wise, what was your favorite episode of Girls this season?

On the whole, I’m very proud of the look of this whole season. I feel like we — me, Lena, Jenni and my costume team — very deliberately moved the Girls and guys and Hannah’s parents’ looks forward in a thoughtful, considered, gratifying way. It’s not very often that a show can completely invert the look of its characters — Jessa in jeans and a tee shirt? Marnie in sweatpants for half the season? Shosh in Tokyo? Loreen in studs and leopard print? – and still have the characters be instantly recognizable as themselves. I love that I got to do that because of where Lena, Jenni and the writers took us.

What is your favorite episode and outfit from any of the five seasons of Girls

My favorite episode is either “Beach House” in season three or this season’s “The Panic in Central Park,” and not necessarily because of anything costume-related. But that green bikini in “Beach House,” man. That was just a fantastic episode where I watched as my Girls kind of came apart and put it all out there. It was brilliant. And “The Panic In Central Park” was a beautiful little movie where all the things you wish about running into your ex play out in a weird way. And I got to design another dress for Marnie. (The first one I designed for her was the plastic dress with the gold underskirt and bra in season three.) I loved it. The movie and the dress. And Marnie finally having a moment of self-awareness.

Who’s your favorite character? Who will you miss dressing the most when the show ends?

This sounds like a PC answer, but I really don’t have a favorite character. The joy of designing for the show is that they are all so different and evolving in different ways at their own paces. Just when I’ve got one girl’s looks figured out, another character goes in a whole new direction. Or the writers throw a period play in the mix. Or a commercial for Adam. Or Iowa. Or Tokyo. There’s always an awesome shenanigan happening that informs the clothes.

I’m going to miss them all. The whole lot. I’m not ready to process it yet and thankfully, I just started prepping season six so I don’t have to let go yet.

What is with the hair accessories? All the headbands and barrettes? Do they have a deeper meaning or are we just reading way too into them?

You’d have to ask our fabulous Hair Department Head, Sherry Hart. She finds all those amazing/crazy hair accessories. Sometimes we coordinate and sometimes I’ll show her the costume look and she’ll take it from there.

Weirdly, though, flower crowns are all me. I’ve done more flower crowns than I can count between Girls and Orange is the New Black. And I kinda hate flower crowns now. I made Jessa’s for her wedding in season one before everyone was wearing flower crowns to festivals. And I loved that flower crown. It had vintage silk flowers and vintage gold mesh for her veil. It was perfect for that moment. No one was wearing flower crowns. Now flower crowns are everywhere. I’d be OK with it if we collectively moved on. Now that I’ve said that, there will probably be flower crowns in every script from here on out…

You must have to completely change mindsets when switching over to Orange is the New Black. How does your costume design process differ with both shows? Any weird or unexpected parallels?

It’s good for my brain to design for two completely different shows with insanely different characters. The process is still fundamentally the same. I start by reading the script. I break down the script into scenes, characters and number of costumes in an Excel grid. I make shopping lists. I do research on character looks or events in the story or time periods. We shop, rent, swatch and make things. We do fittings and send out photos for approval. We get actors dressed for camera. The process is very familiar.

But the scripts are so different and the characters are so different that what you see on screen is a very different result. Orange has the unique situation of being half uniforms and half period flashbacks so the pace is very different. Weirdly, we shop at some of the same thrift shops for both shows. We just buy VERY different stuff. Although, my team and I joke that it’s a fine line between hipster and Amish.

While you’re in the thick of dressing a cast of characters in costumes that project not just their personalities, but also their character development, how do you find the energy to dress yourself?

I tend to dress myself based on my calendar and the weather report. So much of working in production comes down to where you’re shooting that day. If we’re shooting on our stages then I’m in my office and can wear ridiculous (read: fabulous) shoes. If we’re shooting on location then I’ll be outside standing on sidewalks or running between the set and my wardrobe truck. Sometimes actually running. In between, I’m out shopping and in fittings. Shopping for a living sounds incredibly glamorous until you’re the 17th person in line at Burlington Coat Factory as the store is closing at 9:30 pm and you’ve been shopping for that one thing (whatever it is that’s in the script, you still don’t have and work’s tomorrow) since noon.

In my life, I use clothing as armor. And I tend to dress for context. Basically, that means that I’d always rather be slightly overdressed for the situation, whatever it is. If I have an interview or a big meeting, I’ll dress for it, though I’ll take the tone of the project or topic of the meeting into account when pulling my look.

I’m the yahoo wearing rain boots with four-inch heels on set in the pouring rain because they are awesome and totally functional and ridiculous/fabulous.

Do you have a uniform?

I’m too much of a context dresser/fashion chameleon/emotional dresser to have a uniform. But I have a fall back of dark wash skinny jeans or light wash vintage Levi’s and a tent top. My favorite silhouette is the tent. Cashmere for winter, silk or cotton for summer.

Do you have any tricks?

Give me red lipstick and a heel and I can totally slay the day.

Do you ever take on the style personalities of the characters you’ve dressed?

Absolutely. I’ve been style stealing from Jessa for years now.

And how do you avoid dressing the characters like you? Or is that inevitable?

Once in a while a character will end up looking a bit like something I’ve been wearing on repeat for a month. Lena and Jenni joked that Abigail’s (Aidy Bryant) first look ever on the show was a Jenn Rogien homage; I happened to be wearing a lot of printed sweatshirts and statement necklaces that month. And it worked for the character. On the whole, though, I really focus on coming up with something that is right for the character and unique to them.

What’s the most annoying thing people say or ask you about as a costume designer of two hit TV shows? Sorry if I’ve already asked it!

Most people want to know what happens to their favorite characters. Dude, no spoilers here. And, also, I signed an NDA so I really can’t tell you!

How did you get into the world of costume design?

Looking back, I’ve been designing costumes since I was in grade school. I could have saved myself a quarter life crisis if I had recognized it. I started officially “doing costumes” in high school theater class. I kept ending up in the costume shop in college because I could sew but I never connected the dots to a career. I started my work-life at Saks Fifth Avenue but was constantly doing theater projects after hours. After about three-and-a-half years at Saks I realized that it might be time to make my after-work gig my day job. I went back to Parsons for a year to focus on design and construction and segued into costumes from there.

Any advice for readers looking to get into the same field?

Costume design isn’t about the clothes. Costume design is about the characters and telling their story. Often, the ugly or gross or unflattering choice is the right choice for the character in that moment. Designing costumes is entirely in service of the script. The costume has to support the writer’s vision, the director’s vision and the actor’s performance. A costume designer dresses everyone on screen, not just the star or main actors. A costume designer spends a huge amount of their time on logistics, budgets, production related meetings, managing crew, wrangling information, playing psychologist in the fitting room, fretting about prepping a whole episode in six to nine days and a little bit of time doing cool research and having great fittings. And nine times out of ten you will shop at Burlington, not Bergdorf’s.

If you’re still reading and not bored or scared, then to start, you should totally be a costume personal assistant. You’ll work crazy long days and do tons of returns. But if you click with a team, you get to grow up with an awesome group of people who will have your back when you get the call to interview for your first design gig.

If you could design for any TV or film character, what would it be and why?

Blades of Glory. The whole film. Or Blades of Glory 2 if that’s a thing. Please let it be a thing.

What’s one thing you wish someone would ask about your life and/or job? And what’s the answer?

I have two:

Q 1: How do you really feel about shorteralls?

A 1: I don’t really love shorteralls. But I LOVE the word shorteralls. The term came from a photo I emailed Lena from the floor at Forever 21 exclaiming that I had found THE look for Hannah for the next episode. I don’t remember exactly what episode but the photo was a bad shot of a rack of acid-washed denim rompers that I jokingly called shorteralls. Shorteralls really were the perfect thing for Hannah for most of season 2.

Q 2: Ballpark estimate: How many short-sleeved polo shirts does Ray Ploshansky own?

A 2: 11. Exactly.

Check out Jenn’s website and follow her on Instagram @jennrogien; photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.

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