Cult favorite-turned-Netflix breakout and Emmy-nominated best comedy “Schitt’s Creek” has many stars—not the least of which is the bombastic sartorial excellence that is Moira’s (Catherine O’Hara) wardrobe. Costume designer Debra Hanson (herself an Emmy nominee) reveals the series’ pitch-perfect inspiration, how she and actors establish confidence within one another, and the surprising resource every aspiring costumer should use.
How would you describe the role of the costume designer?
For the most part, the costume designer facilitates the vision of the writer, director, and actor for the character. We try, I believe, to put clothing on that fits their skin, so that they feel totally comfortable that the character has the right expression. Everybody, every individual in the world, every human being wears clothes—unless it’s a uniform—that expresses part of their personality. And so what the costume designer does is try to follow the arc of that character and express that character’s individuality in their clothes.
The costumes on “Schitt’s Creek” are iconic, particularly for Moira. What was your jumping-off point for finding the look of the series?
It came from both Catherine and [series co-creator] Dan Levy. It really was about [English socialite] Daphne Guinness. It was just an expression of somebody who was incredibly assured of themselves and free and brave. It was initially Catherine’s idea, and then she and I spoke about it, and then we just jumped into it. We don’t have the millions and millions of dollars that Daphne Guinness has, so it was a real search to see what we could find out there, whether it be secondhand or on sale, and quite often, interestingly enough, the wildest items are not the most expensive. We trolled the internet for, like, six years, looking for things. We really couldn’t go to the stores and get them. Dan was very clear about what he wanted, which was real pieces, and then costume jewelry, because [on the show] they had already taken all the [expensive] things, and Moira hoarded all her costume jewelry.
Does a character who dresses like Moira require a completely game actor?
The thing about Catherine is that she is so brave, and she enjoyed it so much that we could be quite outrageous with our choices. And the hair and makeup people totally contributed as well, and then the wigs just became a personality of their own with the clothes. The collaborative effort was amazing. [You have to read] an actor’s reaction, whether it’s good or bad. We would all go, “Mmm, no. That doesn’t work.” And then we would go on to the next piece. Sometimes we went too far, believe it or not, and Dan would say, “Bring it back.” Other times it was “That’s a great base, but now we have to push it further,” and it was always a discussion between Catherine and Dan, myself, and hair and makeup. But in the upcoming season, there’s one costume that we all contributed to—it was such fun, and I’m sure you’ll know what it is when you see it.
You did set design before costumes; what made you transition?
I chose to do costumes at that point in time because I found it more interesting to talk to the actors and find out who they were and what they needed. I think that’s why I have been successful in my film career, because I know how to analyze a script. We’re taught how to have an overview. We know how to work with actors, for the most part. They’re not bodies to us. It’s not just the physicality of it, it’s the mental discussions that are really important, and no matter whether it’s a tragedy or comedy, it’s still trying to express human nature and the decisions that those individuals make in their life.
At what point do you welcome actors into your process?
I always hope they welcome me into their process. Depending on who it is, you may know what kind of work they do, but if you haven’t met them, it’s a mystery, so I like to listen, first of all. I do not project my idea of the character. In the back of my mind, I have come to some of my own conclusions, but I’m quiet about that until I hear what the director has to say, and then what the actor has to say. There has to be that kind of collaboration; I just listen to what the actor has to say for a while, then I mix that all up, and I try to translate that in my own way. When we go into the fitting room for the first time, hopefully, there is an expression of the three ideas: the actor’s, mine, and the director’s in a mélange. I don’t go off on a crazy thing until I’ve seen their reaction, not until I feel that the actor and I have confidence in each other.
How do you develop that confidence?
I think the main thing is that every person in the world wants to be listened to, actors more than anyone I know. I had an actor last week that I hadn’t met before, and we had a talk on the phone, and she had a few concerns, and she popped by, and I said, “Oh, I want to show you what I’ve done,” and I said, “Now, one piece is something you said not to do, but there was just something about the texture and the feeling of it that I liked, but I’ve done this and this that you liked,” and she went, “Oh, my God, you listened to me.” That’s always the point. In any kind of relationship you have to build, you just have to listen to each other, and if you do, the trust is built and you can go crazy, and then you can laugh and say, “Well, that didn’t work, but we tried it.” You have to be brave, but you don’t want to scare people right off the top. You have to get your own ego out of the way, because it’s not about you. It’s about the character first and then the actor.
Do you think that costume design—when done well—can help an actor discover their character more deeply?
Absolutely. I think it gives them the freedom. But you have to reach the point where you push it a little bit. You see how that works. Sometimes it’s just what they’re comfortable with, physically or mentally, and you give them choices and then you go back to what you feel is best. I don’t show them their photograph that we take [in wardrobe], either, and I make sure that the photographs are “true,” so that when we look at them, it’s not just about being pretty; it has to be an expression. We hope it’s an expression about that character, or their feeling about the clothes they’re in. You’re constantly trying to feel why they’re uncomfortable, if you think it’s right, and it really is translation all the time.
What piece of advice would you offer to aspiring costume designers?
Read history. I know my art history, but I also know my social history, and I know it from medieval to modern. The more you read about history, the more you understand humanity, the more you understand an individual, the more you understand how they express themselves. I don’t actually think Moira is outrageous. She is who she is. How did she become that person? She’s an actress. She’s had millions of dollars. But her humanity is there, so what is it? When do you wear something soft? When do you wear something hard? So that’s my best advice: Listen to people and read history.
This story originally appeared in the August 22 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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