Clothes make the character -- Costume designers for "ER," "NYPD Blue," and "Chicago Hope" talk about how to create an authentic look

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Jessica Shaw
Updated December 23, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Chicago Hope

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Clothes make the character

Does clothing make the character? Would NYPD Blue‘s rumpled Det. Andy Sipowicz be as appealing — or as believable — if he sported Armani suits instead of Kmart gear? Probably not. But rest assured: There are network wardrobers busy right now making sure Sipowicz will never don a designer jacket.

For characters on ”reality-based” shows — those that stake their claim to fame in large part on their degree of verisimilitude — God is certainly in the details. Herewith, the clothes police reveal how they create that ”real look.”

The Show: My So-Called Life The Look: Angst-ridden East Coast suburban teenagers in flannel, Levi’s, gas-station shirts, and overalls. The Philosophy: ”The great thing about kids today is their clothing,” says costume designer and sometime director Patrick Norris. ”They don’t have cars, they can’t go (out) and drink. They have their bodies to express themselves.” The Research: ”I’m 41 years old, so (getting the right look) definitely took research,” Norris says. ”I went cruising some high schools, but I based the wardrobes on the individual characters, so it didn’t end up looking like 90210 or Blossom.” How Real Is It? ”We have a responsibility as designers not to rip off kids — they don’t have $12,000 for a weekly budget,” says Norris. Instead, the show’s wardrobers depend on staples ”from thrift shops to Fred Segal’s. You can even get (the character) Angela’s stuff at Bullock’s.”

The Show: Sweet Justice The Look: Small-city courtroom couture — feminine, pastel suits (many custom-made) and understated jewelry (pearls, small gold earrings). The Philosophy: As opposed to, say, L.A. Law, the skirts here are longer, the patterns more subtle. ”The clothing has to have the movement and flavor of the South without making it into a Tennessee Williams antiquated South,” says designer Diana Eden, who tries to keep things traditional, but with a modern touch. As for Cicely Tyson (who plays attorney Carrie Grace Battle), she sometimes gets ”designer clothes — lots of Armani — because her character has earned the money.” The Research: Since the show is shot in L.A., Eden relies on occasional visits to relatives in the South. ”It’s the little details that pay off,” she says, citing a pin for Melissa Gilbert’s character (Kate Delacroy) that Eden had inscribed with Delacroy’s (fictitious) grandmother’s initials. How Real Is It? ”We did an episode that involved midwives, and I asked (real midwives) what they wear. Later, we did one with flashbacks to the Civil War. I looked at Eyes on the Prize to refresh my memory,” says Eden.

The Show: NYPD Blue The Look: Uniformed cops, detectives in street clothes (i.e., blue jeans and casual shirts, or jackets and ties), scantily clad prostitutes, grungy students, leathered and bejeweled drug dealers. The Philosophy: ”Cops don’t dress as badly as most television (shows) dress them,” insists costume designer Brad Loman. ”They dress relatively well when they’re on special assignment.” But he does admit that Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) — with his loud, clashing ties and shirts — is the stereotypical poorly dressed detective. The Research: ”Our technical adviser was a homicide detective who connected me with a lot of other detectives,” says Loman, who also designed the costumes for Chicago Hope. ”I go to New York four or five times a year to get its eclectic look and (bring) it back to L.A.” How Real Is It? ”Everything on the show is real — (even) the patches, the badges,” says Loman. ”We work in full compliance with the city of New York.”

The Show: Chicago Hope The Look: A hospital is a hospital is a hospital (in other words, scrubs). The Philosophy:: Even if a doctor’s clothes are covered by his white coat, says Loman, ”the audience really needs to believe that the doctor wears everything else (underneath).” The Research: ”I’m from Chicago, and a bunch of people in my family are in the medical profession,” says Loman. ”So I can always call and say, ‘In this situation what would we do?”’ How Real Is It? The blue scrubs and white lab coats are from Angelica Uniforms in St. Louis. ”Our technical adviser, Linda Klein” — who was formerly a surgical nurse — ”is a stickler for detail, so if I don’t know something, she’ll find people I can talk to,” says Loman.

The Show: ER The Look: Did we mention a hospital is a hospital is a hospital? (Yep, scrubs again.) The Philosophy: ”Doctors in this country are revered as godlike creatures; our (show’s) doctors seem to be more real,” says costume designer Lyn Paolo. ”We dress them down because ER guys don’t make a lot of money — we’re talking 20 to 30 grand a year.” The Research: ”We have a whole team, including writer and technical adviser Lance Gentile who (used to work as a physician) in an emergency room,” says Paolo. ”And (writer) Michael Crichton (who has a medical degree) also worked in an emergency room. In the beginning, we went to emergency rooms around the country, and now we talk to the police, fire departments, and hospitals in Chicago regularly.” How Real Is It? ”The weather in Chicago” — where the show is set — ”is one of the main determining factors” of what the cast wears, says Paolo. But, she acknowledges, ”It’s tough when it’s 110 degrees in L.A. and they’re covered from head to toe in subzero parkas, wobbling their way to the set.”

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Chicago Hope

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