By Lindzi Scharf
August 08, 2013 at 01:00 PM EDT
Bob D'Amico/Disney Channel
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Move over, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens! Disney’s Teen Beach Movie debuted to a whopping 8.4 million viewers, besting the numbers of the High School Musical franchise and making instant stars of lead actors Ross Lynch and Maia Mitchell. In true Disney fashion, the made-for-TV-movie includes wholesome song and dance numbers and a G-rated wardrobe. To dress the young cast, the network called upon an unlikely player — Ruth E. Carter, a costume designer best known for wardrobing gritty Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which hits theaters on August 16.

“Disney is colorful and family fun,” Carter says of Teen Beach Movie, the story of a group of teenagers who suddenly find themselves in a 1960s musical ala Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo, a reference that was likely lost on the film’s young stars. Keeping that in mind, the designer dressed the cast in bright shades of orange, yellow, red, and blue, all while under the eye of the network’s Standards and Practices department, which oversees potential moral, ethical, and legal programming issues. “I had to do a lot of presentations to let them know what direction I was going in. Even though the bikini became the big rage in the ’60s, I couldn’t use them. I had very strict guidelines.”

Among the other challenges Carter faced were Disney’s rules on branding. “Once they find an iconic outfit for that character, they think of that character as kind of like a brand or like a doll,” she says. “They go through what they’ll all look like [and will say,] ‘Oh, the doll would have a pink leather jacket and pink boots, just like Barbie.’ Or, ‘Oh, this guy, he’s going to be like our Fonzie or our James Dean, but he’s going to have a red shirt and a black leather vest.’ Once they found their iconic image, I didn’t change very much.” True to form, licensed clothing, home décor, dolls, lunch boxes, and school supplies will be hitting Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys ‘R’ Us soon, according to WWD.

Carter isn’t surprised by the overwhelming response to the film’s classic 60’s style. “People [have] always loved the ’60s. As they get introduced to it again they go, ‘Oh, yes, hip-huggers! Capri pants! High-waisted swimsuits!'” she says. “[People] get reacquainted with it every year. Mad Men, I don’t know how many seasons it’s been on the air, but people can never get enough.”

Click on for more of Carter’s insights on the colorful costumes seen in Teen Beach Movie.

In lieu of bikinis, Carter dressed the female cast in full-coverage, high-waisted bathing suits, halter tops, colorful cover-ups, and petal pushers. The guys were outfitted in gingham, striped, and Hawaiian-print board shorts. Carter sourced some pieces from vintage collectors like The Way We Wore and Palace Costumes, filling in the gaps with pieces from wallet-friendly brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, Keds,  J. Crew, and Levi’s.

One of Carter’s favorite parts of working on the musical was embracing the surreal plot. “Even if the [time period] changed in the story, I’d just keep them in the same stuff,” she remembers. Like most musicals, Teen Beach Movie‘s characters jump in and out of song, locations, and costumes. “Things didn’t have to necessarily make sense or be explained. Somebody could actually jump into a scene and start dancing, and all of a sudden, they have on the same clothes as everybody else. Then [they] walk out of the scene two seconds later and [are] back in their swimsuits. That part of it was fun.”

“[The ’60s is] an era that represents youth,” Carter says of the film’s period wardrobe. “It’s very wearable. People always love it.”

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