By Lindzi Scharf
October 23, 2013 at 12:30 PM EDT
  • TV Show

The wardrobe seen on The Middle seems typically middle-American, but a lot of thought goes into dressing The Heck family. In honor of the ABC comedy’s 100th episode (tonight at 8 p.m. EST on ABC), EW asked the show’s costume designer to share her style inspirations, go-to clothing stores, and Sue’s fashion dos and don’ts.

“The two writers, DeAnn [Heline] and Eileen [Heisler], are from the midwest… they had a lot to do with the direction we went in [in the first season],” designer Julia Caston said. “I would hate to have [viewers] in the middle of the country saying, ‘We don’t dress like that!’ I want people to see themselves in [the characters].”

It’s Frankie (Patricia Heaton) who acts as the sartorial barometer. “If you’re a mother of three, you don’t really spend money on your clothes, you spend it on your children’s clothes, especially if you’re working hard to keep a budget. I always want her to appeal to all of the mothers out there,” explained Caston, who stocks the Heck matriarch’s closet with pieces from Target, Gap, and JC Penney. “I try to keep [her look] clean, nothing too fussy.” And though Caston is sometimes tempted to work a designer label, Heaton is vigilant. “Patty keeps me in check. Any time I bring her something a little more high-end, she’ll say, ‘Come on, you can get that at Target!'”

Each character has a signature style, but it’s the always-optimistic Sue Heck (Eden Sher) whose wardrobe often stands out. “In the very beginning [she was] a wallflower, so we were asked to pick color tones that were [practically] invisible, palettes that were really youthful and innocent,” explained Caston. She’s still not one of the cool kids, but Sue has started to wear fashion-forward brands like Isabel Marant and Band of Outsiders. “We’ve kept the color, but she’s still got her own, wacky style.”

Read on for Caston’s rundown of Sue’s dos and don’ts.

Do: Do-It-Yourself 

“I try to do something DIY every single episode,” said Caston, who added a crochet rainbow to Sue’s pink A.P.C. sweater — which she paired with purple pants from Madewell — in the season three episode “The Paper Route.” “I’ve gone online and looked up ‘Awkward Family Photos’ and seen some fantastic sweaters that I’ll have [my team] recreate. As often as I can, I like to create things for [Sue] because she’s super-fun to dress.”

Do: Use Flora and Fauna

In the season one episode “TV or Not TV,” Caston paired a vintage vest featuring a unicorn detail with a teddy bear appliqué sweatshirt. “Each one [of Sue’s outfits] always has a theme. Her favorite animal is a horse or a unicorn. Her favorite food is strawberries, [but she’s] branched into mushrooms,” the designer explains. “There are so many girls on TV shows that are mean girls. Sue is one of the few girls that’s just trying to be herself. We keep her young and happy.”

Don’t: Dress to Fit In

While visiting family in Pittsburgh, a member of Caston’s wardrobe team found the t-shirt Sue wears in the season four episode “Winners & Losers” at a Salvation Army. Caston layered it over a long-sleeve Old Navy thermal, mustard yellow pants from Forever 21, and a DIY necklace to create an outfit that was quintessentially Sue. “[She is] a free-thinking person, and her clothes reflect that. She wants to belong so badly, [but] she’s really more of an individual,” the designer said.  “Eden has grown into such a great woman. She’s always got great ideas [for Sue] and… very rarely will she say, ‘I can’t wear that! Are you crazy?’ Most of the time, she’ll just put it on. I don’t have to fight her like, ‘Please put the sailboat shorts on with the ladybug shirt.’ She’s up for anything.”

Don’t: Be Afraid to Mix-and-Match

In the season four finale, Sue sported a vintage cardigan, Old Navy shirt, and Free People pants — each in a different print — along with her signature Juicy Couture unicorn necklace and personalized backpack. “I never [want] her to look like she [is] trying too hard. When I’m picking an outfit her, I’m always thinking, ‘How does Sue match her shoes to her jewelry? Does she match her shoes to a special little detail on her shirt?’ She’s very weird about how she matches,” Caston said. “I always make sure there’s some sort of thought process behind how she puts her outfits together.”

Do: Blaze a Trail

Caston estimates that she’s created around 800 outfits for Sue over the course of the last five seasons, which averages out to 8 costume changes per episode. “In the beginning, it was hard to find her clothes…. Now, for some reason, it’s much easier,” the designer said of looks like a sleeveless boys’ vintage shirt — customized for Sue with a DIY appliqué, natch — seen in the season four episode “Last Whiff of Summer.” Has Sue Heck become a style icon? Not exactly, said Caston. “There’s a new wave in fashion now, I call it ‘hyper Americana.’ It’s straight-forward and colorful, and the lines are very clean. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The 100th episode of The Middle airs tonight at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

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