'Orange Is the New Black' costume designer Jennifer Rogien on styling Litchfield Prison
Most of the time spent on screen in Orange Is the New Black is in uniform, in orange (or khaki) as the title suggests. Inmates look alike. Guards look alike. There’s little variety. Why, then, would the show need a costume designer?
It’s a question that Jennifer Rogien, costume designer of the Netflix hit, often faces. She sees merit in the query, telling Entertainment Weekly how seemingly ridiculous her position could be construed on a very simplistic level. But, within this community of orange, Rogien says, “There is a whole world of tiny details to worry about.”
Inmates make slight changes to their uniform, many breaking the rules, to express their individuality. “It comes down to very distilled, very subtle distinctions,” Rogien says. “Is this character a rule breaker? Not just that one big rule that landed them in prison, but are they just generally trying to push back against authority? If so, what are the small ways that we can reflect that in their uniform? Are they rolling their pant cuffs when they’re not supposed to? Are they rolling their uniform at the waist when they’re not supposed to? Are they rolling their uniform sleeves up when they’re not supposed to? Do they essentially live in their hoodie at all times even though, yes, the hoodie is a commissary item, but really, they’re only supposed to wear it after prison work shift hours?”
The mind of a costume designer. The alterations are minor but highly noticeable — anything that goes against the uniform stands out. These alterations, then, are very telling about the characters. Rogien — who is also the costume designer for Girls — points to Alex’s (Laura Prepon) cutoff thermal as an example, explaining that because it is against the rules, it says something about Alex’s world and her mentality. She is very much a rebel.
Between seasons 1 and 2, which just premiered last week, there were little changes in uniform or personal style within the prison. Red (Kate Mulgrew) is still almost always in her grey hoodie and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) is frequently seen in her wife beater, to offer a couple of examples. This, of course, was wholly intentional. “On [the prison] front, it was very uniform and it was very unlike other TV shows that I’ve worked on where each season you move it forward just a little bit to reflect the characters’ emotional journeys, to reflect the passage of time,” Rogien says. “In this case, because of our content, we wanted to do exactly the opposite. We wanted to keep it consistent, both to reflect the story and to reflect that not that much time has passed.”
Within the context of the show, about a month passed between seasons, and the series is about halfway through the 15-month sentence of its protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). That said, there have been some slight differences in costume this season. Though the show takes place in prison, it features many flashbacks, which span about 50 years. Rogien points out that most of the flashbacks in the first season were of Piper or other characters with relatively recent history. This season, however, OITNB went as far back as the ’60s to show Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) in her protesting heydey. (Side note: Fowler also appeared in Sister Act and Sister Act 2 as a choir nun. Déjà vu, anyone?)
With so many different styles to cover, it’s a wonder how Rogien makes the costumes feel so authentic and appropriate to each and every time period she covers. The secret: “We do a ton of research for those flashbacks. That’s actually one of the most fun things to do on the show. We head off to the New York Public Library. We actually go to the library, which I don’t know if anyone does anymore.”
This research can vary from online, depending on the period, to catalogs. But Rogien is quite clear that fashion magazines and runway images are not part of it. “Our characters aren’t socioeconomically from that kind of world, so we specifically go after catalogs where everyday people would legitimately buy clothing,” Rogien says.
Beyond expanding its time frame, this season there are also a handful of flashbacks with the prisoners — namely Piper, Taystee (Danielle Brooks), and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) — as children. The challenge was realizing these characters as their younger selves. “You and I may not look anything like we did when we were children, but in the context of a series, there needs to be a little bit of character continuity, particularly when a totally different actor has been cast to play a version of a character,” Rogien says. “There needs to be something similar so that the audience knows right away who it is that they’re looking at.”
Young Crazy Eyes, for example, wore bright pink fairy wings, something she might not necessarily wear now but is very much in line with her still childlike sense of wonder. Not to mention, she later sported her signature hairstyle: small, coiled balls of hair precisely positioned through her head. Continuity, people.
Then there’s Piper’s style evolution to consider. The show consistently talks about how much Piper has changed in prison — or has been changed by prison — and her style reflects that. In the flashbacks, Piper’s style is wild while dating Alex and classic while dating Larry. When her relationships become muddled, and her attitude changes, her style does too.
This season, when Piper (spoiler) is granted furlough to say goodbye to her dying grandmother, viewers get a small taste of her current style. (At a mock job fair earlier in the season, other inmates showed off their current style as well, as they showcased appropriate work outfits; see photo above.) Piper wears a three-quarter-sleeve plaid dress with bright blue heels and a smoky eye to her grandmother’s wake. A little edgy, a little preppy; a little Alex, a little Larry.
But context is everything. Who knows what her current style would be like, outside of a funeral setting, if she were to get out today? Rogien’s guess: “I think it would be a bit of a hodgepodge. She is literally in between everything in her life, so I think it would be a little bit of a scramble.”
So what will season 3 bring? It’s hard to say, as the chain gang is currently in the middle of only the first episode. “We’re just getting our feet wet, but it’s shaping up to be a great season,” Rogien says. Meanwhile, the OITNB obsessed are already counting down the days.
Read EW’s Orange Is the New Black season 2 recaps now.
Orange Is the New Black
Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.