How the 'Masters of Sex' costume designer brought the show into the '60s
Masters of Sex has reached the ’60s. Over the course of “Asterion,” the seventh episode of the show’s second season, the setting jumped between 1958 and 1960. That posed a challenge for costume designer Ane Crabtree, who had to reflect the changing of the times in the characters’ garb. In fact, director Michael Dinner showed people quite literally “walking through time,” explained Crabtree. As Annaleigh Ashford’s character Betty DiMello, now working for the sex researchers, led guests through the lobby of Masters and Johnson’s new office building, both the outfits and the years changed. “I watched it twice because I couldn’t believe how successful [Dinner] was and how he really gave me a platform to show off the clothing,” Crabtree said. “But it was so so subtle.”
Last night’s episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” revealed that in the new decade Masters and Johnson will get more serious about exploring sexual dysfunction, Libby Masters will witness a hate crime that will jolt her out of complacency, and someone from Bill’s past will arrive. And what will the year mean for the show’s style? Crabtree talked to EW about venturing into the ’60s, and sent us some of her behind-the-scenes photos, featured below.
EW: You had to show the transition in time very subtly in “Asterion.” What was your approach?
CRABTREE: On this series everything is so subtle—the acting, the storyline, the clothing, the look of the show—that trying to prep for something like that was really daunting. I normally don’t have that kind of creative fear, but there was something about being true to the real storyline of these two people and making a jump in about 45 minutes. You can do it badly very very easily, and you can also sort of showboat through costumes very easily. I probably over-designed by 10 times and then pulled it way back.
How did you think about specific characters?
I always start with Bill Masters. He doesn’t change much until the ’80s, and even then there’s a semblance of how he always dressed. What you will find is moments of poignant, pure color choices depending on what was going on in the scenes with Virginia and his mother. It’s subtle, but it might just be a wee bit more infused to punctuate a scene. Virginia has been either very dark this season—as in black or navy—and/or white in the frame. Within that I tried to add or remove color, but I always want her to stand out because she’s very alone.
There’s one notable scene where we all sort of gasped and held hands and danced around for joy. That was at the birthday party [at the end of the episode] with Libby and Virginia. She’s lean and beautiful with dark hair and giant eyes, so she looks like Audrey Hepburn. I won’t apologize for using Audrey Hepburn as inspiration because everyone does. She stands as someone who was visually appealing and fantastical. With Lizzy [Caplan], the choice of using a simple black cashmere turtleneck and lean jeans was to show that we never get to see Johnson on her day off. I wanted to show that she’s still a young woman—she’s in her 30s, which was older back then—but she’s a mom and she’s busy.
Funny Face—one of the films that featured that classic Audrey Hepburn look—came out in 1957, but the show takes place a couple years later in St. Louis.
I’m from the South and Midwest and the truth of the matter is, before the Internet, it was always sort of ten years behind. If you lived near Chicago, maybe just five years behind. Fashion information travels at the speed of sound now and back then it would have taken awhile before people had access to fashion magazines and Hollywood actresses. Why wouldn’t Virginia be inspired by Audrey Hepburn and/or Leslie Caron? She resembles both.
With the women on the show I try to break it down pending their age and their life experience. So if you’re talking about Virginia, I look to European films and perhaps singers of that time that would have actually inspired her. You can’t help but understand that Jackie Kennedy was a huge icon for every American woman. I look at all of that and I pare it down.
What about for Libby and Betty?
I wanted to see lightness in Betty. For Libby it wasn’t heaviness, but rather seriousness—a tone indicating that appearances matter. I’m quite excited by late 50s and early 60s fashion so we took a lot of our favorite pieces because we were starting to amass and build so much and we said, ‘Oh man, this is the perfect time’ because nothing is a crazy color except for perhaps Betty in her lemon yellow with white polka dots.
We decided that we were going to have fashion moments with Betty. She’s still old-fashioned even though she’s a character who’s caught trying to be this liberated free woman in many senses, but because of her old profession she hangs onto sexuality and femininity in a way that can be conveyed through her clothing. For Libby it’s about always being correct in society and upholding a certain level of class and respectability because she’s also taking care of her husband’s reputation. She must always be that lady.
Is there any one character you feel is more affected by a change in time?
With Libby you will find out in future episodes [including last night’s, “Mirror, Mirror”] that she is, I think, the most affected by the times in the way that she is a very young woman who was held prisoner by a certain construct of who she thought she should be. Certain events that are kind of earth shattering will happen. She will be most affected, and that will be represented in her clothing. It’s less about the year and trends and more about her world being torn apart so she has to be reborn in the spirit of something more revolutionary.
Creator Michelle Ashford has said the season ends in January 1961. How 1960s is the fashion going to get?
We are in St. Louis here, so there will not be a giant leap forward. It would be wrong for the viewer and wrong for the story and it would jolt everyone almost into parody. I’m just holding fast to each character, and of course I’m paying attention to 1960 because we’re there, but I’m not saying I will only do fall 1960 because actually what I’m doing is anywhere between ’55, ’56 to 1960. It might hang there for a while.
Underwear is important to the show. I was wondering if you see a change in that going forward?
It’s funny that you talk about this because it’s something that we said the very last week of Masters. What’s interesting about underwear to me is that as we move out of the ’50s and into space age fabrics, like stretchy knit blends and polyesters, the colors become more poppy and exciting, but they’re not as cinematically beautiful and erotic. They are more sort of like cute bright yellow and turquoise and hot pink. So that makes it feel more young. And honestly I love that you ask because it means that I should really pay attention before next season.
This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.