Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. costume designer Ann Foley explains how to dress a superhero
'It's not a fashion show. That’s not what our mandate is'
If you’ve watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and coveted Daisy Johnson’s clothing, or that Blondie shirt that Melinda May wore undercover, or one of Mockingbird’s many outfits, you’re familiar with Ann Foley’s work as the series’ resident costume designer. Foley is just one of the many unsung heroes that help make a world of Inhumans, secret agents, and superheroes a little more stylish … and a lot more interesting. It’s a job that goes beyond simply scouring the Internet and picking the most popular outfits, and for Foley, it starts where almost everything in television starts: on the page.
“I take my cues from whatever’s in the script,” she explains to EW. “And obviously each script has its own set of challenges throughout the season. That’s where we start, and then depending on what’s happening with the characters … if it’s a costume that has to be built, we start fabric-swatching, doing illustrations. If there are costumes that are civilian looks, then it’s just a matter of shopping.” While Foley does a majority of her shopping online (Shopbop is her go-to), she also has two shoppers that go out on the streets in her stead.
It’s not quite as easy as picking a look and calling it a day, though. “For me, it’s about the character. And the needs of the show are so different from some other shows that are more stylized,” says Foley. “We don’t have a lot of high-end labels on the show, because they’re not really needed. But we do have a lot of fun designers and I would say that we cover all sides of it. I’ve got stuff on the show from Rag & Bone, all the way down to Topshop.” For Foley, there’s an important mantra that comes with choosing clothes for characters: it doesn’t matter where it’s from, as long as it makes sense. “Bobbi wears a ton of LuLulemon but she’s also in G-Star, and her boots are Stuart Weitzman,” she explains. “And even with Coulson … in season 1, a lot of his suits were Hugo Boss and in season 2, I moved into some custom made suits for him, changing his silhouette. And this season, when we moved more into his more badass civilian look, again, it’s all over the map. It’s All Saints, it’s Hugo Boss … he’s got a jacket from Acme, and then the jacket that he wore in ‘Closure’ was Ralph Lauren.” In that same sense, Foley’s job goes beyond simply picking an outfit. As a costume designer, she uses her wardrobe choices to add depth to characters that the audience feels close to.
Having been with the show since its premiere in 2013, she worked closely with showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen to create a basis for each original character that’s evolved over time, just as their plotlines have. “What’s been interesting is watching their transition and their arcs as they grow, and staying true to their characters through their clothes, but also trying to reflect the changes in them emotionally,” Foley says, citing the darker half of season 2 and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. “And specifically with Fitz and Simmons, I think they’ve had the biggest arc out of anyone on the show. You saw them grow up in season 2, but then you really saw a shift and a change in season 3, especially with Iain [De Caestecker].” Recognizing that the events of last season’s finale and the beginning of season 3 represented a turning point for Fitz in terms of “growing up,” Foley created a look to reflect the fact he’d become, as Foley puts it, “a man.” “We really started stripping away a lot of those prints and a lot of those patterns, sort of streamlining his look. It’s a little simpler than it has been,” she says. It’s the same process for Simmons, who also underwent a harrowing experience that changed her fundamentally. “What she went through on that planet was incredibly intense and very extreme, and I wanted what she was wearing to reflect what she had gone through. That’s why when she came back, you just saw her in a simple tee shirt, and jeans and sneakers and a hoodie,” says Foley. “It was about comfort, it was about simplicity and then stripping away the patterns that were so familiar to the audience in season one and season 2.”
Taking it one step further, Foley emphasizes the importance of how the character’s journeys and their outfits go hand in hand. “If Fitz was still the same person he was emotionally in season 1, this current outfit wouldn’t make sense,” she says. “I will say that we have some amazing fans on the show, and I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with a lot of them on Twitter, but they notice everything. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job, because they really appreciate the fact that we didn’t put Simmons in anything but a hoodie to show the post-traumatic stress she had when she got back from the planet. Even Fitz being in a lot of blue was playing a little bit of color psychology, like I did last season with Raina. Blue is a more calming color for when he’s around Simmons.”
Tailoring day-to-day clothing as they relate to characters’ developments is just one aspect of the job: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, after all, a show about superheroes. Which means as much as Melinda May can kick some butt in street clothes, comic characters like Bobbi Morse’s Mockingbird and Daisy Johnson’s Quake require careful design so that they’re both comfortable and functional. Those are two important details that Foley centers on — along with being able to move and perform stunts easily — when she’s creating an outfit. “Everyone gets wired, and you have to sometimes think of that, as well,” says Foley. “That’s why the base of a lot of these suits are always going to be stretch fabrics, and then we print on top of them to give them a really cool texture. And even with their civilian stuff, I always think about that as well: they have to be able to move, they have to be comfortable. Otherwise, that creates a whole other set of issues.” Foley goes on to describe an added hurdle: S.H.I.E.L.D. is a superhero show, but it’s a superhero show that requires a realistic touch. “Our show is based in reality, but it feels more tactical and it’s a little edgier and darker,” she says. “I don’t want Quake or Mockingbird or even May standing out too terribly from Coulson when they’re going out on a mission in his civilian stuff. I wanted it to feel cohesive. And not like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on there’? So hopefully, we achieved that.”
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So what have been Foley’s favorite outfits or looks to work on? “I think undercover is my favorite thing to do on the show,” she says. “And one of the highlights for me was definitely May in her Blondie shirt, and Hunter, when he was undercover a couple weeks ago in his Damn The Yanks T-shirt and hoodie, and Bobbi in a suit. That was so much fun because we’ve never done that, and I love getting to put them in stuff they normally never wear.” Don’t go congratulating Foley on the brilliance of Hunter’s T-shirt, though. While lamenting, “I wish I could take credit for that,” she reveals that gem came from episode writer DJ Doyle. It’s just one example of how collaborative the costume process is.
“I talk to all of the actors. These are their characters, so I always work it out with them in the fitting,” Foley explains. “After we get the script and we read the script, I have a costume meeting with the writers and the director of the episode and we talk about each one of the characters that are arriving. If someone has a specific idea in their mind about who the character is, from that point, we start shopping. And whenever someone is cast, I make a phone call and we have a conversation, and if they have specific ideas, I always welcome those. Because sometimes, the actors or even writers will bring a cool idea or a thought to the character that I didn’t necessarily think of.”
Still, no matter how creative you are, doing 22 episodes of television has its share of challenges. “It’s always going to be a bit of a challenge when you’re creating made to order superhero costumes on a television schedule,” Foley admits. “But I’m really proud of this season in general. I think one of the things I’m the proudest of is how each season has its own specific look, in that each one is so different but still stays true to each one of the characters. You still completely recognize who they were from the previous season.” Her current favorites? “Right now, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Quake costume,” she reveals. “It was so much fun, and Chloe completely rocks it. And I have to say, I’ve really loved with what we’ve done with Fitz and Simmons this season, and then badass Coulson. It was so much fun to see this new side of him and dressing him in this new civilian look.”
Don’t worry, though: Foley’s aware that dressing superheroes all day — especially for a cast as close-knit as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — isn’t exactly a bad job. And being able to see the fruits of her labor each week, whether it’s in the fitting room or on the small screen, makes everything worth it. “You can see the shift immediately when they put something on that resonates with their character … they know that I’m not just throwing labels on them, because it’s not a fashion show,” she says. “That’s not what our mandate is. That’s what costume design is: it’s creating a character. And it’s important to the cast and it’s important to our fans.”
The good news: Through Instagram and Twitter, Foley is always happy to help fans out when it comes to finding that elusive, favorite look. The bad news: If you’re looking for that coveted Blondie shirt … well, you might be out of luck. “It was from Shopbop and it sold out during the show,” she reveals with a laugh. “Someone tweeted me and found out where it was from, and it was gone before the show was over.”