How the Friends costume designer created each character’s style
From those teeny tiny T-shirts to Ross in the leather pants
As the 25th anniversary of Friends’ debut approaches, we find ourselves compelled to revisit those six caffeine-guzzling Manhattanites and all the things that made their laugh-tracked lives so irresistible — including their enviable ‘90s wardrobes.
Costume designer Debra McGuire, who worked on the iconic sitcom throughout its 10-year run, worked closely with production designer John Shaffner and set decorator Greg Grande in developing the show’s unique aesthetic, which aimed to be “a little bit more interesting, aspirational, just kind of like visual candy,” McGuire tells EW. “Something that people would want to be a part of.”
McGuire wasn’t trying to chase trends — though she did end up setting a lot of new ones — when she dressed the iconic sextet. “I come from a fine art world, I’m a painter, so my perspective is a little bit different,” she says. “Really, I’m not interested in fashion — I’m interested in creating something that no one’s ever seen before, where we’ve got a two-dimensional surface, and how do we deal with that two-dimensional reality to make it something that’s interesting that we haven’t really seen?”
How about making it six-dimensional? “I wanted the six of them, that were together most of the time in the space, to look really amazing together,” McGuire says. “So that was challenge number one: how to differentiate everybody and to really support the characters of who they are, what they do for a living, what their taste level is” — all while making sure they harmonize visually.
McGuire’s second challenge was keeping it New York; they couldn’t look like a group of pals in Chicago or, god forbid, Los Angeles. “So for me, a New York palette is a basic of black, white, and gray, and so what I decided to do from the beginning in creating these characters was to give everybody [their own] palette,” the designer says. Starting with…
“Her palette was primarily kind of greens and blues, and in terms of the pieces themselves, they were a little bit more refined, I would say, in the beginning,” McGuire says. “And then there is an evolution of when these choices become hers, not just something you could buy at Bergdorf Goodman. [She’s] someone who has so much and then has no value of what she has, and then sort of takes on a reality of having to value the things that she gets because she’s the one making the money to get them.”
She started making that money by working in the coffeehouse, wearing a memorable series of tiny skirts and printed aprons to do so. “We loved making all of those tops and all the aprons and all the accoutrements for her looking adorable in that space, and her kind of being in control of her look in that space, because she would have [been],” McGuire says. “And then as we evolve and she gets jobs and starts to work at Ralph Lauren, then the level of sophistication kind of starts to change.”
For better or worse, Rachel’s look resonated with viewers at the time — especially those teeny crop tops. “In the early years, I became very friendly with the girls from Juicy, who were just starting their company,” McGuire recalls. “They had this cut to their T-shirts that nobody else had — they were tighter, they were more body-conscious, they showed some midriff, so I was crazy about their stuff and I used it a lot, and it kind of really set a look for a lot of young people. Which was a good thing and a bad thing, because I was raising a young daughter and didn’t really want her to be wearing those little T-shirts. I had to really sort of kind of have a consciousness about it at all times, because I know that I was setting things for young people that, it’s not necessarily what I believed was appropriate.”
Monica, too, went through a few different career changes, “but she stayed pretty clean,” McGuire says. “I kept her in this black-white-gray-burgundy world for a long time, and then she became a chef and that suited her really well.”
If fashion comes back every two decades, this round of Friends nostalgia is riding the current ‘90s style wave (not to mention the ‘90s’ own penchant for ‘70s throwbacks) flawlessly — especially in the case of Monica’s understated look. “It’s interesting now how the attention is to Courteney’s wardrobe as being iconic for the ‘90s,” McGuire observes. “I find that really fascinating because sometimes as we look back, we have a different perspective. And there’s more relevance to it now, in a way, than there was even then. Part of her character was to be a little under the radar to look cool, but now it’s become sort of the iconic ‘90s.”
Monica may have been the sleekest Friend, but McGuire was opposed to making any of them overly casual. “In the beginning, [co-creator Marta Kauffman] was encouraging me to do a lot of jeans and casual, and I fought back against that idea because I thought if you’d turn on any other TV show you’re going to see people sitting around in jeans,” the designer says. “I was like, yeah, I think if we’re going to make this aspirational, they have to look amazing. Plus, I lived in Manhattan, and I never wore a pair of jeans. Nobody went to the Odeon at night in jeans. Nobody was, like, hanging out with friends and going to gallery openings in jeans. So I wanted it to be that New York, that world.”
Artsy Phoebe had a more visually dynamic wardrobe than minimalist Monica. “Where I’ve got the blues and the greens with Jennifer and I’ve got the black and white and grays with Courteney with some burgundy and red, I’m bringing in a palette of florals and sheers and fabrics that move and things in her hair and lots of jewelry. I really wanted to bring in that element of flowy, feminine patterns,” says McGuire, a self-proclaimed ex-hippie. “I didn’t want it to be sort of bringing back something; I wanted it to be reminiscent of bohemian life, but I wanted it to have a more contemporary feeling.”
Behind the scenes, Phoebe got a wardrobe boost after Ross’ wedding in London, where McGuire expanded her horizons by meeting with British designers and checking out international showrooms. “There was a company called Idol London that I really resonated with at the time and bought lots of amazing things for Phoebe,” she recalls. “The thing I wasn’t committed to, though, is I didn’t want any designer, if I used a designer piece, to think that I was going to use their piece as-is. I took the liberty to be able to cut arms off, shorten it, add things, you know, but I wanted things just to be so unique.”
Before she was turning down unalterable designer duds, McGuire endeavored to make as much as she could from scratch, even for the boys. “I started [Chander] in the beginning with vintage, a lot of vintage clothes, tweeds, vintage ties. I did all those shirts with the racing stripes down the side,” McGuire recalls. “I remember my dad wearing those in the ‘40s. That was his look, and I thought it was such a great look, so I was inspired by that.”
But with six main characters (not to mention guest stars), each requiring multiple outfits per episode (some with eight to 10 day changes, McGuire recalls), and only a few days after getting the script to assemble them all, it became impossible to produce new vintage-inspired shirts for Chandler every week. “When you make clothes you have to have a lot of fittings, and the schedule did not permit that, because we worked so fast and furious,” McGuire explains. “We made all those shirts in the early days. And then it was interesting because then there were companies that started doing that retro look in the years following.”
As an unemployed actor, Joey was a good foil to 9-to-5 Chandler and professorial Ross. Working on the pilot, “I wanted to use kind of an old leather jacket that had character, and what’s interesting is I ended up buying an Armani leather blazer and kind of beating it up,” McGuire admits. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I hope no one can tell that it’s Armani.’”
Outside of his disguised designer outerwear, Joey’s signature style was defined by texture. “He wore a lot of chenille sweaters and flannel shirts, and I kept him in a very tactile, soft palette as well as texture,” McGuire says.
“Ross was our professor, so he dressed appropriately,” McGuire says. “He had patches on his elbows, and he was very tweedy and very corduroy.” Except, of course, when he wasn’t — who could forget the time he buys, and then struggles to wear, a pair of leather pants in accordance with his New Year’s resolution?
“Oh my God, that was hysterical,” McGuire remembers. “I have to say, these six actors are so brilliant in terms of everything — their timing, and their physical humor. You really noticed it when guest stars came in, and guest stars could be really famous movie actors, and they would be blown away, and feel very intimidated.”
Co-creator Marta Kauffman was very involved with the wardrobe department, especially when the costumes had to pull double duty as comedic elements. “We had a wardrobe joke in every script. So not only did we have to get all these massive amounts of clothes, we had to sort of hyper-focus on what the wardrobe joke was for that week,” McGuire explains. “The leather pants, that was huge, you know? And having to rehearse, and getting it right — couldn’t get ‘em off, couldn’t get ‘em on! Had to act in ‘em!”
Another memorable wardrobe joke comes in “The One Where No One’s Ready,” in which Joey, retaliating after Chandler hid all of his underwear, puts on all of Chandler’s clothes at once in a moment that also apparently inspired Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection, which included a $9,000 parka highly reminiscent of Joey’s prank, by which McGuire was “very flattered.”
There’s nothing like the original, though, which was a bit of a feat of engineering. “It opened from the back. And we literally sewed all these pieces that looked like they were one on top of the other, but it was actually one garment that you walked into,” McGuire says. “Interestingly enough, I’ve had to do that on other shows. [On] Speechless, for Minnie Driver, it was a similar kind of thing, and I was like, ‘Oh, I know how to do that!’”