LOS ANGELES -- Even vintage-inspired costume designers need a thoroughly modern muse.
For longtime film and television costume designer Ruth Myers, nominated this year for an Emmy for her tailored 1930s and '40s-based dress slacks and suits in the HBO movie "Hemingway & Gelhorn," that muse came in the form of the film's sleek, svelte, 5-foot-10 co-star Nicole Kidman, whom she worked with on the 2007 movie "The Golden Compass."
"Nicole has the best bum in the world. She has the perfect figure," Myers said at the recent Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising party for its sixth annual "Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" exhibit.
Myers and other Emmy-nominated costume designers came to celebrate the clothes from multiple shows and TV movies, including "Hemingway & Gelhorn," FX series "American Horror Story," PBS favorite "Downton Abbey," ABC's fairy tale drama "Once Upon a Time" and HBO's Prohibition-era series "Boardwalk Empire." Copresented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the exhibit runs Tuesday through Oct. 20. The 64th Primetime Emmy Awards airs Sept. 23 on ABC.
The gray wide-legged, high-waisted trousers worn by Kidman as Spanish Civil War and World War II correspondent Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway's third wife, are on display with a textured beige cardigan and rose-colored blouse. Myers gave the look, so in line with the current high-waisted pants trend, a contemporary twist, using vintage fabrics recut and redesigned.
"I wanted to be true to the period, but also modern," said Myers. "The pants are not totally accurate. In the 1940s, the crotch area was more droopy. These are somewhat more flattering."
"Downton Abbey" may be taking fashion the other way -- injecting some period flair into modern design, cited as a muse by the likes of Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren. Six looks are on display from the show, which last season revolved around the British aristocratic Crawley family during World War I. A long, smooth dark blue velvet dress with sheer paneling worn by Maggie Smith as matriarch Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham, stands near a long-sleeved floor-length brown velvet coat paired with an off-white gown decorated with swirling rows of beads and lace worn by Elizabeth McGovern as American heiress Cora Crowley, countess of Grantham.
Other standouts from the exhibit include a gloriously bright yellow halter bathing suit with a matching yellow and black striped A-line skirt with black buttons from Starz series "Magic City," set in 1959 Miami, a stiff red and gold embroidered Mandarin-style top worn by Peter Dinklage in the HBO fantasy "Game of Thrones" and a classic lipstick red shoulder-baring cocktail dress from soapy ABC drama "Revenge."
Costume designer Chrisi Karvonides, nominated for an Emmy for the first season of "American Horror Story," was inspired by multiple actresses on the show, including Jessica Lange, who played a ladylike neighbor with a killer edge, and Connie Britton, who played a pregnant wife and mother living in a mansion haunted by murder victims of decades past.
The show's creator, Ryan Murphy, didn't want the audience to know by the clothes what period the characters were from, or whether they were alive or dead, said Karvonides. Lange's character Constance Langdon wore cinched '60s and '70s dresses with a Southern air of Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire." A red wrap silk knit dress on display is literally blood red to have "a strange glow" in the light, said Karvonides, because it's worn during an especially bloody scene.
"Jessica is the most elegant actress you could hope to work with. It was never about choosing beautiful items of clothing. It was always about the character," Karvonides said. "Connie has broad shoulders, so she could carry loose shapes beautifully."
As for the black rubber S&M suit worn by Dylan McDermott and other actors on the show, it's also on display in all its skintight glory. It turns out a half dozen suits were used because they ripped easily, said Karvonides.
Lisa Padovani, Emmy nominated with co-designer John Dunn for '20s-set "Boardwalk Empire," said she saw both Steve Buscemi, who plays the show's lead, Atlantic City gangster and politician Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, and Gretchen Mol, playing a mother and burlesque stripper, as hybrids of old and new.
"Steve's body type is an old-fashioned body type. He's not a body builder. He's slim. He wears the clothes well," said Padovani, who added that it's harder to fit suits on men with muscles. And Mol's slim hips and long legs made her easy to dress: "What we consider a model to look like began during the '20s."
The costumes, made in New York by a shop of eight sewers, are mainly handmade from vintage fabrics, with even buttonholes hand stitched on suits. The three-piece plaid one worn by Buscemi on the show is on display complete with his signature cardigan. A long-sleeved blush-hued dress worn by Kelly Macdonald as Buscemi's love interest is embroidered with dainty white flowers and piping.
For Eduardo Castro, nominated for a costume design Emmy for "Once Upon a Time," current designers such as Rodarte, John Galliano, Paco Rabanne and late designer Alexander McQueen cast a long, muse-worthy influence on his interpretation of the show's modern take on fairy tales such as Snow White and Red Riding Hood.
The FIDM exhibit has 16 costumes from the show, from a gorgeous dark bamboo velvet overlay dress encrusted with Swarovski crystals worn by the Evil Queen, played by Lana Parrilla, to a white wedding gown with a fitted bodice and full skirt of feathers worn by Snow White, played by Ginnifer Goodwin. It took hours to make, with fabric imported from Paris.
"I wanted to keep in mind it's very accessible to the public as a romantic fairy tale, not avant-garde," said Castro. However, a new Snow White outfit he's designing for an upcoming episode of the show's second season, being filmed until April, will be more edgy, he said, and guided by the artistic, rebellious visions of McQueen.
So what is the real appeal of period costumes, with so many shows now set in the '60s, such as "Mad Men," and earlier? Maybe he's being humble, but Castro said it goes beyond style.
"It goes to the writing. 'Downton Abbey' is one of the most perfect costume shows done," said Castro. "It echoes the writing."