I got my start in the entertainment industry writing about the behind-the-scenes people on my favorite shows. This article was originally written in 2003 for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine.
If you thought keeping Sunnydale free of evil was a tough job, you should try keeping its inhabitants dressed for success. With more than twelve regular cast members, one or two weekly guest stars and a dozen extras and bit players per episode, costuming Sunnydale is a Herculean job.
This season, Matt Van Dyne is at the helm of this wacky ship. Matt got his big break in Hollywood working on the daily news series, Entertainment Tonight. From there, Matt dressed Murphy Brown, Heather Paige Kent in That’s Life and he recently worked on the acclaimed, gritty cop drama, The Shield. Even with all of his previous experience, Matt admits there is nothing quite like working on Buffy.
“There aren’t many shows where you can design for demons!” Matt fishes around on his desk and produces a drawing of a well-dressed but formidable looking monster. “And last week,” he says, producing another drawing, “we did a bunch of Greek Gods in togas and before that we re-created Spike’s family in the 1800’s.”
Some of Matt’s ideas come from the art history he learned while studying theater costuming in college. The rest is pure inspiration and imagination. Cannibalizing bits of off-the-rack clothing is a favorite trick of Van Dyne’s. The pink fur trim off of jacket from Wilsons Leather becomes the final touch to a shirt from Urban Outfitters. A jacket from the rack is perfect for Faith – almost – Matt distresses the fabric and roughs up the hem to make it look a little less ‘finished’.
And then there are the times when inspiration walks right in the door. “We were working on a scene where all of the potentials would be dressed in pajamas. Vi (actress Felicia Day) came in for her fitting wearing this little rainbow-colored knit cap. We thought it was so cute we built on it. I found a sweater in our collection that was rainbow striped, but it didn’t make sense that she would be wearing a sweater to bed. So I called in our seamstress. She cut a huge hole in the front of the sweater and turned it into a shrug (a kind of short jacket that is just sleeves and a back). It was perfect and it started us down the path of creating a style for Vi. We try to find a look for each individual character, something that works for their personality, but fits into the theme for the whole season.”
But creating the season’s “look” is only half the battle. Organizing the chaos into a workable flow is the rest.
The wardrobe department for Buffy is a large open room filled with two dozen rolling racks loaded with clothes. The racks are labeled by episode and character and a quick glance at any one of them tells a story. Rack Episode 17 is big on browns and grays – foretelling of a coming storm? A set of clothes for a young boy hangs in front. Who is this child? And how will he impact the plot?
The eye is drawn to a portion of the rack loaded with trendy shapes and fifties tablecloth-style patterns. These belong to Dawn and Molly. Willow’s section is packed with warm natural colors and fibers while Rona’s twelve inches hold nothing but basic short sleeve tees and jeans. Spike might actually get to change his clothes this episode (granted it’s not much of a change) as he returns to the punk rock look of his past. As the least costumed character in the show, James Marsters is probably happy to be free of his plain T-shirt for even a few minutes of film.
One wall of the wardrobe department is devoted to a bulletin board of Polaroid pictures, one for each character and costume that appears in the current episode. Beside that is a white board with a huge calendar listing what’s needed, when and where – not only are they dressing people for Episode 17, but their fitting costumes for Episode 18 and planning for 19. Marie Boller is in charge of keeping the flow. She spends her days measuring, matching and multiplying dozens of shirt, skirts, slacks and shoes with the help of two assistants.
Lorna Firman is the shopper. She takes Matt’s ideas then scours the local malls for clothes to fill the bill. The major department stores all have studio liaisons that track down exactly the right size and color of the items needed from their stores. It is Lorna’s job to pick up these items, bring them back to the studio for try-ons then return anything that doesn’t work. On this day, she re-bags and tags ten different items, which must be returned to the stores. While she’s out, she’ll make a stop at Macy’s to pick up a single shirt that’s on hold for Faith and another at Bloomingdale’s, but before she can make it out the door a crisis stops the action. Due to a change in the shooting schedule, Buffy and her fighting potentials now need a third set of duplicate clothing – a set that can be stained to look as if they’ve been fighting in a winery. Ah! That explains the bottles of grape juice and jars of grape jelly that are next to buckets on the floor.
Forgetting her errands for the moment, Lorna sits down at her desk and starts dialing the phone. She calls store after store looking for a rare pair of Dickies overalls that Rona will be wearing in the fight scene. As if on cue, Rona’s stunt double, Francine Morris arrives for a fitting with her 18-month-old baby in tow. Layla Ross plucks the costume from the rack, sets Francine and baby up in a dressing room then searches for a pair of Steve Madden sneakers that belong with the outfit. She has two pairs in her hand, but neither seems to be the size they ordered for Francine. Francine ends up with one size to big, but she doesn’t mind. “At least they’re sneakers,” she says as she corrals her little one. “Better than fighting in high heels!” Something Buffy’s female stunt doubles know quite a bit about.
Paperwork! Marie settles down behind her desk to write up the budget for the added set of clothes. She’ll need to have this approved before Lorna can go shopping. She’s just about got it together when the production office calls to say they’ve removed one character from the fight. It’s somewhat of a relief, one less to worry about. The scene is shooting in just three days and the costume crew is still trying to figure out how to get the stains to look right. Their tests with grape juice and jelly haven’t proved successful – the results not quite dark enough to be seen on camera. They’ve decided to enlist the help of a professional – a company that hand dyes fabrics. Though it’s not far away from Buffy’s studio, someone has to run over to the dye company and pick up the mixture they’ve developed. That’s one more stop for Lorna who still hasn’t made it out the door.
Meanwhile, Francine’s wardrobe fitting is complete and she’s on her way, leaving the dressing room available for Tom, another stunt player. He’s going to be shooting a ‘pick-up’ scene – a fight that was shot for an earlier episode that needs to be re-shot due to some technical problem. Since he has to match the film that was shot a week earlier, Marie refers to continuity photos in order to get his costume just right.
Continuity photos are instant Polaroid pictures that are shot of every actor at the end of every scene. This job goes to the set costumers, Nadine, Rene and Jordanna. Between them, the three girls are responsible for dressing the actors at the start of each scene, making emergency repairs for rips or tears, and keeping continuity from minute to minute or week to week. The photos the girls take of today’s shoot will be kept in a binder and shelved along with the photos of every other episode going back to Buffy’s beginnings. Costumers have had to consult these photos for a number of episodes where flashbacks were used. Spike’s subway slayer fight from last season needed to be recreated this season – and fans being the eagle-eye watchers that they are – the costumers can’t afford to work from memory alone.
It’s late afternoon and finally, Lorna is ready to head out with her notebook full of sizes, colors and want lists. Marie has her budgets finished and approved and Layla is fitting Buffy’s stunt double, Melissa Barker, who is also managing with a new baby on her hip.
Matt Van Dyne has arrived after a successful morning shopping trip and he’s pumped and ready to start working on the next episode. It’s the countdown to Buffy’s big finale and that can only mean one thing – more. More people to costume, more monsters to design and more challenges for Matt and his team.
Hey, for a town that’s two-hours away from the nearest Nieman Marcus department store, Sunnydale sure has style.