In ABC’s new series “Pan Am,” the costumes are as important as the plot.
The series personifies the excitement of the Jet Age and pays homage to Sixties fashion, when air travel represented the height of luxury and the world was poised on the brink of a cultural revolution. Set in 1963, the series treats pilots as rock stars and all the stewardesses are glamorous and desirable. Apparel, accessories and undergarments underscore the cultural narrative — whether it’s a tailored, buttoned-up uniform in Pan Am blue or head-to-toe accessorized suits and dresses, all silhouetted in body-smoothing longline bras and girdles that illustrate the professional look of the era.
“Pan Am” joins several TV shows to be introduced this fall that will focus on a specific decade, such as ABC’s “Charlie’s Angels,” which depicts the Seventies, and NBC’s “The Playboy Club,” a drama set in the Sixties. These period pieces join retro hits such as AMC’s “Mad Men,” another melodrama of the Sixties, and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” a flashback to the Twenties.
Jack Orman, executive producer of “Pan Am” and a former writer and producer of “ER,” said an “aspirational element” is driving the popularity of period shows.
“I think our show is wishful, glamorous and nostalgic, and I think the imagery of that world is really interesting. … We’ve given viewers a world they can explore and remember,” said Orman. The year “1963 was chosen for a very specific reason — it was Camelot, a change of generation and forward-thinking movements like civil rights and the pioneering spirit of the space race.
“But it was culturally still a little bit in the Fifties. It’s great, because we’ve been able to show that change in fashion, and fashion is very important. The whole show is built on detail, it’s epic and big and yet lives in the details.…We had to remodel a 707 from scratch that was in the desert. We couldn’t have done this show five years ago, because we use a lot of computer graphics to transport the viewer to a different time period and a different part of the world,” Orman explained.
For Ane Crabtree — the “Pan Am” costume designer, who was born in 1964 — the time line provides an opportunity to look back at the politics, music, art and fashion she describes as “fascinating, exciting and liberating.”
“Even though it’s a period piece, Thomas Schlamme [an executive producer] told me they were not looking for just a costume designer but for a fresh eye, a designer with a filmmaker’s sensibility,” said Crabtree. “The whole [preproduction] conversation was about the culture and politics of the Sixties, feminism and the real people of that era…but the idea was to also make it current for viewers as well. I thought, ‘This was great, there have got to be a lot of fashion moments here.’”
Crabtree said creating a realistic ambience of the era through fashion was crucial in setting the framework for the actors.
“It’s important to psych the actors into thinking and dressing as if they were living the Sixties lifestyle.…Undergarments are hugely important, and psychologically help the actors to be in these [retro] clothes,” said Crabtree. “We use both vintage and modern styles. We often laugh because a woman’s chest often takes on a life of its own with those bullet-looking bras with cups that go off in two [east and west] directions. The longline bras make you stand taller and straighter. When you slump, it takes the whole show back to 2011. I tell the actors, even the extras, keep a straight back, because you are a gentleman, not a boy.”
Also projecting a Sixties look is the legwear. “It’s garters and stockings, sheer hosiery without elastic, so there’s no shine,” said Crabtree, who started her career in fashion as a stylist for Yeohlee.
The cast includes Maggie, played by Christina Ricci, a rebellious-bohemian-turned-buttoned-up-professional; Colette (Karine Vanasse), a flirt with a penchant for unavailable men, and the spirited Kate (Kelli Garner) and her beauty-queen sister, Laura (Margot Robbie), a runaway bride who fled a life of domestic boredom to take to the skies. There’s also Dean (Mike Vogel), a cocky, charismatic and ambitious new pilot, and co-pilot Ted (Michael Mosley), who hails from a family of wealth and privilege.
In addition to music and art, Crabtree said she researched the literary movements of the time, as well as the bigger-than-life personalities that influenced the scene.
“There was so much in music, art and fashion that I could interpret for the show,” said Crabtree, noting that during fittings she played tunes to set the Sixties mood like Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” “A Fine Romance” by Ella Fitzgerald and “Locomotion” by Little Eva.
“One of the most obvious influences was the myth of the Kennedy family, mainly because JFK’s presidency ended in ’63….The tone of what happened to the family can be seen through the clothes they wore. And there were so many other influences, like the Freedom Writers and civil rights, the sexual revolution, feminism…fabulous women like Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt….It was a time of the American Dream. I think this show is teaching me what the American Dream is, and it’s a huge part of the show because people weren’t as cynical back then.”
As for why period shows are gaining in popularity, Crabtree said, “We have been bombarded with reality shows, and we have huge access to everything and anything on the Internet. I think period shows mirror a time that people are looking to for hope and opportunity and something to believe in, a dream about simpler times.…They represent a feel-good time that’s also a curiosity for younger people who’ve had to deal with war, AIDS and today’s reality.”