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Suburban Chic

“Desperate Housewives” is a throwback to the prime-time soaps of the Eighties.

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UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — What is “Desperate Housewives”? A reason to watch television that doesn’t involve courtrooms, boardrooms or espionage, but rather adultery, mystery and great clothes. Not since the deliriously over-the-top soaps of the Eighties has prime time seen such a juicy cast of women, with pitch-perfect wardrobes and storylines to match.

If the manicured gardens and perfectly pastel houses of “Desperate Housewives” seem slightly unreal, it’s because, like everything on Universal Studios’ back lot, they’re just a facade. Beyond the Bates Motel and the artificial lake where the “Jaws” shark resides lies Wisteria Lane, the fictional setting for the ABC show that premieres on Sunday.

It’s where Bree Van de Kamp, played by “Melrose Place” alum Marcia Cross, waters her lawn each morning in piped cardigan sets, matching visors and pearls, and where Gabrielle Solis, played by Latin bombshell Eva Longoria, seduces the lawn boy wearing La Perla lingerie.

In the wardrobe trailer, costume designer Cate Adair toils to make each woman look the part. “We wanted a heightened reality, and for some of that, particularly Marcia’s character, I went back to Fifties and Sixties iconography,” she says.

“The girls are prepared to run with it. They have seven to nine costume changes per episode, because Bree wouldn’t water the lawn in the same outfit as she would wear to see the principal.”

Cross says, “Bree is pretty buttoned-up and pretty darn conservative.”

Her neighbor Susan Meyer, a divorced book illustrator played by Teri Hatcher, is much more relaxed. Her wardrobe contains colorful pieces by Joie, Walter, Free People, Loy and Ford, Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent, Rebecca Taylor and Nanette Lepore.

“What makes our show different than what you had on ‘Sex and the City,’ which really was about the relationship among four women, is you’ve got individual dramatic storytelling going on,” says Hatcher. “They’re also willing to look at the dark side of friendship. It’s not all about, ‘It’s great hanging out and getting our nails done.’ I keep thinking Sarah Jessica [Parker], who was so brilliantly fashion-ized in her show, would be the antithesis of Susan. While Susan would fantasize about looking that great, she would not know how to put that together. She’s a hard character to define fashion-wise because she’s sensual but accidental and not perfect.”

On the other hand, the resident man-eater Edie Brick, played by Nicolette Sheridan, wears deliberately sexy Gucci satin and leather pants.

Felicity Huffman, who plays harried mom Lynette Scavo, says her wardrobe is more utilitarian. “I didn’t have the clothes inform my character. I think about what Lynette does all day and I need comfortable pants and comfortable shoes that I can run after small boys in.”

The only housewife without children is Gabrielle Solis, an ex-runway model who’s bored with suburbia. Her wardrobe includes sexy halter tops, tons of bling and 4-inch Manolos. “I feel like a Barbie doll in my fittings because there are no limits,” says Longoria. “Gabrielle’s not confined by the definition of a normal wife. And she is always inappropriately dressed. She will go to the supermarket in a gown and a funeral in a low-cut dress. I’m surprised that she’s friends with these women or that they are friends with her,” she laughs.

One of the pilot episode’s funniest moments is when Gabrielle steals away from a black-tie gala to mow the lawn because her dalliance with the lawn boy is about to be discovered. “That’s classic Gabrielle, and classic everyone on the show because it’s a moment of desperation, of ‘This is the only choice I have, mowing the lawn in an Eduardo Lucero gown and an updo.’ That’s where the dress becomes a character.”

— Marcy Medina

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