Like every conversation for the past several weeks, talking to costume designer Jeriana San Juan has to start with the coronavirus.
Just a few weeks ago, San Juan was in the middle of fitting Ewan McGregor for his costumes in a Ryan Murphy-produced miniseries for Netflix on famed designer Halston. She got a call that everything had to stop. Production was being shut down “for an indefinite period” because of public health mandates around the spread in the U.S. of the coronavirus.
“We’d already been taking precautions, like starting to use rubber gloves,” San Juan said from her home in New York. “But I’m grateful Netflix paused when they did. The situation could have been we were asked to continue and then we’d have to make the call for ourselves.”
As for whether she sees her work going back to normal in the next few months, if ever, San Juan is keeping positive, albeit admitting Hollywood studios and agencies “are trying to find their way through.”
But her most recent finished work as costume designer for “The Plot Against America,” an adaptation by David Simon and Ed Burns of the Philip Roth novel for HBO, was done pre-COVID-19. It mainly follows the Levins, a middle class Jewish family in New Jersey led by Zoe Kazan, Winona Ryder and Morgan Spector, as they try to navigate an alternate history in which the U.S. never enters WWII and instead gets a president in Charles Lindberg, who’s very cozy with Hitler and a rising Nazi Party. San Juan and her wardrobe team made thousands of costumes without wearing masks or gloves. A simpler time that she’s not sure will come back.
For now, all work on hold anyway, San Juan took a look back at her work on “The Plot Against America.” She discovered Winona Ryder’s “infatuation” with vintage clothing, made a new friend in Zoe Kazan (who, like San Juan, had a baby just a few months before work on the show started) and learned from a small book in an archive what was deemed “acceptable” behavior for Jewish single women of a “certain age.”
WWD: Starting with all that’s going on with the coronavirus, since it’s on everyone’s mind, do you think your work will change in any real way?
Jeriana San Juan: I do think the approach will change. There’s no way we can all come out of this and not try to rethink how we could be doing this. To address how viruses are passed, any of that cross contamination that we’re now all so hyper-aware of. I don’t know how it can’t translate into our everyday lives after the curve flattens.
WWD: Yeah, we’re all germaphobes now.
J.S.J.: Basically. I’ve used Purell, I’ve washed my hands regularly, but now it’s a whole new heightened sensibility of it. Now I might consider wearing a mask when I’m working. I might consider wearing gloves whenever I can while working with people or in fittings. There will also be a level of comfort that you’ll have to address with each person you’re dealing with who may have a different feeling about it.
WWD: So with this project, it feels very prescient, but the book came out in 2004. Of course with Trump and the rise of fascist-tinged populism, but also the reactions people seem to be having now around the coronavirus.
J.S.J.: In terms of the heightened xenophobia or nationalism or socialism, all of those ideas are so relevant right now in our country. As much as it is an alternate history, there are story points that are completely accurate. Charles Lindberg was heralded as an American hero and celebrity and he was also a friend of Hitler and a nationalist. There was in fact a rally at Madison Square Garden where people came together and saluted Hitler and talked about how Jews are to blame for drawing America into World War II. Those are facts. The show is in many ways reminding America of its own accurate history.
WWD: In the approach to the costumes, it seems like for the first couple of episodes there was probably plenty of source material, but then after Lindbergh is elected and we refused to join the allies in WWII, there were probably some roadblocks.
J.S.J.: Well, certainly. Because it is an alternate history, it was a difficult vocabulary to find visually. So much of what we see as iconically Forties is so directly driven by the war effort at the time and our involvement in WWII. So I tried to bend things a little bit in terms of the accuracy of what real Forties history looked like. There’s a lot of silk that Evelyn [Winona Ryder’s character] wears, a lot of red silk. It’s an alarming color, so we tried to integrate that as the story progressed.
WWD: With Evelyn, she stands out in part because of her clothes and makeup. She looks pretty chic honestly, especially relative to the other main characters. Is that because she’s single and childless or a signifier of her personality?
J.S.J.: It was very much a response to the fact that she’s a single woman and a character that was very interested in Hollywood movies, in dating. When I was doing research, I came across at the Jewish Historical Society a handbook for unmarried Jewish women of a certain age…
WWD: Oh God…
J.S.J.: Yeah. And in that book — it’s tiny, I went through it with white cotton gloves in the archive, it’s beautiful — in it is written things that were acceptable or unacceptable for Jewish women of a certain age. It describes how women sitting shiva would be allowed to wear makeup, which is unorthodox, but because they were still seeking a husband it was deemed acceptable.
So, Evelyn got to wear more signature bright red lipstick, and some of her clothes were pulled directly from some late Thirties Barbara Stanwyck movies. With her character, I was allowed to celebrate some more Hollywood-inspired silhouettes and suits.
WWD: Most of the show you’re following a typical rising middle-class Jewish family, but was there any difference at all in how people in that community dressed at the time, or it was pretty much the same as anyone else?
J.S.J.: It was pretty much the same and that was one of the very first things I discussed with the directors and producers, and David Simon. I talked with them about when you talk about a Jewish family living in the suburbs, how the conversation really shouldn’t change around what they’re wearing versus what any other nationality is wearing. It’s about their experience as Americans. I wanted them to look as quintessentially American as possible. I went to images that feel American as apple pie, like Norman Rockwell images and paintings featured in the Saturday Evening Post, a lot of photography, like Helen Levitt.
WWD: Did you work in any actual vintage or did you make everything for the show?
J.S.J.: I made so much for this show because we’re dealing with a very specific palette. But I did use a lot of vintage in the inspiration process. And I used a lot of vintage with Winona, she has kind of an infatuation with vintage clothes and they fit her well. I’d often use a vintage apron or house dress or suit, and then I would be very curative about the colors we were using. The Levin family is primarily in blues, yellows and browns, in part because we wanted to edit out the color red from the family. We were trying to be very careful about that color and its introduction into the story. As the show moves through, you’ll notice a more stark palette. More black with oxblood, dark, dark browns and reds. White and very cold navy. It becomes more dramatic with the colors.
WWD: In terms of collaborating with the actors, since it’s a period project, was it more “This is what you’re wearing and we just need it to fit,” or was there a good amount of collaboration?
J.S.J.: Any costume design that I do, generally, is on some level a collaboration with the actor. If casting is in order early enough in the process, I really try to involve the actor because it is a partnership. What I do as a costume designer is try to facilitate and help an actor find their performance. In designing these costumes I was able to work directly with Morgan, Zoe and John [Turturro] and Winona, all the cast really, in finding some things that helped shape them physically or emotionally in the right way.
WWD: How do you feel about the end result of the show overall?
J.S.J.: Oh, I don’t know. I’m my own harshest critic. I honestly think the show is very beautiful overall and it really sets a mood which is very important. And I think the fashion is really there. It’s an easy pitfall to turn it into a Forties spectacular of fashion because the fashion of the Forties is so iconic and so kind of bizarre and over the top, with these wild hats and crazy exaggerated silhouettes. It’s hard to navigate it and to not turn it into a fashion show, to keep it quiet.
That was the one of the clearest directives from the directors and David Simon. That really it was about telling the story as accurately and poetically as possible, but truly to not indulge in the costume of it all.
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