Costume designer Isis Mussenden has been given the project of a lifetime: re-creating the fashion, fantasy and fun of the hedonistic days of The Playboy Club in the Sixties.
Mussenden, whose background includes costuming fantasy features such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Shrek 2,” took on the challenge of costuming “The Playboy Club,” the upcoming TV series for NBC, because she loved the idea of mixing the glam and glitz of the era with a sense of historical reality.
NBC describes “The Playboy Club” as a “time and place that challenged the existing social mores and transformed American culture forever. It’s the early 1960s, and at the center of Chicago lies the legendary and seductive Playboy Club, a living, breathing fantasy world filled with $1.50 cocktails, music, glitter and, of course, beautiful Bunnies.” The TV drama airs Sept. 19.
In order to establish a historic adaptation of the Playboy Club in its heyday, Mussenden researched the club’s protocol and rules, spoke with former Bunnies, read books written by Bunnies, and studied the culture, politics and music of the decade. She also pored through vintage fashion editorials in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from the early Sixties to capture a glimpse of glamorous moments of American fashion. A lot of fashion inspiration gleaned from the magazines is translated to apparel and accessories worn at decadent parties hosted by Hugh Hefner at the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago.
“This project had more research than most. The Playboy magazine alone documented the time line and the world of the Playboy Club…I needed to see what it was and come up with what we wanted for the project…What helped was everybody had a memory of Playboy, whether it was ‘My dad would take me to The Playboy Club’ or ‘My brother worked at the Playboy Mansion.’ I started with the Bunnies, because this is a story about the girls and the club and how they became Bunnies. Some would wash dishes or drive the kids to school by day and were Bunnies by night,” said Mussenden.
Creating the Bunny suits was the biggest challenge because the skintight costumes rely on a perfect fit to keep the garment in place on the body.
“In the early Sixties, the Bunny suit was unstructured and quite loose, and the girls wore big bunny ears. We pushed it to the second generation with smaller ears and added cuffs. The corsetry is completely built into the suit, which has no stretch and has stays and boning to hold it up. The original suits were of silk satin, but we are using a cotton-back satin because of the luster and beauty of the fabric,” she explained. “The fit keeps the suit on, because it is a corset, but corsets don’t traditionally have a crotch, so you have to get a combination of girth, the right waist and the right tightness.”
Mussenden said the original Bunny suits were custom-made for each Bunny and featured the correct bra cup size, a fitted waist and a high-cut leg. The same applies to the TV series characters, such as a shy, young Bunny called Maureen, played by Amber Heard; Bunny Mother Carol-Lynne, portrayed by Laura Benanti, and Brenda, a beautiful African-American Bunny played by Naturi Naughton.
“Each girl would get two suits that were worn on rotation, and the suits never left the club — they were laundered there. The girls could come to the club naked, like Lauren Hutton, who was a Bunny and came to the club wearing only a trenchcoat and shoes, because she would have to get undressed anyway,” said Mussenden. “And there were 10 colors…Black was for senior girls like Bunny Mothers, all the redheads got green suits because it looked good with their hair color, and girls of color wore shades like baby blue, pink and yellow because it showed their skin color better.”
For the TV show, Mussenden said she purposely dressed people in the background of the club in neutrals and monochromatic colors.
“That way the Bunnies stand out dancing in bright, beautiful colors,” she noted.
Mussenden said one of the most fascinating details of becoming a Bunny was the audition process.
“It wasn’t about having huge breasts. It was all about how well proportioned your breasts were to your body…but the girls still wanted bigger breasts and many would cut their bunny tail in half and stuff it in their bras,” Mussenden said.
Regarding legwear, shoes and accessories, Mussenden said “nothing personalized was allowed, just a name tag.”
“Wearing no personal accessories or jewelry created a sense of mystery about the Bunny and who she was,” continued Mussenden. “They would wear two pairs of pantyhose for comfort and fit, but they had to be sheer to the waist, with no reinforcement at the crotch area, because of the high-cut suits. In the show, we layer a nude pair underneath sheer black pantyhose for a tight look and a sense of security. We’re using the cheapest pantyhose out there, Leg Avenue, because it’s allover sheer…Shoes were dyed to match the suits, three-inch stilettos, and their feet always hurt…they would pour cold club soda over their feet to relieve the pain.”
Meanwhile, lingerie plays a big role in the show.
“We have tons of lingerie — while the girls are changing in the Bunny Room at the club, or when they’re in the Bunny Dorm at the mansion. And there are a lot of authentic period pieces like sheer baby dolls and robes in beautiful colors of that era, like salmon, light pink, aqua, olive and some touches of marabou,” she said.
As for men’s apparel, Mussenden described the look worn by Eddie Cibrian, who portrays a slick playboy named Nick Dalton, as “fashionable and sexy.”
“There are some fabulous suits with fabrics from Asia like sharkskin, which were tailored for him in Los Angeles, and we have vintage ties and cuff links….What’s interesting about this [Sixties] era is we’re depicting fashion before the Kennedy assassination, when President Kennedy didn’t like hats, so men didn’t wear hats. But after Camelot, men started wearing hats again. Throughout the show, you can see fashion shifting to a wilder, crazier time, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are at the forefront, the Pill was introduced, women were burning their bras, and it was more about Twiggy, not curves and Marilyn Monroe.”
So will Hefner play a part in the show?
“He’ll make a few comments, but you’ll only see the back of his head, hand or shoulder. It’s kind of ‘Charlie’s Angels’-esque,” she said.