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Interview: Grace & Frankie's Emmy-nominated costume designers

by Nathaniel R

One of the most satisfying moments of Emmy nomination morning was the contemporary costume nomination for Grace & Frankie. The Netflix sitcom starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin is hot off its third and best season. The writers and creative team seem to know the characters and their interpersonal dynamics, in and out at this point. That intimacy is abundanctly evidence in the terrific costuming. Until the television Academy split off their costume design category into period and contemporary, their was little opportunity for designers who specialize in contemporary clothing to be honored no matter how strong their work - exceptions like Sex and the City were all too rare.

I had the opportunity to discuss Grace & Frankie's worthy and vibrant work with its three nominees Allyson B Fanger the costume designer, Heather Pain, her assistant costume designer, and Lori DeLapp the costume supervisor. Their overlapping answers, despite their separate duties, and light ribbing over the abundance of statement piece jewelry worn by Frankie were ample evidence that they're totally in synch.

That's true whether or not their subjects Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are seeing eye to eye in any given episode...

Grace & Frankie dress nothing alike but, depending on their moods within the show, their costumes can be at odds or wonderfully complimentary. 

There are a lot of moving parts to the big job of costuming the show. Allyson concentrates on the principle cast and storytelling through character while Heather, who recently joined the team, handles less frequently seen characters and last minute changes with day players and the like. Lori handles the office duties, scripts, scheduling, clearances and budgets. "We couldn't do anything without her!" Allyson and Heather interrupt joyously.  Lori also breaks down the script to create "episode boards." The team shifts around the looks in velcroed fitting photos for each scene until Allyson is satisfied. 

Why are you all drinking in a clump?

The episode they chose for a submission tape was "The Art Show," an astute choice but a last minute one. Allyson rewatched episodes and changed her mind  "I felt like it was stronger in showing Grace & Frankie's characters. There were more looks that told who they were." 

Nearly every recurring character appears in the episode and often they're seen in groups, with a wide variety of fabrics, textures, and colors. The poncho worn by Grace's daughter Brianna (Emmy worthy June Diane Raphael, who was unfortunately not nominated) is a particularly memorable visual in-joke since we first saw it repurposed as a tree skirt. Brianna is loathe to wear it but Frankie did made it for her and this night is Frankie's.

"It was actually created by the prop department in the previous season," Heather laughs when I bring up the look. "We were like. Should we remake it?" Allyson adds recalling their 'are we really doing this? conversation. "And we thought 'No, no, this is perfect and funny. And also June was pregnant so that was helpful to cover her up"

Though the costume design's primary purpose is to help tell the story through character, by doing that they also help inspire the writer's room. Take for instance a great visual when Grace stands in front of a rather vampiric portrait in Frankie's show. The flesh and blood woman is an uncomfortable mirror what with her own unintentionally sinister popped collar.

Though the painting was in the script, and created before the costume to mirror it, the inspiration was already there in Allyson's looks.

"The whole popped collar started with Allison & Jane but now it shows up in the script," Heather explains. "It evolved from a look and now it's script direction."

Is this a common occurence on TV shows I ask?

"That happens a lot once the characters are established," Allyson answers and they all agree. "Writers love to write about wardrobe.  I take it as a compliment, let's say that. They're thinking about and like what they're doing.


Though sitcoms like Grace & Frankie are rarely discussed in terms of their visual craft, this show is a marvel of intricately rendered fabulousity. Though the comedy is extremely colorful, the busy colors never get muddy or garish. Neither do they clash, though sometimes Grace & Frankie do with their odd couple chemistry.

One recurring thread in season 3 was business meetings and in each of them you can see the costuming adding to the story if you're looking for it.


"We take every bit of a scene into consideration," Allyson assures. "It's almost like putting together a painting. What are they going to look like together? What room are they going to be in? What's on the walls? Current mood is always on my mind when we pick looks for any scene. How are they feeling at the given moment?"

And how are Jane and Lily, the iconic stars, feeling at any given moments about their costumes?

Their approaches are very different, the designers reveal. Lily, is the least like her character in terms of personal wardrobe -- "hands down!" they agree excitedly -- and is more likely to be seen in a simple white button shirt and trousers. She gives them free reign. "Jane definitely has opinions," Allyson adds so in her case they bring her a curated rack for her scenes "We talk about the styliing. We work together on it for sure."

Two of the more challenging aspects of season 3 were a community theater production of the musical 1776 that Grace and Frankie's husbands got involved with and a semi 'bottle episode' called "The Floor"

"The community theater production was kind of a big deal," Allyson says and did consider submitting it. "It was a journey to hit the right notes for it. It sets the tone. We were going to costume houses at first and we thought 'these look to good for community theater. They should be a bit more Waiting for Guffman style.' "

The theater story also gave them more opportunities to work with comic actor Tim Bagley as Peter, the theater director, who the costume design team unanimously adores. "He's so funny," Allyson explains. "His particular way of dress -- he is not creative in his dress at all. When I knew he was going to be on the show I was like 'I want to make him this ridiculous fashion guy. I get really excited when he comes in for fittings. We never stop laughing."

"The Floor" gave the costume designers a unique challenge since Grace and Frankie spend nearly the entire episode on their kitchen floor after throwing their backs out. I couldn't help but notice that costumes were much more elaborate than usual with Frankie in a tye-dyed sweater and turban and Grace in her favored black and white but with more dramatic lines.

"It's all deliberate," Allyson responds. "We have to consider everything."

But in this case the heightened looks were also driven by technical choices. They couldn't use vintage, which they like to use on Frankie, because the wardrobe had to be doubled. What could they move around the floor in, that wouldn't be too revealing from odd camera angles?

"The headscarf thing was more crazy. That came about because of the scooting on the floor." Allyson admits. "We were worried about her wig - that's why you did that," Heather clarifies.

As we wrapped up our conversation I joked with the designers that I was hearing all their secrets! But they're the gossipy good kind that don't leave you feeling spoiled or demystified. Whatever they have in store for season 4, which they were already hard at work on when we spoke, is sure to surprise. After three seasons of comic invention, rich character specificity, and bold colors, that's no spoiler. That's just what we've learned to expect from this talented team of women.

The Emmys will be held on September 17th. The Contemporary Costume Design nominations are as follows...

  • Big Little Lies "You Get What You Need" 
  • Empire "Light in Darkness" (Third consecutive nomination)
  • Grace and Frankie "The Art Show" (Second consecutive nomination)
  • House of Cards "Chapter 61" (First nomination in this category. When the nominations were first announced This is Us had this spot but its nomination was revoked. Due to the nature of This is Us's structure, which toggles back and forth between past decades and present day in each episode, the episode submitted "Moonshadow," the season 1 finale, was determined to have too much period work to justify its contemporary nomination.)
  • Transparent "To Sardines and Back" (Third consecutive nomination - one previous win)

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Reader Comments (3)

Great interview. I loved this show - and each season is better than the last. Glad they are making season 4.

August 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Best show and cast ever. It will keep you waiting the next episode! It will make you laugh, cry and laugh again. I love this show! I would love to see Dolly Parton, Shirley McClain, Julia Roberts and Burt Reynolds make some appearances. Can't wait for season 4 to released! Keep up the outstanding work and writing!

August 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Boyd

This was great! So happy this show got nominated and loved the interview.

September 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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