Profile: The Art and Craft of Costume Design | Marie Schley ’90
Schley’s work spans film to television, including the award-winning series Transparent – soon to premiere its fourth season, for which she won a 2015 Primetime Emmy for costume design. Among her many TV credits are Benched, The Comedians, I love Dick, and Great News. She also worked as a costumer on Friends. Schley got her start in costume design with the 2001 independent film Seven and a Match, directed by formmate Derek Simonds ’90. She spoke with Alumni Horae Editor Jana Brown about the art of costume design.
My dad [Reeve Schley ’54] is a landscape and portrait artist. Growing up, we always did things surrounding his art. If we were traveling, he always had a sketch book and we did too. I didn’t end up being a fine artist, but the experience was always there. It created an environment that made me a little more courageous. I wasn’t afraid of being creative.
I’ve always been interested in fashion. I remember going to the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit in the early 80s. It was then I realized that fashion was art. It was imaginative, expressive, and could be intellectual.
I love fashion and storytelling; costume design is the merging of those two arts. I graduated from UVM and moved out to Los Angeles. I had never taken an academic course in costumes, but I became the assistant to a costume designer and learned on the job.
Derek Simonds ’90 and I were roommates and I was giving him notes on his script, Seven and a Match. He got to make his movie and I got to do the costumes. Working on Derek’s film was the most educational experience. Then I went back to fashion school in L.A. because I wanted to know the nuts and bolts of clothing construction. I would never have designed for my first movie if I hadn’t met Derek at St. Paul’s.
Costume design is an art and also a craft. In terms of the art, I do a lot of reading and research. I interpret the script, its tone, and characters into a visual story. The craft is implementing those ideas, knowing how to make clothes, how to age and dye the clothes, how to apply blood, how to break down a script for filming, etc.
Every show is different and therefore has a different aesthetic. For [the film] Afternoon Delight, one of the main characters was a stripper, so I did research in strip clubs in Los Angeles. They have different aesthetics – a gentlemen’s club with international travelers or a club for the 22-year-old tattooed hipster. I talk to people who have those lifestyles or careers and research where they find stuff. I go to the stores they go to or I make clothes based on that research.
The fundamental thing about costume design is that it’s all about the characters, no matter how extreme. Sometimes it’s just a guy in a Polo shirt and khakis, but the specificity and details are important. The first thing the audience sees is what the actor is wearing.
When I started working on costumes for Maura Pfefferman, [Jeffrey Tambor’s] character on Transparent, I considered all of her character’s qualities. She was not just transgender – she was the parent of three adult children, a professor at UCLA, Jewish, earthy, liberal, lived in the Pacific Palisades. All of that was important to designing the character. At the start, Maura was learning how she would like to present herself as a woman, but as the show progresses, she evolves in how she defines herself. It’s about creating a character and helping to tell his or her story.
Transparent has been my most challenging project because it’s about people experimenting with gender. I really had to think about clothing in a different way. If gender is a spectrum, then clothing is one of the building blocks. As a costume designer, I had to break down those ideas intellectually to design the costumes.
Winning an Emmy [for the first season of Transparent] was amazing and totally unexpected. It felt great to win for a show with a lot of meaning and a positive influence about how trans people are seen in our culture. The show has been part of the tipping point for the current transgender movement, and I am very proud of that. Having the Emmy has opened a lot of doors, but I am always looking for my next job.