Inside FIDM’s 13th Art of Television Costume Design Exhibition

In downtown Los Angeles, at the 13th Art of Television Costume Design exhibition—where, every year, the FIDM Museum puts some of television’s finest costumes under a literal and metaphorical spotlight—there’s a dress that can’t be overlooked. I don’t have a thing for supernatural sprites, but as we pause in front of this floor-length winged gown, I find myself cycling through a series of emotions and conclusions. There’s beauty and whimsy, obviously, but there’s something else I can’t aptly describe, which bugs me because, for a writer, this should be fairly straightforward business. Best I can put it, there’s kindness, lightness and honesty. These are qualities you might catch a whiff of, if you’re so lucky, when you first meet a person, not a dress. But there you have it. 

The costume stands alone in the middle of one of the four adjacent gallery halls, as if to say: hey there, you’re gonna want to slow down for this one. It’s strapless, with fitted bodice through the waist and a silhouette that cascades out to the ground. Embroidered florals in Impressionist pastel hues—a gradation of greens, oranges and pinks—trickle down the length of it. If you look closely, and you really should, you’ll also notice little crystals, glistening like morning dew on grass. 

“It’s almost like couture,” my friend and fellow blogger, Kristin Vartan, remarks, as if echoing my thoughts.  

“Well, it is couture because it was custom-made,” says Kevin Jones, curator of FIDM Museum and Galleries, a smile gathering on his face. 

Even though the dress is stunning in its own right, the thing that stands out, the thing that sort of gently places a set of cold hands on both sides of your face and turns your head to look—no, to stare—is a pair of wings. “They were able to trace [photos of real dragonfly wings],” Kevin says. “So they’re anatomically correct.” 

Dreamed up by costume designer Cynthia Summers, the wings boast silvery outlines and details made from laser-cut aluminum. Thanks to a type of plastic called mylar, the design also subtly glows much like the smooth surface of a lake that’s occasionally ruffled by a light breeze. It’s that same pair of wings that gives Beatrice Baudelaire a somewhat magical and theatrical radiance in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Performing on stage, doused in blue-ish light, she looks almost otherworldly—at least in Lemony Snicket’s eyes. Even in that fleeting moment, you learn a great deal about who she is. 

Clothes do that, you know—give shape and color to personalities on screen. It is the materialization of their ambitions, fears, impulses, the runs and snags in the fabric of their characters that they try to cover up. In a way, seeing a fictional character’s clothes is the closest you can get to rubbing elbows with the character itself. Especially now. Especially here where, thanks to the folks at FIDM, everything is displayed in a way that’s true and faithful to the essence of these characters. The mannequins are picked based on the right proportions and facial features, and then directed with precise precision. The hairstyles are also created to reflect the period they’re from. “It’s crazy how, when you go from a bald mannequin dressed exactly as you’re seeing it, to when the hair is applied on, how different…” Kevin muses. “It changes. It really does come to life.”

To my left, under calculated museum lights, there’s Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, and the striped halter-neck belted number she wore on a boat-ride-slash-date with Benjamin at the Steiner resort in the Catskills. There’s that confident, limoncello-yellow dress she sported, again, in the Catskills. (Because, let’s face it, that’s where all the best fashion moments happened on the show). I can almost picture the mannequin animating, sticking out her sharp chin and flashing an impish smile, like Miriam would. (I also fully expect, if she were to open her mouth and speak, the silence in this hall to flood with a rush of words). 

To my right, there are ensembles worn by the fabulous ladies of The Bold Type, which is one of my favorite shows, given that I’m a sucker for all stories centered around young journalists. In the other room, closer to the entrance, I get to meet characters from The Game of Thrones, all of which I’m afraid to say, I’m not very well acquainted with. (I have not *gasp* seen the show). One room over, I run into The Unicorn—who was later revealed as Tori Spelling—from Fox’s The Masked Singer. The second time I stop in front of the all-white costume with a giant unicorn-head mask, I notice what look like glittery icicles jutting out horizontally from the shoulders. 

And that’s the whole point of this exhibition, isn’t? Noticing the little things you might otherwise miss on screen. You can peruse the costumes in his hall, where they’re in no particular hurry to drive a certain plot point forward. Here, you can study them as closely and as intimately as you would a book. 

And in doing so myself, and in hearing Kevin wax poetic about how these costumes got here and how they almost didn’t, a realization sinks in. There are so many stories here—the whole room is brimming with them. For example, a particularly quirky costume from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend proved to be problematic when the team realized they needed permission to use the skull images on the dress’ bustle, torso and the legs of the bodysuit. Mind you, at that point, several of them were already made to be worn by dancers in a musical number. “They had to find an image of a skeleton, get it cleared, and they had to remake all of the outfits because they had an unapproved skeleton,” Kevin says. 

That wacky octopus costume from A Series of Unfortunate Events? It’s made out of latex, a material notorious for being short-lived and flimsy. The year-old costume’s tentacles feature suckers made from finger cots, and if you zero in on them, you’ll see a few have already come undone, sticking out like puckered lips. The tentacles themselves need some upkeep. “It came with a foot pump, because you have to blow them up like a balloon,” Kevin says. “You can see that they’ve already started to deflate a little bit. Periodically, we have to go back there and blow them up again.” 

Despite the hiccups, there’s something that Kevin says was unexpectedly easy: finding cool costumes. With the massive increase in program production, costume designers have bigger budgets to work with. “The creativity of it has upped, and the respect of costumes in TV has gone up,” Kevin says. “It was not difficult to find fabulous costumes. We had to pare away fabulous to have what we have here. Now, we have so much to choose from, and that’s what’s really showing in this exhibition.”