While the costumes in Amazon original series Z: The Beginning of Everything may seem simple on the surface, if you look inside their elaborate internal components, clearly they are far from it. This was one of the major surprises for Emmy-winning costume designer Tom Broecker in designing pieces for the series. His job was depicting a period a few years before the Roaring Twenties Flapper fashion that fills history books and the collective imagination, the time when Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald embark on their legendary romance.
Having designed costumes for Saturday Night Live for decades, Broecker brings dexterity and a breadth of knowledge to projects he takes on outside of the NBC sketch comedy pillar. His experience also gives him a degree of comfort with the rapid-fire pace of television production. In a conversation with Deadline, Broecker discusses the ways in which costumes and fashion are essential to Z, and how these visual representations go beyond pure fashion to convey women’s struggle for their own liberation.
What was it that initially attracted you to Z: The Beginning of Everything?
The subject matter was amazing—to be able to do the costumes about America in the late teens, early ’20, and about two American icons, Zelda Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and their relationship.
It was just rich for so much. Christina Ricci is an amazing person. Amazon and just the whole project, I was just like, “Oh my God, please. Please let me be able to do that.”
I would imagine this project to be the costume designer’s dream, not only for the period it portrays, but also because fashion is tied to a conversation at the center of the series about gender expectations in this period.
One hundred percent. This particular period was so rich with everything you just talked about. The thing that’s so interesting about it is in America, this is an amazing transitional period, and the voice of the women is getting much stronger during this period. It’s post-war, so the men were away at war, and the women had to take over.
Going from pre-war to post-war, the shape of the garments completely changed—we started seeing more ankle, and getting rid of the corsets, and all that sort of stuff.
The suffragettes and the power of the woman became so much stronger, and that was also reflected in how they started wearing clothes, and the idea that they actually could have a voice.
The automobile, and really, the idea of transportation and travel became very big at this particular time. That also was very reflective in their clothes, and like you were saying, too, this idea of gender identity. Particularly with Zelda, she, in the very beginning part of their relationship, would wear men’s clothes, and dress up in suits, and that sort of stuff—and sort of confused people, as far as what was going on.
As this was a transitional period in history, what was your approach in designing costumes for multiple generations of Americans?
That’s a really important part that we were trying to get across, or at least I was trying to get across in designing the show. Because it is a transitional period, and you really want to make sure that you’re hitting all the transitions, so to speak. There are certain characters who don’t move forward through that transition, who get stuck in the period, like we all do.
You get acquainted to the day. If you look at today’s 2017 person, there are many mixes of people who are out there. Some people mix in a little better than others; like, not anyone wears the 1980s top to toe, or the ’90s top to toe, or any of that sort of stuff.
But certainly, we see people—particularly younger people—doing the mix much better. They’re mixing a ’90s shirt with an ’80s jean, with a 2017 sneaker. There’s a greater mix; back then, there wasn’t as much of a mix, so you did get sort of stuck in that period.
The mothers and the older people tended to keep their traditional silhouettes, and the traditional fabrics, and there’s much more sense of decorum, and ideas of the past that they hold onto.
Specifically the parents, you can really see that. Particularly with the Judge, we were very conscientious of the Judge looking a very specific way, and holding onto that traditional dress, also because we were trying to skew the visualness of the show from Zelda’s point of view.
Her father was a very mythic figure in her life, and he was a very sort of cold, distant figure. We wanted to make sure, at all times, that he appeared sort of cold and distant, and a little separate from the rest of the crowd, whereas the mother, even though she was dressed a little more in the past, she still had a warmth to her. There was a softness to her and her fabrics and how all that looked. Even though she was dressed more in the past, and still maintained the corset.
It was very important to show Zelda a little more fashion forward. At times, we pushed her silhouette a little, a year or two before, because she was a trendsetter, so she could look like she was setting the trends, and be out of place, and sort of get that mix, so that when she went back to Montgomery at the very end of the show, you can really see how she had changed, and how the rest of the world did not for her.
The world of Montgomery did not change—they’re still doing the same things they were doing the second and third episode, but Zelda has completely transformed herself, and is looking completely different, as well as F. Scott. They were the city people coming into the South.
We were trying to be conscientious of telling a very specific color story, and silhouette story. The fabrics of the South were very different, the color palette of the South is very different. When they hit New York, it was much darker, and richer, and more jewel-toned, and more shine, and they began to get money.
All of that was reflected in their clothes, underlays of golds and silvers, and all that sort of stuff, whereas in the South, it was underlays of cotton, and pastels, and flowers—sort of like a floral candy box of color.
Hats seemed to be a major piece of the fashion at the time, as well, for both men and women.
Hats were very important and if you look, the hat completes the whole outfit. Particularly with the women, the outfit doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes without the hat.
It’s a strange proportion post-war, very odd proportion as to where things hit on a woman’s body. What you start to find out is that the reason the hats take the shape they do is that it completely balances out the rest of the costume, or the rest of the clothing.
Sometimes, you need the hat to be broad across, to balance the proportion of the hip; sometimes, you need the hat to go higher, to make the elongation of the silhouette. If you’re looking at 1917 in the South, an upside-down tulip is the way a woman’s skirt and silhouette is. By the time you get to 1920, that tulip elongates itself, and it turns into a skyscraper.
Everything starts to be longer and leaner, whereas a few years earlier, you were getting more of the softer curve at the bottom, and you needed a different kind of hat. As you go along, you’ll see the cloche start developing in the mid-‘20s, which becomes tighter to the head, because the silhouette becomes tighter to the body.
So it’s a very interesting—the hat isn’t random, if you really start dissecting it.
It’s a hard period to understand because it’s so foreign to us. When we think of this period, we think of the Roaring Twenties—that’s the American Flapper, and the American Dream. We were telling the story of when [the Fitzgeralds] first met, so that’s a very different feel.
Because of this transition, you see, some of the hats start to transition from the1917 hat to a 1920 hat, by making the brim smaller, and making the crown taller. It’s really interesting to chart that, and we were trying to be very conscious about watching that evolution. The show, I think, is designed to be binge-watched, and that’s how we designed it, to really watch that evolution.
Was there a major revelation for you in working on this series?
Yeah, it’s interesting, particularly how long it takes people to get dressed—how many buttons, how many snaps. That’s the thing that you don’t really see about the clothes, because the clothes look fairly simple, like pieces of tissue or cotton, particularly the women’s dresses.
But on the inside of those dresses, they have so much internal work involved. There’s a waistband that has a mini-corset in it, and then there’s a boned part, and then there’s a liner, and that liner has another liner skirt attached to it. Everything was snapped, or little hooks, and it would just take forever. I guess that would be the biggest thing that I sort of was surprised by, was the intense amount of internal structure those clothes have.
Having worked at Saturday Night Live since the 1990s, has the versatility, knowledge and rapid-fire production schedule that show demands informed your craft when you go onto other projects?
It is funny—I say I went to graduate school for costume design, and I also say that SNL is sort of the greatest school you could ever go to, because it teaches you to do a show in three days, and it teaches you to constantly think on your feet, and figure things out, and work instinctively and trust your gut.
It teaches you how to work very quickly, and on episodic television, you don’t have a lot of time, and you don’t have a lot of resources, so it was constantly, “Where am I going to get that?”— knowing that vendor, how to get that, how to change that into that, cutting two dresses apart to be one.
With that major yearly time commitment, what is your approach in selecting the projects you take on in the time you have available?
I also do other projects while I do Saturday Night Live; like I did House of Cards. I did 30 Rock and SNL at the same time. I did The Beautiful Life. I’ve done overlapping jobs—it gets difficult. I try and arrange, as much as I can, to not overlap it, but there is overlapping, and I have amazing teams with me wherever I go. I’m blessed to be able to do what I can.