‘Fosse/Verdon’ Costume Designer Melissa Toth Discusses Intimate Collaboration With Co-EP Nicole Fosse & Charlie Kaufman’s Upcoming Feature, ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’
An inside look at the partnership between choreographer/director Bob Fosse and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon—two of the most influential artists of the 20th century—FX limited series Fosse/Verdon covers five decades of American history over the course of its eight episodes. Given the scope of the story at hand, the project was a significant artistic challenge for all those working behind the scenes—not least, costume designer Melissa Toth, who went to every conceivable length to bring authenticity to every costume seen on screen.
A first-time Emmy nominee who has worked mostly in features—most recently, on such critical hits as Ben Is Back and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—Toth needed to know her two title characters inside out. Examining the sartorial identity of each, and the difference between their public and private personas, Toth also played a critical role in pulling off a number of recreations of Fosse’s productions, for both Broadway and the silver screen.
Diving deep into research in prep, the costume designer’s greatest resource on the project was Nicole Fosse, the only daughter of Bob and Gwen, who served as a co-executive producer on Fosse/Verdon, opening up her world—and Gwen’s personal wardrobe—for her to see.
Below, the esteemed costume designer discusses her collaboration with Fosse on the critically acclaimed series, from Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson. Previously collaborating with Charlie Kaufman on Synecdoche, New York, Toth also dishes on his latest directorial effort, the upcoming Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
How much did you know about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon before signing on to this series? What was it about Fosse/Verdon that drew you in?
I had a pretty good working knowledge of Fosse, just because I’m a movie fan and I’ve seen pretty much all his movies, and All That Jazz is one of the top movies on my list. Verdon, I knew less well, only because she was more on the stage, and that’s such an ephemeral thing. If you haven’t been around to see her on the stage, you have less of an imprinted memory, whereas film lives forever, but I definitely knew who she was.
The idea that their intertwining story was going to be toldwas the thing that really drew me to it, as far as storyline goes. Because, in a way, I felt like maybe we’ve already seen the story of Fosse. It is All That Jazz, to a great degree. Now, technically, it was another whole kettle of fish, because it spans so many decades, and we got to do so many different elements. So, it was just a lot in one basket that was all very appealing.
Did early conversations about the series and its aesthetic hinge on a desire for authenticity, in the recreations you mentioned?
Absolutely. The thing that I bring to the table, in general in my work, is authenticity. That’s where my interest lies, anyway, and that was where everybody wanted to go with it, down to the last detail. When you recreate film sequences—like, for instance, Sweet Charity or Cabaret—these are things that live in audiences’ minds for a long, long time, and they could really smell a rat. If something is just a little bit off, we were going to get pounded. I mean, we were a little nervous about it. [laughs] We had to make so many items, down to the last little bits of jewelry, and trims, and things like this, and some of these things are impossible to find, so you just have to create everything. And even then, you have to come as close as humanly possible.
We had a little bit more wiggle room, as far as the presentations of the stage shows go. For instance, we did a recreation of Damn Yankees—but the out-of-town run, not the Broadway run. All the research wasn’t necessarily there to get to it, so we had to sometimes make a little bridge to our own reality. But even then, authenticity for sure was what we were striving for, and as well in the day-to-day wardrobe of Bob and Gwen, who we see a lot of in private moments, and in the home.
We had a great wealth of information and resources from Nicole Fosse. She had amazing references and pictures from the Verdon-Fosse legacy and was very, very generous with sharing all of that stuff with us, because we really needed it. Otherwise, we were going to be maybe extrapolating from a couple of photographs that exist of Gwen—and even then, the public and private persona are two very different things.
That was one of the things that Michelle Williams and I talked about very early on. We know what all of the stuff looks like that’s captured forever on celluloid, but what was she wearing when she cooked an egg? We’re not really sure.
I think one of the pitfalls you can fall into with period costume is pushing the period so that people understand you’re in 1974, and not getting into the nitty-gritty of it. Not everything was fabulous; not everything was amazing pieces of clothing. You have to embrace that, and make sure that you go with that feeling, and I think people accept it as real. That was my goal, and I think we did a pretty good job there.
It’s not a given, working on a period piece, that you’ll have access to someone like Nicole Fosse, who can fill in certain blanks. What was it like working with her and being able to access the Fosse/Verdon story so directly, holding Verdon’s real garments in your hands?
Oh my God, it was amazing, actually. There was a piece that we really wanted and needed, which was a beaded jacket sort of shirt. It was almost like a medieval piece of chain mail that Gwen wore backwards and forwards, in many, many photographs that we saw. She tied it with ribbons, and she tied it with hooks; she did all kinds of things. She was very crafty. She really got into her own stuff and worked with it, and she repeated and repeated and repeated, which is so different from what you see now. Celebrities [now] would never wear the same garment to a public appearance, over and over again. But that was part of the reason that I was so drawn to Gwen’s personality, and felt like I got to know her a little bit through Nicole.
It wasn’t just how generous Nicole was with loaning out, and her flexibility with bringing everything to the table—it was knowing that Nicole could tell us her feelings about her mother. That was just as helpful for me, because as costume designers, we all try to get into the psychology. We try to get to know the characters that we’re creating. When the character is a made-up character, you get into it with the actor, the director, and the writer, and you’re thinking of things on your own, the backstory. When it’s a real person, you want to get to know that person.
Nicole was extremely helpful, in a very ephemeral way. She had very specific memories of how her mother would fold down socks, and what shoes she would wear with the socks. She had all of that stuff, and was very happy to share all that, but she also could give us a sense of what Gwen might do in this made-up parameter. Not everything in the show is something that actually happened; there were some liberties taken, and things that were filled in. There’s no way Nicole could have a memory of a particular scene that never actually happened, but it was great to have Nicole there, just to get a sense of, “I feel like the kind of choice she would make would be this.” I know that was helpful for Michelle and for me, and we worked very closely, actually, the three of us.
Could you give your analysis of fashion fundamentals, when it came to your two principal characters—who Fosse and Verdon were, in a sartorial sense? It seems, for example, like Verdon gravitated toward lots of color and patterns.
I think Fosse himself was ahead of the curve. He was a dancer, so everything was body-conscious and wanting to create that dancer’s line. It just so happened that he, in a great sense, was living in the right decade: His big decade, the ‘70s, hewed to that idea. The shirts were very slim, but at the same time a little bedraggled. I wanted to make sure that I got the point across that people dressed very casually, and weren’t necessarily completely polished and manicured during this time frame.
For Gwen, I knew that she would sometimes make clothes, and she would have things made for her, just to her particular taste. Again, it was based on the line of the body, but Gwen can also be a bit of a tossed-together look. We did that a lot with Michelle. There were moments where she was very put together, and moments where she was a little bit scrambled, and that worked for the performance and the visuals.
Did you end up looking to all of Fosse’s original stage productions to dress Broadway dancers, whether they were simply in hats and tights, or something more elaborate?
Oh, absolutely. We did as much research here in New York as we could, at the Performing Arts Library, and Martha Swope had just a million photographs of a lot of backstage stuff, and rehearsal studio stuff. In the ’70s, people were wearing leotards and people were wearing tights, but a lot of the guys would wear jeans. A lot of the guys would wear just cutoff jean shorts. There wasn’t as much of a technical aspect to the dancers’ stuff as there is today. The fabrics just weren’t there, and people were making due to a great extent. The art department people also went to the Library of Congress and did a huge amount of research down there, because a lot of the archives are housed there. It really was a research-based project from the get-go.
The series portrays Nicole Fosse at several different ages. What was it like costuming the actresses playing her, while working with Fosse herself behind the scenes?
I think it must have been much more surreal for Nicole. I mean, that is craziness there, watching your childhood self. There were a couple incarnations of Nicole, and the pace of television is so fast that it’s not always possible to run everything by everybody, before it ends up being ready to go on camera. There were a couple of moments where we had to make something very quickly for little Nicole, for the house party or what have you. She would come downstairs and go on stage, and Nicole would be there and she would say, “I don’t know how you did it, but that is something my mother would have put on me. It’s not exactly what I wore, but I remember having something very close to that.” That’s always a tightrope. You want to honor the history of a person who is so close to the project, and at the same time, you are limited, to a certain extent.
Nicole and I had those conversations too, and she totally knows the score. It wasn’t like we had a year-long prep. I said to her straight up at the beginning, “There’s going to be times, I think, where you’re going to be a little disappointed, or there’s going to be something that is unfamiliar to you. That’s just going to be how it is, because we have to do hundreds of costumes over the course of this series.” She was so gracious and wonderful about that. I mean, she couldn’t be a nicer person. Her personality, and her approach, and her chops, and her knowledge about how things work, plus her generosity of spirit and of materials, was just invaluable.
Fosse/Verdon covers around 50 years of American history, as it captures the nuances of an evolving relationship between its two title characters. Generally speaking, can you explain how fashion evolved for men and women, in between the ’40s and ’80s, and the evolution we see in the looks of Fosse and Verdon?
One of the things that I touched on, because I’m very interested in it, is where women’s fashion goes from decade to decade, and how that’s reflecting the social mores and what have you. One thing that I was fascinated by was pictures of Gwen from the ’40s, where she’s wearing pants. That was something that was not unheard of, but not common. I think it was partially because she was a dancer, partially because she always had an affinity for comfort that you can only get from a menswear vibe. After the ’40s, they disappeared, and whenever you see her in public, it is dresses. It is the wiggle skirts, etcetera.
Then you get to the ’70s. Women started wearing pants a lot in the ’70s, and it was important to me to show that, just as a sociological aspect of the ’70s, and also [given] where we were going with the story—with Gwen and her strength, and her ability to navigate a very loving and fraught relationship with Bob. That, to me, is a great touchstone. We also essentially did as much braless stuff in the ’70s as we could. Women were really dispensing with the foundation garments, and so we did as much of that as we could, as well.
As far as the men go, I think you see it a lot in the dance rehearsal stuff. You see guys dancing in the ’50s in sport shirts and khakis, Levi’s and sneakers. Then, you move forward into the more technical stuff that you start to see more of in the ’80s. Starting in the ’70s and more in the ’80s, you’re really seeing the technical fabrics come in, which was a whole separate research wing, figuring out where dancewear started and where it went.
The other thing about all the dance stuff, especially the rehearsal stuff, is that that stuff doesn’t exist anymore. You can certainly find rental; there’s rental stock and there’s purchasing stock all over the country of contemporary ’70s regular clothing. But dance stuff, it’s like swimwear. It just gets destroyed, so there are no ’70s leotards out there anymore, so we made a lot of that stuff.
How did you handle the challenge of the series’ scope?
What happens is, you start getting into any decade, and the more you live with it, the more fine-tuned your sensibility gets—and the more quickly you’re able to recognize, You know what? I think this is from 1973, and this might be from 1975. There are differences over the course of one to two years in a decade, so if you’re doing something set all in the ’70s, for instance, or the first half of the ’70s, you can get very, very nuanced in your mind. It can become second nature, and you don’t have to be constantly double checking yourself like, Wait a second, am I getting confused about this?
When you extrapolate from there and do five or six decades, it can get zooey in your mind. I suggested, when we started creating our giant rooms of costumes, that instead of dividing by, Okay, here’s the ’50s, here’s the ’60s, that we divide it more along mid-decade lines. “This is ’45 to ’53, and this is ’55 to ’59”—because in the ’60s, you can start at ’61 and end up at ’69 and be in an extremely different place.
In a perfect world, if we had more room, and more time, and more labor, and more budget and everything, you would just say, “Okay, this is my room of 1954, and this is my room of 1956.” But we couldn’t do it like that. We just had to keep our heads on straight. I had an amazing team of 25 people, and we were constantly collaborating with each other, and checking each other to make sure that nobody dropped the ball.
Were there any pieces fashioned for Fosse/Verdon that made you particularly proud?
Michelle’s “Who’s Got the Pain?” look—her mambo look—really helped her feel right about the dance that she worked extraordinarily hard on. That’s a situation where costume can really help the actor do a brilliant performance, and that is my emphasis. It’s not so much the garment on its own, but what it can help an actor do. That’s what I love.
You recently reteamed with Charlie Kaufman on his latest directorial effort, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Was that exciting for you?
Of course! What I would like to say is that I think every producer in Hollywood should give him as much money as possible to make as many films as he wants, at any time. He’s brilliant. I would collaborate with him on absolutely anything. The latest, you couldn’t call it anything but a Charlie Kaufman movie, and to me, that’s one of the highest compliments you can pay.