The day before interviewing John Dunn, the costume designer who has brilliantly recreated the 1970s in all their delirious and degenerate glory for HBO’s Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger”“produced music industry drama Vinyl, which debuted last night, I was going down the escalator at the Vogue offices while randomly David Johannson, one of the legendary New York Dolls, was coming up. Given that it feels like the ’70s never seem to have left us though, that sighting shouldn’t have been so surprising.
If you’re a fan of Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent (and I am), then like me you’ll have thrilled to his reimagining of the French house’s legacy through the lens (or should that be the amplifier?) of rock’s greatest decade. Or there’s Marc Jacobs, who as a kid caught the tail end of the era and has earned been there, done that, survived it bragging rights; his Spring 2016 ad campaign looks for all the world like After Dark magazine shooting the cast of Vain Victory, the 1971 downtown La MaMa Theatre musical involving Lou Reed, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis.
Vinyl kicks off in the New York of 1973 (with some flashbacks to earlier moments in the city’s musical history), tracking Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, James Jagger, and Juno Temple’s characters as they traverse a grubby, moneyed, cutthroat, gloriously excessive world. A world in which the next big hit takes on a whole new meaning, where snow was more than a meteorological term, and where people were often attired in so many synthetic fabrics the only thing that was natural about them was their pubic hair. Here, Dunn, who started work on the show from its second episode (costumes for the pilot and episode one were handled by Mark Bridges) talks about how he made the ’70s come alive, yet again, in ways achingly real, darkly romantic, and fizzing with the dawn of a whole new radical era for fashion and style.
The 1970s in New York, one of the most iconic and revered moments in pop culture”“urban history; what were your initial thoughts about costuming a show to reflect that period, that moment of glam rock and punk and disco excess?
“Well, given we start in 1973, we were definitely interested in this moment that was a turning point in our culture. We were coming out of the ’60s, which had this lighthearted rebelliousness, and then things started getting a little darker, moving into an era that was much more political and also nihilistic and hedonistic; those are the two streams that our characters are exploring. Music was moving from stadium rock to a darker scene, which then lead into punk and disco. CBGBs opened in 1973, there were dance clubs out in Queens, and the Warhol crowd had migrated from the Factory to Max’s Kansas City and the Chelsea Hotel, which became the epicenter of cool. We were able to film at the Chelsea, which had been home to Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Charles James . . .
“But even though it was dark at this point, there was an exuberance too, like the Battle of Versailles runway show in Paris, with French designers inviting American designers in a fashion off, if you like, and you could really see the contrast, with people like Stephen Burrows, and Halston, creating that idea of disco decadence. We touch on that world too, with our more well-to-do characters. One of our major characters comes out of the Bronx, we have punk groups coming out of Queens–our record industry folk are out there trying to find out where the energy was going next.
“Personally, I was less aware of the New York Dolls moment. I came as a young gay man to New York in 1976. I went to dance clubs like Crisco Disco and Paradise Garage, when the Latin beat was being crossed by the early hip-hop movement, and then gospel; that was all being bred in New York, and that was an interest to me and where it all came from. Also, there were things like the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler performed . . . Those were all places I was visiting and enjoying.”
What sources did you look at to inform the look of the show? Magazines, movies, designers, etc?
“We’re lucky to have Mick Jagger involved! When you do research from that era, there doesn’t seem to be a photo of the late ’60s”“early ’70s that doesn’t have Mick Jagger in it. As a producer he is an amazing resource.
“We thought about all sorts of things: What was Elvis Presley wearing in 1973? The New York Dolls? What were people wearing on Long Island? For research, [I used] everything from a wonderful documentary about [singer-songwriter] Harry Nilsson, to original footage of Man on the Wire Philippe Petit, to Star, a monthly magazine by and for female groupies, so we could see who the groupies were following, what they were wearing; we used many of the photographs in there as templates for the looks of the characters. We looked at After Dark magazine, which none of my team had an idea about. I was of an age that was my go-to magazine, it was my entry into New York City. We looked at American and European Vogues. And to documentary photography of Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Dolls . . . .
“Fashion-wise, it was the dawn of people wearing vintage clothes. Pre-1965, no one wore vintage. People started to feel that they didn’t just have to wear what’s in the moment, that they had a whole vocabulary that they could play with. So, we concentrated a lot on what vintage would have been appealing back then; pieces from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, which were also informing the English designers that we liked–Biba, Thea Porter, Ossie Clark . . . All of the bias cutting, and doing away with the bra; there was a suppleness and a sensuality there. Juno [Temple] wears a vintage Biba bell-sleeved jersey dress found at one of our favorite vintage vendors. I suspect it may have originally been a maxi dress but as often is the case with vintage, pieces have been altered through the years. Lucky for us someone else hacked it off as I don’t know if I would have had the heart to take the shears to it. She also wears a lot of East West leather; that Californian leather look was starting to come through. It hadn’t been popular before, and then suddenly you saw people wearing a lot of leather coats, skirts, pants . . . .
“Whenever possible, we liked to use original pieces, they have a patina of realness. There is a staff of thirty people working full time on costuming the show, with an entire studio that creates the clothing, so that we can dress a waiter or a record executive or a junkie to such a high level of detail that it is like we’re treating them as if they were one of the leads.”
Where did you source it all from?
“With the Internet we were able to spread a very wide net, and before Vinyl, I’d been working on Boardwalk Empire, so all those people who had been providing us with the ’20s, I had them refocus on the ’70s. We also hadÂ Cherry Vintage, owned by Cesar Padilla and Radford Brown, where we got tees, leather, etc. It is based here in NYC, but went deep into Los Angeles, a lot of work went on there. To Ritual [Vintage] down on Broome Street; Monique Stephanie has a terrific eye for the ’70s that’s fabulous and sinister at the same time. To Decades in L.A. To New York Vintage with Shannon Hoey, who’s adorable and has such a great eye.”
What was the biggest challenge of the costuming?
“There is a lot of bad ’70s clothing out there, almost too much vintage out there, so it was in finding the really good pieces that need to be seen and revisited. And sometimes there is a difficulty in matching today’s bodies to the vintage. Back then, people could be as skinny as skinny could be, and, truth to tell, some of it was drug-induced–that could emaciate a person.
“If we remake something, we always try to be respectful of the original. For instance, we did recreate a red Halston dress for Olivia [Wilde], and that came together very nicely. Another time, Olivia goes to see Andy Warhol, and she is wearing a reproduction of a black and white striped Ossie Clark halter dress, because we didn’t have the correct size. We had to have the fabric for it screen printed as we couldn’t find the exact stripe we wanted.”
Without giving anything away plot-wise, how does the look of the costuming of the principal characters change over the course of the season?
“The first season is set all within 1973, and looks back at the points the characters were in. Richie [Bobby Cannavale] and Devon [Olivia Wilde] meet watching the Velvet Underground and Nico on St. Mark’s Place back in the ’60s, so we give you the evolution from the swinging mod ’60s into 1973. And then the series will take them further into the ’70s and into its different corners . . . .”
Were you looking at contemporary designers who reference the ’70s–Tom Ford, Hedi Slimane, Marc Jacobs . . . ?
“I am a purist, so I’ve always worked with originals as much as I can, but this was the first time I’d been on a show where I could go to a department store and use what I found there . . . We didn’t, in the end, have a direct dialogue with contemporary designers, but we did with contemporary fashion–we used H&M, Topshop . . . The actress we cast to play Nico was 6 feet tall, and we found something for her at Zara.”
Why do the ’70s still captivate our imagination today?
“The mindset of the ’70s was ”˜We Can Break The Rules.’ We’d been told how the world is, and it was toeing the line about our behavior, and then in the ’70s there was the birth of irony and looking at things with a more jaundiced eye. Punk was thumbing its nose at what was perceived as ”˜old’ music, and fashion as well, people went off and created interesting work. People had freedom that they didn’t have in the past; they could hang out at Stonewall or burn their bra. And what’s going on right now is that people are looking to break free again.”