If “Russian Doll’s” Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) somehow met Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) from “Fosse/Verdon” in a bizarre time loop, you could almost imagine them bonding. The greatest of Broadway dancers might help the uptight Nadia loosen up a bit, and Nadia might give Gwen a good laugh about female empowerment in a future New York. The point being, dressing both of these strong-willed women was a costume designer’s dream for Jennifer Rogien (“Russian Doll”) and Melissa Toth (“Fosse/Verdon”).
In “Russian Doll,” created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, Nadia finds herself trapped in a 36th birthday/death loop, playing detective to solve the mystery of her “Groundhog Day” predicament. “She wears black,” Rogien said. “It suits Nadia, it suits the New Yorker in her, and it suits the detective in her. And it was described by Natasha as a detective caper, which was extremely insightful because she’s trying to figure out what the hell is going on in these loops that keep happening and why and how to fix it.
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“We knew she needed to have a coat and she needed to have armor, and, if we could built that in layers, she’s always got something that’s between her and the world. She’s got the coat, the blazer, this giant boa around her neck, layers of necklaces, and a bra that has so many straps on it you’re never getting through it. These were all character moments built into create as much impenetrability as we could.”
The Helmut Lang coat is sometimes offset by a black cashmere Polo Ralph Lauren coat as part of Nadia’s uniform. Although Rogien initially started down the path of a parka, which seemed practical, it didn’t work. “It overwhelmed her in a way that the structured, tailored coats didn’t,” she said. “The tailoring created a silhouette that really worked for Nadia, and then the black, white, and gray were based off of some references that Natasha had given me of a real woman’s wardrobe in New York. She wanted to step away from tech culture, even though her character is a coder, by distilling her color to something very narrow and very striking: black, white, gray, red.”
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Sometimes Rogien tried to loosen Nadia up in subtle ways (such as untying her boa), where you see more of her life experience at home and leaving for work. “So you see her in a silk robe looking very soft,” she said. Color-coding was important for continuity purposes in keeping track of the loop. “We agreed that even though the world is falling apart, the clothes and [Nadia] weren’t degrading. Sort of this idea of a copy of a copy.”
Time shifts back and forth in “Fosse/Verdon,” spanning five decades to explore the romantic and artistic partnership between visionary choreographer/director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his dancing muse, Gwen Verdon. The challenge for costume designer Toth was keeping it all straight in her mind. She kept a series of costume boards for their private and professional lives. “For Gwen, we had a big board for every time she’s in costume and another board where, say, she’d be on a red carpet,” she said. “And her interior life was the most mysterious. Fortunately, we had the invaluable insight of their daughter, Nicole Fosse, with all the family photos and personal photos. There was very little photography of Gwen available.”
Verdon wasn’t into glam but she dressed with aplomb, according to Toth. She was keenly aware of color and pattern, but was off-handed and comfortably casual. “Michelle and I both became obsessed with her scarves because she didn’t tie them like a French woman — she would throw them on and they would be twisted and messed up and to the side. So we took that through line and made interpretations of what we could see from the photographs, which is that she was very devoted to her kid and to her work life.”
Also, Williams, with a great affinity for costume design, immediately took to Verdon often pinpointing ways to tell a story with clothing. “And Gwen was the same way,” Toth said. “She had ideas of things she wanted to wear in shows and then they’d creep into her day-to-day life. Or it went the other way. So, for instance, one of her outfits in ‘Can-Can’ was a blue and white striped dress (which we didn’t put in the show), and then you see her wearing blue and white stripes throughout her life. She was interested not only in how costumes tell a story but how clothing in your life references something else you’re doing.”
Toth couldn’t resist having Verdon wear a blue and white striped blouse during a very private, intense moment with Fosse. Professionally, Verdon played the part of the indispensable sidekick who saves Fosse whenever he hits a creative block. For the “Sweet Charity” moment when she helps out with the “Big Spender” lineup, Verdon wears a black turtleneck leotard and tights. “It was important for Michelle that I show that she was so humble and devoted to helping create the art,” said Toth. “She was such a strong presence and knew how to dress for the scene, but knew when the moment was about her and when it wasn’t. And Gwen Verdon was different in 1955 and 1960. She was endlessly fascinating.”