“Beef” unfolds as a series of poor choices after “plantrepreneur” Amy (Ali Wong) and handyman Danny (Steven Yeun) get into a road rage incident. Initially grounded in acute reality, the Netflix series gradually spins off into a wild finale that was initially way too much for even A24. The show’s progression allowed costume designer Helen Huang to do richer, more nuanced work than the contemporary setting might suggest. The protagonists’ senses of style offer up a vivid picture of the people they want to be — but hint at the emotions they try (and fail) to keep below the surface.
“Amy and Danny need to seem like they’re from really separate worlds. A big part of the script is how, when they come together, there’s these misperceptions of each other. So I wanted Amy’s and Danny’s wardrobe to feel extremely specific,” Huang told IndieWire. “It’s this idea of all the characters on the show being aware on a certain level but then completely unaware of their bubble.”
To get a sense of Amy’s bubble, Huang researched different kinds of boutique flower stores and was drawn to the minimalist and controlled ones. “You know the Instagrams where it’s like pretty beige, and there’s an object, then a shadow, and there might be a plant? That’s Amy,” Huang said. “That’s sort of her identity, [as opposed to] Naomi [Ashley Park]. Her Instagram, she’s like on a yacht. It’s all sorts of vacation Instagrams. So even for two people who wear similar color palettes, they can have a very different projection. Where I landed [with Amy] was artistic bases, but pared back in color. It’s interesting flowers but very delicately arranged.”
The undercurrent of rage and fear that drives Amy can’t help but peek out in certain ways, so Huang leaned into dressing her in minimalist whites and beiges accessorized by octagonal Dita glasses and boutique fashion items that don’t always work. Huang and Wong were keen for Amy’s sense of fashion to read as a woman trying furiously to control her life, not as a uniform conveying “fashionable small business owner.”
“I’m always looking for places in costume where you can stretch and make it a little bit off and weird and have that undercurrent and that tension [read] on screen,” Huang said. “For me, she’s doing all these terrible things, and she has this undercurrent of dissatisfaction and rage, but her public persona is very calm, very curated, very put together. So putting her in mostly beiges and whites, I think, really drives the point home and also grounds her in this house of hers.”
But before we get inside Amy’s house, our first impression of her is only from the shoulder up behind the wheel of her car. Huang’s inspired choice to convey Amy’s pretension towards a calm, elevated persona that still hints at her unease? A white knit bucket hat. “When I put it on her, I really felt that it was right,” Huang said. “The hat’s organic because it’s knit; it flips up, so it kind of looks surprised. And when I put it on her, I was like, ‘We should really go with this.’ And [creator Lee Sung Jin] agreed, to my relief. And I think it really worked out because it’s this little punctuation mark around her outfit. It’s almost matching but not quite.”
If our sense of Amy comes from a subtle clash within her nearly colorless fashion choices, our sense of Danny comes out of a calcified style. “He hit 25, and then he just stopped getting [new] things. If [he buys clothes], it’s the same iteration of something that he had before,” Huang said. “[Wong’s clothes] were from every online boutique underneath the sun, and then poor Steven had to wear basically all costume house and things from Goodwill. But it was how you get it to be as authentic as possible because there are certain shapes and colorways that don’t exist anymore, and we really wanted to inject that in there.”
That authenticity helps visually place Danny in a different economic bubble, creating a distance from which he and Amy can assume the worst about each other. But they also ground him in a real-world experience that makes the financial and personal pressures put on him feel all the more pressing. “Danny is from El Segundo, Torrance. I also grew up in a valley in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, and he just reminds me of every dad [there] growing up, my brothers, my friends. And so I felt a huge amount of responsibility in dressing him,” Huang said. “Sympathize is not the right word, but I know this person.”
Knowing a character’s cultural context that intimately, Huang was able to make small, subtle choices that informed how Danny carries himself and the kind of bravado he tries to affect. “Danny’s pants are really, really old Dickies, and he has really old Pumas. And as soon as Steven put them on, he was like, ‘I know who this person is,'” Huang said. “My brothers were all skaters when they were young, and so I really wanted Danny to have a touch of some sort of interest in a different subculture. A lot of Asian men, to navigate the Americanness of their identity and the otherness of their ethnic identity, have to latch onto a subculture. So I really wanted that to subtly be there.”
The level of detail in Danny’s clothes is as intricate as any period ballgown; it fixes him just as firmly in a specific time and place. “It comes down to very small details,” Huang said. “We were talking about how he always wears an undershirt that’s a V-neck. He has a Nautica jacket from 1998 that we thrifted. When he goes to the club, he’s wearing a thrifted DKNY shirt and a set of DKNY or Calvin Klein bottoms. And then [Lee] actually lent us his belt from Structure, the name of the [defunct] store before it became Express. He lent us that belt because [the part required] that type of attention to detail.”
That eye for detail went into all the men’s clothes, from George (Joseph Lee) — who Huang conceived of as balancing relaxed international taste with excitement for the newest Crocs — to Isaac (David Choe) and Paul (Young Mazino), for whom Huang found the tightest skinny jeans she could.
“One of the biggest joys of the show is sometimes men don’t get a lot of attention, and I always think that’s kind of a reverse sexism, you know?” Huang said. “Women have to be certain things, but men can’t be certain things. They can’t dress creatively or want to dress because they’re men. And I always like to push back against that idea. For [‘Beef’], there are so many different types of men, and I just wanted to show how their attachment to dress really says something about who they are and what kind of socioeconomic society they belong to.”
But some of the fashion choices on “Beef” came out of plot necessity. The slightly more layered, defined Western-style shirt that Amy wears before she and Danny go off-road had to accomplish several things. “We needed to give her something that could almost last in the elements because of what happens in Episode 10. It needed to be OK on her for night shoots and feel like a garment that could be unbuttoned and taken apart when they’re in the wilderness,” Huang said.
“I needed to have different components to serve that purpose, and then also I thought the top stitching on the blouse itself was very interesting. You would see it up when she was talking to Jordan [Maria Bello], so it puts her in this very humble sort of space. But then she could untie it, and it could look very undone and vulnerable when she’s out with Danny. I always like to think about the tone of a scene and if you want the garment to play with it or play against it.”