Costume Designer Catherine Thomas Dishes the ’60s Style Secrets Behind Ed Burns’ New Cop Drama

You may not know her name, but you’ve seen her work. Catherine Thomas is the costume designer you call when you need a hero to look his best while firing a gun, accurately, in a rapidly descending plane (Liam Neeson in Non Stop) or when you need a swarm of paperdoll bad guys to all look like menacing Japanese Reservoir Dogs (the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill Vol. 1) or when you need the right hat for the right officer who needs it to stay tilted just-so even while they bust down a casino.

That last challenge comes courtesy of Public Morals the long-gestating cop drama from Ed Burns and Steven Spielberg that gets rolled out on TNT tonight [preview below]. In this interview we talk with Thomas about her menswear tips, her storied career, and what makes Public Morals style different from, say Mad Men.

Public Morals, TNT

The Public Morals cast, from l to r: Edward Burns, Wass Stevens, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Robert Knepper. Copyright: TNT.

Wingtip: In an interview with Variety, you said on that Edi Giguere was your mentor. How did she inspire you?
Catherine Thomas: Oh, that’s funny, that goes way back. I barely know if she’s costume designing anymore. She was someone I met through the theatre world, actually Juilliard, where I was working. She was really the first person I’ve ever worked with in film, which is obviously such a different medium than theatre, so [she was my mentor] in terms of making that transition from the theatre world to the film world.

WT: What would you say your trademark style is when it comes to designing?
CT: I really like to base everything I do in some sort of reality. I like it to have some sort of grounding and something that people will recognize and relate to.

WT: And what about your personal style? What would you say your personal style is?
CT: [Laughs.] Very simple. I’m a jeans, t-shirt, and button-down shirt kind of person. I’m a little bit of a tomboy. I don’t really think about what I wear.

WT: What are some of your fashion icons?
CT: There are so many. So many different periods you know. I’ve worked on Grey Gardens, I loved that period. I loved Little Edie and Big Edie and that was a really fun sort of thing to be inspired by in terms of fashion. Audrey Hepburn. You can go back into the great days of film and there’s so many classic people.

HBOs narrative adaptation of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens was nominated for 17 Emmys including Outstanding Costumes.

HBO’s narrative adaptation of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens was nominated for 17 Emmys, including Outstanding Costumes.

WT: Speaking of Grey Gardens, what did you do to create that in-decline ’70s luxury look?
CT: It was an interesting process. Michael Sucsy, who was the director, Jessica [Lange], and Drew [Barrymore], we were really hyperly acutely aware of how under-the-microscope we would be, in terms of telling the backstory of the women. We took a lot of photos of them, and they’re fashion icons in their own history, so it was important for us to create the character and read between the lines of what people didn’t know about them. A lot of it was interpretive and we just went with our gut. You really just had to embody them. You just had to play with clothes the way Little Edie would have, have a bunch of shit around you and you just played with it.

WT: How did you get involved with Public Morals?
CT: Ed Burns has been a friend of mine for a long time. I think the first movie I did with him was maybe Sidewalks of New York, and he’s just an awesome guy and a real New Yorker [and] a good human being. He’s been trying to write this cop story for years. At first it was a film, and it just kind of never took off, and then I think with his friendship with Spielberg, Steven said, “Hey, this really should be a TV show. Episodic would be a really good format for you,” and it turns out it was. I mean it’s an incredible group of people and TNT has been–and I don’t say this often about TV people–but have been nothing but supportive. They really, truly care that you just make your show and they gave us no parameters, other than money.

WT: What specific elements of the ’60s are you incorporating into the wardrobe for the show?
CT: We’re being ambiguous about the exact date. What I said to Eddie [Burns] and Dina [Goldman], the production designer, is that in the beginning we either have to be really specific about the date or we have to really not be specific about the date, because for clothing it matters so much more than everybody else. The ’60s were such a decade of change and 1962 looks very different than 1968. I kind of had to make peace with it, so my approach was that I’m gonna take pretty much everything from 1969 and back, back into the ’40s depending on the character, and sort of cherry pick what I think is appropriate. It’s sort of this melting pot of all the ’60s.

WT: Are their any specific brands you’re using for the show or are their any specific brands you like to use in general when you’re costume designing?
CT: Yeah, we built a lot. A lot of the menswear, the suits, were built by Martin Greenfield in New York, who is one of the oldest and has one of the oldest tailoring factories in left in New York, specifically in Bushwick. We use Martin Greenfield, we use a lot of Borsalino Hats, there’s a lot of Florshiem shoes. Things that are kind of classic that haven’t changed.

WT: Florsheim boots are pretty sweet.
CT: Exactly. You know, I mean we certainly have some not so exciting sexy shoes like Rockports on some of the guys, but, you know, we don’t have to talk about that.

WT: Durability though. They’re getting down and dirty in some of those scenes.
CT: They do. We have a lot of stunts and there’s a lot of running, so you have to be a little practical sometimes. We still use a lot of Brooks Brothers because there are still some basic pieces that they haven’t really changed.

WT: They’re very classic.
CT: They are, and there are companies in New York like Paul Stuart that are not the most high-end, but you can still find some quirky stuff in there. I know it sounds crazy, but [places] like Joseph A. Banks, that store as well. They were all great resources. And those two are actually great resources for bigger guys, because the biggest thing is that there are great vintage clothes still out there, but guys are a lot bigger now. They really are, so it’s harder to find vintage clothing in big sizes. It’s not that people are overweight. It’s just people’s body shapes are different. They are more muscular, the guys are at least.

WT: Are there any iconic pieces from Public Morals you think men should be arming themselves with this fall season?
CT: Haha. Hmmm, I think a great hat should always be included, and I think it has to suit you. It’s not just a matter of seeing it loved, but I think that it has to be something that looks great on your face. What’s interesting is that this art of sculpting and shaping [hats] and knowing what looks good on a man’s face has been lost a little bit. There’s still some really good places in New York that you can go in and actually speak to your salesperson–and they have knowledge about shaping it. That’s something that men can pay attention to.

WT: What sets Public Morals apart in terms of style versus other ’60s shows like Mad Men or Aquarius?
CT: You know, I think it’s pretty obvious when people watch it, but Mad Men is definitely this very put-together, hyper-stylized 1960s [and] we’re a very dirty, gritty, it’s all the underbelly of New York. It’s a much grittier world.

Bruce Lee, Uma Thurman, Yellow Tracksuit

Top: Uma Thurman wears the Catherine Thomas-designed jumpsuit in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Copyright: A Band Apart); bottom: Bruce Lee wears the original in Game Of Death (Copyright: Golden Harvest).

WT: You worked on Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2. Uma Thurman’s [jumpsuit] costume is Bruce Lee-inspired. What specifically did you do to pay homage to Bruce Lee, while still giving Uma Thurman her own flavor in terms of styling and costuming?
CT: That was the idea from very early on to homage that. It’s just powerful. That color combination, yellow and black, is always so powerful and will be forever. We looked at it and I had to update it somehow and make it feel relevant and interesting and not have a jumpsuit. We sort of translated into the “moto” and to the leather to give it more of a street feel, which is what I think people responded to in Bruce Lee at that time. [He] had a real street feel.

WT: How did you feel in the Crazy 88 fight scene when all your costumes were being ripped apart?
CT: [Laughs.] It was just a fun, insane project, you know. Quentin was so adamant about filming in that old school way, so that the House of Blue Leaves scene will be forever be in my [horror]. We had a lot of suits, there were a lot of multiples, there was a lot of blood.

WT: [Laughs.] I rewatched it the other day and it was spraying everywhere.
CT: Everywhere. I mean it was just a mess. We would all just go home at the end of the day and we would just be covered in blood.

WT: So, what are you working on next?
CT: I’m finishing a pilot for USA called Falling Water and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. Hopefully we’re doing season 2 of Public Morals.

WT: What’s the one thing that every man should have in his closet?
CT: I think every man should have a really lovely peacoat. I love a peacoat.

WT: Any specific brands you recommend for that?
CT: Neal McDonough, he’s the guy with the steely blue eyes that’s in Public Morals. He actually wears a peacoat pretty much the entire time. It’s kind of his iconic thing and that peacoat was a Saint Laurent peacoat. Actually it was funny because he put it in on in the fitting and he was like, “This is the best peacoat I’ve ever put on.” [And] I’m like, “I’m glad you like it, because it’s $3600 and you’re gonna wear it everyday for the entire season.”

WT: Last question, What’s the best fashion advice you can give to men?
CT: I would say avoid buying into trends probably. I sort of subscribe to the same belief that if you buy something that you really like, it’s high quality, and you feel like you can wear it for 10 years, then you’re probably making a good purchase.

WT: Are there any trends you think that are in today that men should strive away from?
CT: Hmm, yeah, but it’s got more to do with hair.

WT: Are you pro–man-bun or against the man-bun?
CT: I’m definitely on the anti side of that one.

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Public Morals premiers tonight, with two back-to-back episodes starting at at 10pm EST/PST on TNT. Ms. Thomas notes that, “It takes a minute to figure out. There’s a lot of characters, but once you get through the first few episodes, it begins to click.”

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Tim Niven

Tim is Wingtip's Assistant Product Manager, a Bay Area native who has been with the company since 2013. Tim's a connoisseur of film and television, and by that he means he Wikis plots for film and television. His style inspirations come from the little screen--Barney Stinson, Brad Williams, and Tom Haverford. He is also a huge comedy nerd, as well as a regular nerd. He is an avid wearer of suits.

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