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Style & Design

'Masters of Sex' wardrobe designer on the show's come-hither costumes

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Image Credit: Erwin Olaf/Showtime

You might think there wouldn’t be much clothing on a show called Masters of Sex, but wardrobe designer Ane Crabtree says there are plenty of period costumes to be seen. Based on Thomas Maier’s biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Showtime series — which follows human sexuality researchers Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) — is set in St. Louis, Missouri in 1958.

“The crazy thing is that it’s all true, and it’s way crazier than anything you could make up,” says Crabtree. “But what’s also interesting is how do you peel away the layers — figuratively and literally — visually… to get to the bottom of the character. You’re seeing [the characters] unpeeling, getting dressed, their reluctance to get undressed. All of it tells the story.”

Crabtree referenced old issues of Harper’s Bazaar when creating the wardrobe for the female leads and, to her surprise, some of the looks were familiar. “You [see women] wearing the same thing today,” she explains of how the costumes resemble today’s real-world fashion trends. “If you didn’t have the 50’s hair and the 50’s make-up and the pointy bra, you could wear [the wardrobe] now. It [looks like] J. Crew or Zara, but with different shoes and accessories.”

Read on to learn more about the show’s sexy undergarments, subject matter, and how its wardrobe evolved from real-life to on-screen.

Entertainment Weekly: How much thought goes into the lingerie and under garments?
Ane Crabtree: The undergarments are a huge part of Masters of Sex. [On other shows] there are places where you can cheat when you don’t have a giant budget — sometimes it’s the underwear because it’s not going to be on-camera. On Masters of Sex, it’s all on camera, so have to pay attention to that.

Does that mean lingerie is a big piece of the wardrobe budget?
You’re going to see lingerie, skin, beautiful fabrics. You’re going to see it all. La Perla is not an option — and I wish it were because I adore it. Things were constructed differently [in that era]. We have to make it or buy vintage pieces and reinforce them because sometimes they get stretched out. Or we buy things — called dead stock — that haven’t been worn. Some smart person went and bought things at a department store way back when. [Wearing modern underwear] changes things for the actor. It takes them out of that time period.

How did you go about creating the overall look of the show?
The first season is absolutely taken from the [real] lives of Masters and Johnson, so the book Masters of Sex was the place to start. It’s where the script came from. And thank God for You Tube! If you look at You Tube, there are interviews with both Masters and Johnson on Dick Cavett and other shows. [The clips were from] the 70’s, but the nucleus of the information was still the same. Getting a glimpse of their personalities was a great gift.

So you tried to stay true to the real-life personal style of Masters and Johnson?
I really did. Of course, when you’re dealing with two other entities — Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen — things start to change. It was important for Michael to embody William H. Masters. He was bald and Michael is not [so he played] with his hair to make it look more minimal. William H. Masters also had these intense eyes. From the hair and the eyes, you go into the clothing. Michael and I read Masters of Sex to get the back story. Masters has this specific uniform that only changes when we do flashbacks. Beau Bridges’ character [Barton Scully] was his friend and mentor, and at one point Masters asks Barton, “How do I get a Nobel Peace prize?” Barton says, “You need to reinvent yourself. If you want to study sex, you have to appear as normal as possible to the masses.” You see all of that within Masters’ clothing. Everything was custom-made: shirts, bow ties, suits.

How many people does it take to research, search for vintage finds, and make custom pieces for each actor’s wardrobe?
It takes myself to dream it up and do the research. It takes my amazing buyer, Amy Parris, to go and find fabrics for shirts and suits and bow ties — even for underwear — that look vintage, that actually look period, down to the buttons. I hand it off to my tailor, this beautiful old world tailor [named] Hossein Namdar. To make it perfect for Michael’s body and to make it look like what Masters wore, it takes other people to do the fittings. We’re a well oiled machine.

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Image Credit: Erwin Olaf/Showtime

What is it like working with Michael Sheen? 
What’s lovely about Michael Sheen is that he lets you do your work. He trusts you implicitly in terms of the end product. He knows that I’m as serious as he is. When the clothing has actually been made and it’s going on his body, we only ever have 5 minutes because he’s the lead and he’s in every scene. He doesn’t have a lot of downtime. Prior to shooting, we put our heads together. Michael had been on the project for a year before [I came on]. He did the pilot, I didn’t. Because he’d been with this character for a full year, it was incredibly helpful. We talked about Masters as a young boy. How did he become Masters? Michael wanted to see that in the costumes. That really helped me.

How would you describe Masters’ personal style?
The look is absolute precision. He’s an architect of self. It’s the same [clothing] that his mother put on him as a young man… only refined. He was calculated, so what that translates to is… if you look at his shirts, ties, and suit fabrics, they’re boxes within boxes within boxes. I wanted to have that sort of calculated precision, almost like graph paper, [reflected in his look].

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Image Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime

What about Lizzy Caplan’s wardrobe?
Masters and Johnson were polar opposites except in terms of intellect. Virginia Johnson also came from nothing. She was gifted with girl-next-door looks and these giant, intriguing, beautiful eyes and a beautiful body. As she got into high school, she noticed that her clothing was attracting boys and she became a nightclub singer… so there are little clues into things we can have fun with under the surface. She was a single mom with two failed marriages. She was mesmerized by psychology and her clothing reflects that. We’ll do a simple, standard pencil skirt, but the way it falls on Lizzy’s body is remarkably sexy. It’s the kind of thing that you’re not supposed to look at, but you do because her shape is so well-defined. Lizzy’s body is akin to the perfect 50’s hanger for clothing for any designer. She’s got the best proportioned shoulders, a beautiful bust, a teeny waist, and these hips. She’s this awesome modern tomboy who looks great in menswear, but then she puts the 50’s clothing on and you gasp because she’s transformed. I didn’t want Johnson to look as though she were too moneyed, so the fabric choices are more colored in a subtle way, bright colors that have been blackened with a bit of intellect. That’s her color palette. She’s someone who is not afraid [to wear] black, probably because of being in nightclubs and not having a lot of money for a lot of clothes. She’s someone who is absolutely intelligent enough to know to accent her shape when she needs to and when to hide it with a lab coat when she wants to be taken seriously.

Where did you source her wardrobe from?
It’s [pulled from] everywhere and anywhere. If you look at Virginia Johnson, she was very clean. There’s a lot of research from the 60’s and very little from the 50’s. She wore the pencil skirts and high-collar sweaters, but they were tight enough to show her beautiful shape. I started with that as a nucleus. Lizzy has a bit of an Audrey Hepburn vibe in terms of her coloring and her eyes and her beautiful smile, and she’s lean, so that’s where the black came in. We always started with pieces we adored that we found at a costume house or on Etsy. On Etsy, a lot of times the clothing is from someone’s grandma and hasn’t been worn to death. They’re in better shape and they’re not as distressed as clothes [that have been used on] other shows and in films. If something was falling apart, we would have to re-envision it our way with our fabrics, so it would be built to last for our crazy shooting schedule. I would also make stuff based on photos of the real Virginia Johnson.

What was it like working with Lizzy?
She is a laugh a minute. She’s a darling. She’s this rare bird, someone I haven’t met before, personality-wise. She’s never worn these clothes before, but she does understand vintage. She has an awareness of it. I don’t think she wears much of it [in real life], but she looks divine in it. [The clothes can be] harsh and strongly constructed, so it can be a bit of a vice, like a body gripper, but she looks amazing. She’s a swan.

Masters of Sex premieres tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime.

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