Pop-Culturalist Chats with Elisabeth Vastola
If you’ve seen the new film, Landline, then you’ve seen the work of costume designer Elisabeth Vastola. She’s also working on the next season of Jessica Jones. We were able to chat with her about bringing the 90s to life on screen, fashion trends, and why she wants to dress the next female president.
P-C: So, let’s start at the beginning. When did you know that you wanted to make costume design you career?
Elisabeth: I think I knew my senior year of high school, but I didn’t completely go for it until I graduated college. I had a brief experience doing one show—it was the last thing I did in high school—and I was like, “Oh my gosh. I love this.” But, then, I didn’t go to college for Costume Design; I went for English and Art History. I supplemented my college experience with [fashion] classes. I went to school in the city so I took classes at FIT and Parsons. I also did costume design as an extracurricular thing and interned for costume designers. When I graduated, I decided to take the leap and try it [for my career].
P-C: Does your art history background inspire your design choices, then?
Elisabeth: Absolutely. I always say that I think that there’s a lot of different things that you need, tools in your kit so to speak, in terms of being a costume designer. Being able to read a script and break it down and being able to call on your own knowledge of history of art in any medium is essential because, of course, costume is an amalgamation of socio-political-economic-cultural changes in society. It’s not just about fabric and fit. It’s really kind of like a combination of so many different forces in your life that you’re not even aware of. So when you’re studying costume design, you’re not doing it based on your own life or something you know; you’re learning about a new character, a new environment, or a new time period. You have to study all of those things, I think, and be influenced by all of those things. A lot of people ask me, “Oh, why didn’t you go to costume design school? Why didn’t you go to fashion school, or art school?” but I actually feel like my training and my education is so perfect for what I do. Whenever I meet people in my industry who have a liberal arts background I’m so excited by that. I just think it was really perfect.
P-C: What inspired you for creating the look of Landline—especially since that 1990s fashion moment is happening again now?
Elisabeth: I came to that story with a specific familiarity with the context of it because I had also grown up in New York, in the 80s and the 90s. I felt like I knew the framework of it secondhand, but within that, the characters are specific and the characterizations of them by the actors are specific so you have to take that into account. We looked at a lot of first-hand research [like] old photographs and yearbooks. I always try to find photographers who were working at the time in order to get a street life sense that’s not necessarily available to you by looking at movies or television or magazines. Of course, any type of photography is, in some way, curated by the artist, but we were able to find this one book that was amazing called Kill City. It is basically a photo essay of people living in tenement houses and of squatters in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s. It was such a fascinating lens into the city that I was unfamiliar with. In Landline, specifically, we start to see those kind of characterizations with Ally and that downtown environment and the clothing that people had.
In terms of trends, I tried to come at it from more of a documentarion perspective more than a fashion one. When you’re doing a period film, sometimes it feels a little hyper-focused because you want it be super authentic and make sure everything feels of the period. You make sure you’re shopping vintage and thrift as opposed to going into Urban Outfitters or a department store where you’re getting a modern perspective of [the 90s]. It would not be totally accurate to say [though] that I wasn’t also inspired by today. I think you’re inspired by all kinds of different things. I think there’s a reason that Gillian [Robespierre], the director, and Liz [Elisabeth Holm], the writer/producer, wanted to return to this period now. There’s something about the 90s that we’re kind of going back to investigate so, of course, you have to keep present day influences in mind. In a way, you reevaluate the history that you’re trying to show on screen.
P-C: Do you have a favorite character to dress in the movie?
Elisabeth: I think it’s sort of tied, in all honesty, between Dana and Ali. I felt like I knew the character of Dana (Jenny Slate) a little more closely because she basically occupies this space where it was a little bit conservative, slightly bookish, but also taking voyeuristic steps into trends of the day. When we see her when she’s working at Paper magazine, she’s not necessarily the coolest dressed, or the most courageously dressed. She had a little bit of the downtown cool sensibility to her, but only as if she was dipping her toes in the pond. It was fun to find those boundaries for that character with Jenny. Also, I feel like Jenny brings her costumes to life. She’s so enigmatic, energetic, and so amazing to watch that whatever she would put on, she performed it so well. It’s fun to be in fittings with her. I also think [Dana’s] the character you feel like you associate with first. You want to let Dana take you on the ride of the movie. I liked shopping for that character because I knew she’d be the entryway for the audience into the story.
The character of Ali is just dressing in an environment in the 90s that is youth grunge, and young rave wear. She’s still kind of a child and, yet, making very courageous and, in some ways, dangerous choices for herself. I think that in terms of the fashion trends of the 90s there’s a lot of that mixing with baby doll dresses with big chain chokers or tying your hair really tight into those little Gwen Stefani buns and putting blue lipstick on. Or wearing a very short skirt with thigh high socks. It’s a lot of contradictions. That is very specific to the 90s. When you think of the 90s, you think about that sort of Clueless look. We played with that a little bit with Ali so it was fun to really flesh that out.
P-C: Is there one 90s look that you absolutely love and would personally wear right now?
Elisabeth: I always really liked and thought that tight necklaces—you might call them chokers now—get a bad rap. I always felt like they were really sexy on a woman. I remember you used to wear pieces of velvet fabric around your neck; we tried to work that in where we could in the film because it’s such a quick recognizable thing that is so indicative of that period. It’s funny, like, as I’ve moved away from the 90s—and hopefully elevated my style a little bit—I still feel like that tight wrap around the neck is a really cool look. Something that I still borrow from the 90s, especially after the 80s, is this sort of return to more earthy, softer fabrics with a little bit more of a boho loose style. I think that totally endures today.
P-C: You are also working on Jessica Jones’s second season. That has a very specific look. What are the challenges for you coming into the show for season 2 after styles have been established? Is it a challenge bringing that style, your style, and the comic style all together?
Elisabeth: First and foremost, it’s exciting for me. It’s clear that there is a very iconic look for Jessica, and that it works. It’s something that people have really tapped into and really like. There’s something about her style where it is sort of an elevated every day look, and, yet, it’s still very familiar. It looks like she could blend into the fabric of the city. She chooses to wear strong pieces [that] are somewhat simple. I was very excited to be brought along to get to know that character. And, yes, it’s the same show runner, of course Krysten [Ritter] is the same, there’s the same cast…so there’s definitely a stylistic point of view to the show that you try to work towards, but one of the wonderful things about coming on is how excited everybody was to also allow me to bring something new to the table. It’s become a really nice collaboration.
In a comic book show, of course, there’s a lot of action. There’s a lot of things the costume needs to be able to do: move and withstand a lot of rough stuff. So coming into it with that mindset and letting everyone know that they’re going to be taken care of in that way was important to me. Also being able to say, “I’m a New Yorker, and I have a point of view about the way the city looks, and I feel like I can bring something new to the table” [was] supported by everyone. When you come onto a project that’s already on its way, that’s already received some great accolades, and already gets notes for its style, you think to yourself, “What am I going to bring to the table that’s new?” But you have to trust yourself. It isn’t a show about fashion. It’s a show about storytelling and a character. As long as you keep that in the forefront and you keep those boundaries [along with] being able to express yourself in costume, you set yourself up for success. It’s really been the project of my life. I’m so thankful, and it’s just been so amazing.
P-C: Is there an era or style that you’d like to explore in a future project?
Elisabeth: For me, the most exciting fashion that we can think about is in the future. I love thinking about shows or enjoying projects that happen in another world. That doesn’t necessarily investigate where we’ve been, but places where we haven’t yet gone. That’s one of the things I love about Jessica Jones. It does have a little bit of a hyper-reality to it. I always find those kind of projects the most exciting because you can really stretch your mind and creativity. You can really use costume to have a comment on where we might be going in the world. I’ve always been interested in thinking about new fabrics, the way in which technology meets costume, and how we can meld the two together. The future of how we dress is the most at stake. I think fashion’s always [asking], “What’s in season next? What’s coming next?” Costume design is really an interesting incubator in developing some of those ideas.
P-C: Do you have someone you’d like to dress—a character or real person?
Elisabeth: There’s so many! I actually would be interested in dressing the next female president, whether it’s a project or in life. Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s looking like it will be a project. I’m fascinated with the way women are portrayed in film and television when they’re in a position of power; and maybe a position of power that they’ve yet to hold in society. I think that other than of course the casting and the writing, what’s doing a lot of the visual storytelling is how they dress. We’re so used to seeing that position [of power] in a suit—a men’s drab suit—that I think it would be so amazing for whoever is in that position to break the mold in terms of how they’re representing themselves to the world.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty pleasure TV show or movie
Any NFL documentary. I’d say Hard Knocks on HBO.
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Favorite Play or Musical
Rent. I can’t lie!
Go-to karaoke song
“Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
Artist You Can Listen to on Repeat
Florence and the Machine
Someone You Would Like to Meet
Landline Photo Credits: Amazon Studios