Pop-Culturalist Chats with Stephanie Maslansky
If you’ve watched any of Netflix’s Marvel television shows, then you know Stephanie Maslansky’s work. A seasoned costume designer based in New York City, Stephanie shaped and created the costumes for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and, most recently, The Defenders. We were able to chat with her about how she creates these iconic looks.
PC: When did you know you wanted to make costume design your career?
Stephanie: Actually, I had sort of an epiphany when I was about 23 years old. My mom had just passed away, and I was back in Minneapolis dealing with her affects. Up until that point I had no idea of what I should do with my life. I was out of college, and I thought I should know. I’d always loved clothing, fashion, and sewing—I learned how to sew when I was really young—but, I had a degree in history and literature from college. One night I finished going through my mom’s stuff, and I was on a walk with my dog. I passed a very high-end women’s clothing store that existed in Minneapolis at the time. There were some costumes in the window from a production at the Guthrie Theater [a regional Minnesota theater], and I saw the costumes in the window. I looked at them and said, “Oh, I could do that.”
From that point on, I had to figure out how to do that. The first thing I did was get an internship at the Guthrie Theater. I learned a ton. At the end of that, I decided it was time to move to New York. I actually applied to graduate school at NYU and got in, but I decided, instead, to take a chance working. I started off in theater at the bottom of the barrel. I was a shopper in costume shops. Finally, I became an assistant costume designer for a couple off-Broadway shows [and] shows at BAM. I was frustrated with how little money you make in theater and how long it takes—I think that’s where I really felt the pain of not having gone to graduate school. Somebody suggested I work as a stylist for commercials. At first, I turned my nose up at that, but then I started getting a little bit of work. And, it turned out to be a wonderful experience. During that time I started costuming for some film, too, until I was finally able to cobble together a resume and portfolio. [Then, I] got a little bit more film work and landed in television.
PC: So let’s jump to all the Marvel shows you have worked on. Since all of those have plenty of source material, how did that affect all of your design choices and your preparation process?
Stephanie: Well, we start by being very influenced by the comic illustrations that obviously exist for all of these characters. Some of these shows stopped being produced as comics years ago, but started up again recently now that the live action TV shows are popular (like Luke Cage). Now they’re modeling the illustrations on the characters we’ve created which is cool. It’s very much of a back and forth: from movies to televisions to comics to novels. I’m waiting for the Broadway play to come out of The Defenders or Jessica Jones. I’m certain the musical is right around the corner! [laughs] These shows are based in a gritty, grounded New York City. So, we take these comic book illustrations and imagine how they might look in 2017, how these characters might look, and how we can take them out of the comic book and translate them into real-life clothing on real-life actors.
I think the biggest challenge is the fact that these are real-life actors doing a lot of real-life fighting. Everybody has a stunt double, and everyone needs multiples of their costumes. Jessica Jones didn’t just have one leather jacket; she had about two dozen. Everything had to be in multiples. Not only that, but you have to prepare clothing with stretch in them. You have to add gussets to crotches and underarms—anywhere that you possibly can. Oftentimes that entails painting spandex fabric to look like a wool suit or a silk blouse or whatever. There’s a lot of tricks to the trade, and we’re on the road to learning them all. One of the other challenges is just trying to get into these characters’ heads. [For instance,] who they are as illustrations, who they become as real-life characters, and what are the similarities and differences of the two.
There is a similarity with all these characters [that] helped with the design: they all struggle with who they are as superheroes. They don’t really expose it, and it’s not necessarily something they show off about. Instead, they kind of use their clothing—which for three out of four of them is not a costume—as an emotional superhero costume. It’s a way to protect themselves and hide their identities just by blending in to everyday people. Jessica Jones has her leather motorcycle jacket. It’s a tough piece of clothing that people wear when they want to present a certain image. She’s obviously one of those. Luke Cage starts off in a hoodie—which has all sorts of political implications these days—but part of why he chooses it is because he hides behind it. He starts off in season 1 as a felon having escaped from Seagate Prison so he really needs to make sure people don’t recognize him. As he gets more well-known, though, it’s harder and harder, and he gets nabbed and sent back to jail; however, for the larger part of season 1, he spends a lot of time very conflicted about who he is and not [wanting to] be seen or noticed and wanting to keep to himself. Then there’s Iron Fist who in the comics has an elaborate costume. And obviously Matt Murdock has reasons for hiding and not allowing his identity to be found. He’s the only one to wear a physical mask.
PC: How much collaboration do you have with the actors?
Stephanie: There is a tremendous amount of collaboration with the actors and with Marvel. When you’re working on these shows, you’re working with live people and their opinions on how they should look and dress. Obviously, there were parameters because we’re emulating these very specific superheroes, but we’re also evolving them with the times and making them authentic and workable for the various action and stunts that are required of the character. I listen to all of it, and, sometimes, I often agree—especially when it comes to a matter of comfort and safety. Sometimes I don’t. We have spirited and practical conversations about what’s going to work best for the character and actor. There’s a lot of compromise. Marvel has a lot of input, particularly when we’re establishing a new character. I do a lot of tear sheets. There’s an approval processes with Marvel when we’re developing a new look or [doing] an homage to a character. Hopefully, not only the actor likes it, but Marvel does too. It’s been really great and enjoyable so far.
PC: In bringing all of these stories together in The Defenders, did you make sure there was a common look between all of them?
Stephanie: Not really. First of all, I wasn’t even sure it would work when I started with Daredevil. I never rest on my laurels. Then I got Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and then I was offered Iron Fist. I was offered to do The Defenders, and I was thrilled because, for me, that was the endpoint in tying them all together. The interesting thing that we did was that we really created individual worlds in The Defenders for each of the characters. A lot of it was based on their color palettes—palettes we had already established on the individual shows. For example, the colors associated with Matt Murdock are red and black. With Jessica Jones, they are navy blues and deep purples; for Luke Cage there was gold and black; for Iron Fist there was olive green and a little bit of gold. So we kind of have these very strict palettes that we worked within when we were developing the look of each of the characters. Then, when they crossed over into each other’s worlds, we had to make choices about which colors we’d use…it was interesting. We all had specific charts that we consulted all the time to make sure we wouldn’t make mistakes because it had been very specific and defined by the colors.
PC: Do you have a favorite look from the shows?
Stephanie: Oh my gosh. People ask me that all the time, and I gotta be honest with you…I have so many. I love designing each character because each one is such a challenge. I love working with beautiful couture clothing. A lot of villains wear beautiful clothing so that’s a lot of fun. At the same time, I like doing a lot of gritty things and making a look authentic by aging clothes and making the multiples match each other. I mean, I don’t do all that work by myself. Believe you me, I have a gigantic team. It’s a lot of fun.
Pop-Culturalist Speed Round
Guilty Pleasure TV Show
Fargo. I’m from Minnesota so I get such a kick out of those exaggerated accents.
One of my favorite movies is 25th Hour.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
Favorite Play or Musical
Not a big musical fan, but I did really love The Full Monty. My favorite play…I loved Equus. I also loved Three Tall Women by Edward Albee.
The Song You Could Have on Repeat
I listen to podcasts and news these days. I’m obsessed with Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.