When it comes to cinematic period pieces, it should come as no surprise that a great deal of thought is placed upon costumes. They are, along with design sets, what most clearly establishes the scene for audiences, offering a visual shorthand into a different world than our own. Z: The Beginning of Everything, a new Amazon Original series starring David Hoflin and Christina Ricci as the legendary F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, tells the story of one of the most famous, headline-making, and turbulent love affairs of the 20th century. The costumes, in turn, tell the story of the beginnings and rise of one of the most fashionable eras in American history to date.
Known best for his work on shows like House of Cards (yes, he's responsible for some of Claire Underwood's most killer looks) and Saturday Night Live, Broecker came on as costume designer for the series following the pilot (which Stacey Battat styled) with little experience of dressing for this time period. “I've done things which were pre-1915 and things which were post-1925, so this was my first project that sort of dealt with this post-World War I [time],” says Broecker. “In addition, most of what I knew about the Fitzgeralds was by way of the literature, like their books and people talking about their books, but I didn't know a lot about Zelda at all.” He dove into research headfirst to come up with looks that were reflective of the era yet weren't entirely outdated, so they would appear pleasing to the modern eye and taste palette.
What Z perfectly captures through dress is the transition and growth of Zelda's character from a young Southern belle in Alabama, donning sweet bloom-adorned dresses, to the original flapper during the Jazz Age in the '20s, with an overabundance of furs, beads, and pearls to match her opulent attitude, and onward to her time in the early stages of motherhood, spent on the Cote d'Azur. “We were looking in three or four sort of chunks. The South being one chunk, and New York being one chunk, and then we have the summer out in the water where everything looked like the Hamptons, and then the last sort of part was the road trip,” says Broecker.
With most of the clothing and accessories scored from vintage markets in London, New York, and Los Angeles, Broecker often had to work backward when dressing the cast. “If I was out vintage shopping or thrift shopping and I saw some amazing piece, I'd be like, 'I don't know, but I'll probably never see this thing again in my entire life, and, there's some reason why I'm looking at it at this particular moment, so I'm just going to buy it and someday, somewhere, tomorrow, maybe six months, maybe four years from now I'll find the right person for the right dress.”
After binge-watching the series this weekend (Z: The Beginning of Everything dropped last Friday via Amazon) and marveling at the versatility, transformation, and wearability of the looks (while all speak accurately to the era, I envisioned wearing many today as I absorbed the series), we caught up with Broecker to get the scoop on his favorite looks, find out what it was like to dress Ricci, and imagine what Zelda would wear if she were around today. Ahead, his thoughts.
What kind of research did you do before you started working on the series?
Well, the thing about doing a project which is based on a real person, you have to do a lot more research. So I read all the biographies about Zelda Fitzgerald and, you know, just exhausted pictorial research. And then I started reading about what was going on during that time period, and what was going on in Alabama at the time, and what was going on in New York, and what was going on with the war, 'cause all of those things add context to how people dress and live.
What happened next?
What happens a lot of times when you're doing period pieces, you have to look at all the research and then sort of help the modern eye dissect it, because we don't want it to be a museum piece, and it's not. And also the fabrics don't necessarily exist as they existed back then, and the way in which clothes were made is different; so, you know, there's a little bit of a contemporary spin on the clothes. We kept true to the essence of the period and used real vintage clothing probably 80 percent of the time, and if we had to use modern clothes, we had to make sure that it really fit in within the context of what we were doing. We didn't create a world which was a hybrid between modern and period like you do in a Shakespearean [play] or say a musical or anything like that. This is based in a very specific time period, so we really engaged in the time period.
It’s incredible that you were able to find so many amazing vintage pieces to use.
It was crazy. I've never done a show like that, and so it's a whole different sort of system of working, and it's a whole different system of trying to really, like, fine-tune things. I mean, certainly, we made some things, but a lot of the things that were made were either based on dresses we had seen or copies of dresses that were too fragile to wear or rebuild. Yeah, it's an intense way of working 'cause you kind of have to buy when you see it, so to speak; like, I would be on eBay or Etsy or in a costume warehouse or working with a vendor and be like, “Okay, I don't necessarily need this right now, but I feel like in about six weeks there might be something that's going to come that I'm going to need this dress, so I'm going to put it aside.” I like to say, the dress will find the actor or somehow the two will marry each other at some point.
Did you use anything from contemporary stores for the other 20 percent?
It's hard to mix modern and period, and certainly, like I said before, that's not what we started off to do. There was an episode which took place during the summer, so we had a little more license because we were shooting during the summer and some of the clothes that were out there were reflective of that kind of silhouette and that feeling. But, for the most part, the clothes that were not vintage came from costume shops and had been made for other shows and that sort of stuff. Therefore, they had a reality of the period but weren't necessarily real vintage clothes and instead were recreated to look vintage.
Did you have a favorite look on the show?
I would have to say one of my favorite looks was in the speakeasy scene. We made these dancing girls that had feathers, and when Zelda and F. Scott went up to Harlem and were partying in the speakeasy, like, that whole scene was really really fun to design; it was such a burst of color, we were injecting this sort of very New York feel into it and party atmosphere and a lot of beads and chiffon and colors and rich tones and all that sort of stuff and trying to really get the kind of atmosphere of what it must have been like to party, and it was really fun.
How did you approach Zelda's look?
Christina was really an amazing collaborator, and we wanted to really tell Zelda's story, by way of how she sort of viewed her own growth; we wanted to make it clear what her look was in Alabama and the South and how it changed dramatically once she came up to New York and started seeing what the other girls were wearing. Once she started feeling more self-confident, we started putting black into her wardrobe and she went from a flower to a skyscraper. Our image for the South was based on a lot of different kinds of flowers, like pansies and lilacs and the color of flowers and the sort of silhouettes and upside-down tulips, and that kind of very natural feeling, and then, as we came to New York, the influence of the jazz and the streets and the skyscrapers and noise and the cars started to lend itself to a completely different feel and tone. We really wanted to chart her change, and as she was growing and changing and developing her own sense of style, that was really reflected in the time right after she came to New York.
Did you enjoy working on one time period more than the other two in this show?
I like doing all of them because each one, while you're in it, is like doing a sort of mini-movie and has its own beauty. Like for the first half which took place in the South, I was obsessed with the beautiful light-colored patterns of the dresses and the beautiful peach and lilac organdy dresses that Zelda wears; they just float on the air and dance around her. And then certainly, when you come up to New York, I mean that's the beginning of what we consider the flapper era, and so you have all of the chiffons and the beaded chiffons and the furs and the sort of excess of all of that. That's exhilarating to over-accessorize with the hats and the gloves and all that sort of stuff. Then you get to the beach [part,] and you're like, “What is the summer like here?” The bathing suits and robes and the heat of it and the see-through cotton dresses of the period are so beautiful.
What was the collaborative effort between you and Christina Ricci like?
Christina has such great style anyway, and she has such a strong sense of fashion and understanding, and so it was so good working with her, trying to make sure that all the outfits were really reflective of that moment, what she was feeling, what she was going through emotionally; we tried to be really specific in choosing the outfits to make them reflect her growth as a character and be responsive to her emotional state and who she was at that particular moment.
Was there any other character that you particularly enjoyed dressing aside from Zelda?
I mean, the women are incredibly interesting to work with and dress, but, you know, the silhouette of the men is particularly really beautiful during this period as well—that high collar and those ties. When you start to dissect the textures, tones, that beautiful white collar that frames the neck and therefore frames the face, they are so beautiful on a man. It's just sort of getting all those details and the cuff links and the French cuffs and the suspenders and the shoes—the men almost had more pieces than the women once you started breaking them down.
You’ve done a lot of modern-day set shows. What was the experience of working on a period piece like for you?
It's one of the hardest things I've ever done in my entire life. Just because of the speed and the amount of what we had to get done. In modern dress, you have to think of the character and how the modern clothes fit the character. And then in period, all of a sudden I was like, "Oh, you have to do the same thing. It's not like you're dressing, you know, Tallulah Bankhead [played by Christina Bennett Lind] and you're just copying something. You have to go, 'Wait, what's the essence of Tallulah Bankhead? What would she be and how would she dress? As a modern person, how would I translate that through 1920?'" I mean, there was a layer of having to still get the essence even though you're dealing with period clothes.
It also seems like the common link between Z and the modern-day shows you’ve worked on is the presence of strong women characters.
It's 100 percent like that. I tend to be attracted to shows which have very strong women as their central part. I'm also just obsessed with dressing women. I mean, no offense to the boys, but it's just so great to dress women.
If Zelda was around today, what would she wear?
The thing about Zelda is she was so forward-thinking so—I have a lot of different things, but I'll say the first thing that sort of popped into my mind and I don't know whether this is true or not—someone like Iris Van Herpen. The obvious things would be to say Chanel or Dior or someone else who has gorgeous clothes like that. But I would choose Iris because she's so cutting-edge and she's so ahead of her time and she's so forward-thinking and she's all about women and the empowerment of women. And part of what Zelda was, she was a maverick in terms of wanting to have equal rights for men and women and that women should be treated like men and women should be able to do what men do and all that sort of stuff. Iris is a very avant-garde, forward-thinking person, and, I think on some level, that's what Zelda was too.
Again, there are so many beautiful designers out there, like Chanel and Givenchy, but I would still probably send her to someone who's a little off the chart. Certainly Raf Simons is another one; I'm dying to see what he's doing at Calvin Klein. He uses technology, and he's such a thinker and has the forward motion of keeping something pure and pushing it forward.
Iris, though, she's an independent person and she thinks for herself and she goes outside of the norm of what society may think and so that, I think, is also what Zelda was. She didn't adhere to the trappings of what society was trying to tell her to do.