Stars In Their Underwear

 By Diana Eden, 2020

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(...) I am getting restless with the repetition of doing nothing but sitcoms and am itching to do dramas. It seems all my contacts are in sitcoms, and I am pigeon-holed in that category. Moving out of it into another area may be just as hard as moving from Broadway dancer to actress. But in 1992, I am hired for my first soap opera, Santa Barbara, known rather grandly as a daytime drama. I have never watched a soap before in my life. I have never been interested in designing soaps or sitcoms. Well, we know how that worked out.

I start work on January 2nd at NBC in Burbank, where an entire stage and support area has belonged to the show during its seven-year run. I move into a large wardrobe room on the main floor with two desks, a fitting room, closets, and a storage area across the hall for racks and racks of the characters' clothes.

Within an hour of my arrival, the producers send down the latest scripts. I am told that "Mason and Julia are getting married in a week," so I had better get busy on her wedding gown. "Who are Mason and Julia ?" I ask. My crew is aghast at my ignorance as if it were the biggest event of the decade. In fact, I have no idea how huge this wedding is in the soap world. Nancy Grahn, playing Julia, and Gordon Thomson, playing Mason, are an immensely popular couple with an audience who is rooting for them to tie the knot.

Nancy, a forceful woman and quite intimidating when I first meet her, comes into the wardrobe room to discuss her wedding gown. She is on the phone with her agent as I am trying to get the measuring tape around her, and I find myself ducking under the telephone cord when I need to move to her other side. It's like a bizarre game of Twister.

She tells me she likes the 1940's silhouette. Since it is l990 when this is being filmed, wide shoulders are still in style, so this isn't too much of a stretch. But to make the somewhat masculine silhouette more feminine, I decide it should be made of silk chiffon, pleated onto the bodice and sleeve. I add a long sheer cape attached at the shoulders, which I hope will billow in the breeze in the exterior scenes. I remember from my Diana Ross days how effective a cape flowing in the wind can be. And Nancy agrees to a snood for her hair, a 1940's element, which I will have crocheted and encrusted with pearls.

There is no time to waste. We have a wonderful workroom at NBC, where many NBC shows have their costumes built, right down the hall from the Tonight Show stage. I shop for the fabric and entrust my design to Hasmic, the head patternmaker. She does a fantastic job. Within a week, we are on location at a beautiful estate in Pasadena, the same location where the infamous catfight between Joan Collins and Linda Evans had been filmed for the show Dallas. I have attired bride and groom, flower girl, and the entire Capwell clan. What a beginning !

One of the first things I do, after the wedding scenes are finished filming, is to sort through the actors' closets and weed out outfits that I think uninteresting, not my design aesthetic, or look too worn. This turns out disastrously. One actress, in particular, is appalled, saying, "where's my grey dress ? That was one of my favorites !" I hope the actors will learn to have faith in the new look I want to bring to the show.

It isn't only me who is nervous and insecure. Soon I come to understand that change is also upsetting for the actors. They have become comfortable with the former designer and used to her ways. And now, here is a new person they have never met or heard of. They have no way of knowing whether I may or may not be collaborative and whether I will give them the clothes they want. Will I make them look good ? They, after all, are the ones going on camera, not me.

I am gaining more self-confidence in my abilities, though still not feeling totally worthy of A-level costume designer status. I still wonder from time to time when I will be found out as a fraud. But the speed with which things have to be done on a soap opera leaves little time for anxiety.

I am learning how to get out of my own way and let my subconscious do the designing. I begin to experience the ideas flowing when I am driving a car and only half paying attention, that state of semi consciousness where the imagination doesn't have to work so hard. The ideas begin to emerge from the deepest parts of the brain, the part that has stored every artistic image I have ever seen, every painting, every ballet, every colorful bird on a branch of a tree in spring. First, I must let all those images in. They will snuggle down and hibernate, and then surprise me one day by popping out unannounced and landing on the page of my newest costume sketch.

Nancy's wedding gown went from suggestion to fully realized sketch within a day - there was no time to linger and agonize.

The writers come up with some creative and outlandish story lines, which allow me some wonderful designing challenges. One of these is when Lionel is to wed his beloved Gina, played by Robin Mattson. The marriage is to take place within a production of Romeo and Juliet performed by a traveling Shakespearian troupe. Lionel is played by the kind and eloquent Nicolas Coster, a classically trained English actor whom I previously costumed as Blair's father on The Facts of Life.

White was not a color for brides in those past eras, but since audiences expect it for a wedding gown, I have to come up with something that looks bridal and yet suitable for the Shakespearian period. I confess I am thrilled with the result - a cream-colored damask gown with black velvet inserts and pearl trim. Later, NBC put the gown on display in an area where the NBC tours pass on their way to the Johnny Carson show, along with Nancy Grahn's bridal gown.

Click on the photos to enlarge them

A fan asked me who my favorite actress to design for is. While that is like being asked to choose a favorite child, the person who comes to mind immediately is Sydney Penny. She is so easy to design for. Not only does she have a lovely body to clothe, but she is so down to earth, adventurous and open about ideas that I have. That is always such a treat. Sometimes I want to design something a little different from the norm, especially when it comes to wedding gowns. Although the producer always has final approval on designs, it helps when an actor is willing to go along with some crazy ideas.

Characters B.J. and Warren are to wed on the very final episode of Santa Barbara, the one that wraps up all the story lines and ends the series. I want to do a 1930's themed gown for Sydney. We go together to Palace Costumes, a small costume rental house that excels in period clothing, to look for inspiration. Instead, we find an authentic 1930's dress that we love and decide it will be her actual gown. It is a bias-cut form-clinging silk gown with quilted silk flowers. I want to add my own unique touch, so I design a white velvet coat to go over the dress, and a "Juliet" cap with more silk flowers for her hair. Sydney's face and bone structure allow her to wear things close to her head. She isn't a big fluffy veil type. Needless to say, she looks breathtaking.

We are to shoot on location at the gorgeous Ritz Carlton Hotel at Laguna Niguel on the California coast. We film in late December, and the actors are in formal wear, the actresses in elegant gowns. The icy ocean breeze is whipping up the bluff, and we are all absolutely freezing. I am so glad I have made the white velvet coat part of Sydney's costume. As she approaches her groom in the open-air setting, a small breeze picks up the train of the coat and gives the whole outfit some movement. I am standing just off-camera going "Yes ! Yes !"

One thing I discover is that on soaps, I have all sorts of opportunities to design historical periods, flashbacks, fantasies, and situations far beyond the everyday clothes that are the bread and butter of my daily work. We had a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, an Amish sequence, the Shakespearian scenes in which Lionel and Gina get married, a hippie flashback, and many more. I always look forward to these scenes, though I also love doing glamorous clothes. Making men and women look elegant is always a joy for me, and where better than on a soap opera that is set in sunny Santa Barbara, California. But I have no idea of the show's broader audience, its global impact.

Sometimes I wonder if my life's work is really meaningful in the larger scheme of things. Am I curing cancer ? Helping underfed children ? Teaching the next generation ? Is my putting evening gowns and glittery jewelry on attractive actors actually shallow and superficial work ?

The full relevance of Santa Barbara does not come to me until much later when I start to learn about the impact of the show in Europe and in countries still barely emerging from the Communist regime. Santa Barbara was the first American soap opera to be broadcast on Russian television. Three times a week, from 1992 to 2002, all through the early post-Soviet years of hardship, life across Russia's eleven time zones came to a standstill as the sounds of Santa Barbara's intro music flowed from millions of TV sets. (...)

(...) One of the loveliest actors on the show is A Martinez, whom I only got to costume for a few months. He is a lovely gentle person with soulful intelligence and an enormous heart. When he left the show, he wrote a letter to the cast, which I keep framed in my workroom today. It sums up what a show can bring to people.
We make art here, not every day, perhaps, but certainly more than occasionally... Through all the yammering about the ratings and the teetering future and the "wouda shoulda coulda" history, Santa Barbara shines like a light in millions and millions of lives. All around this planet, people are diverted, soothed, and moved by our daily efforts, their hearts brightened, and their spirits raised.

What more can a designer ask than to be part of something that brings such joy ? (...)

Stars In Their Underwear
By Diana Eden
© Miranda Press, 2020