Designer Ana Crabtree gives '50s look of 'Masters of Sex' a solid foundation

09/03/2014 8:00 PM

09/04/2014 4:54 AM

The key to costume designer Ana Crabtree’s making the cast of “Masters of Sex” look appropriately dressed – or undressed – for the late 1950s starts with a solid foundation of undergarments.

The look of women’s underwear from the period – especially the bullet-shaped bras and body-hugging girdles – is what makes the suits, dresses and other outer garments look right.

All of the clothes – under and outer – for the main actors are made by Crabtree and her team.

“I start out tying to make every piece for all the principals and even some of the day players. I do that because everything has to be a certain palette. Everything has to be tonally right for our show,” Crabtree says.

“What I started learning was that because the ’50s were so primary in tone – on purpose because we had to be happy after the war – it didn’t work for our show. So instead of trying to dye everything to soften the primary colors, I just decided to make everything.”

The series (10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime) follows the sexual studies performed by William H. Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia E. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and features many scenes where the actors are stripped down to their underwear. Every undergarment is designed to bring together the look of the time period with the comfort of modern fabrics.

Crabtree tells the female actors that the underwear of the 1950s creates a sense of confidence. The actresses still have to squeeze into girdles that help give them the posture that’s right for the times, but they are made from Spandex that has more give than the material from a half century ago.

Not only does making all of the clothes suit the visual design of the show, it makes for happier actors. Crabtree’s found that when the clothes feel right, the wardrobe feels more like a second skin.

Creating and fitting outfits can often be done in record time. Television production moves quickly, so that means a wardrobe request can come only days before filming.

There’s not enough time to make the clothing for the background actors. The majority of what they wear comes from one of the many costume houses in Los Angeles. But, even when given a short time frame, Crabtree makes all the clothes for the main cast.

Crabtree started making her own clothes when she was young out of necessity. She grew up in northern Kentucky away from any real centers for fashion, so she started with trips to the thrift stores run by the Salvation Army.

After attending Harlaxton College in Lincolnshire, England, and The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Crabtree began working in the TV and film world in the mid-’90s. Her costume designs have been seen in TV shows including “The Sopranos,” “Without a Trace,” “LAX,” “Shark,” “Justified” and “Pan Am.”

“Oddly, what influences me the most is a study of Shakespeare and painting,” Crabtree says. “It gives you a different kind of eye when you approach this world, which is so serious.”

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