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How ‘Julia’ Costume Designer Crafted Show’s Vibrant Wardrobe: ‘Nothing Cookie-Cutter About It’

How ‘Julia’ Costume Designer Crafted Show’s Vibrant Wardrobe: ‘Nothing Cookie-Cutter About It’

Julia Child has been a part of John Dunn’s life for as long as he can remember. As a child, he watched her public TV cooking program, “The French Chef,” so often that she came to mean much more to him than just someone smiling encouragingly at him from inside the small screen. “She was one of those people that (made such an impact on me) — kind of like the-duckling-imprints-on-their-mom idea, where you’re at an impressionable age when you’re watching something,” he told TheWrap. “She was a very iconic person in my upbringing and in my DNA, almost, of growing up in America at a certain age.”

So to find himself years later designing the costumes for “Julia,” HBO Max’s series about the chef who brought French cooking to the American masses, seemed almost fated. “It was great, great fun to go in and do a real deep dive into the research about this person that I thought I knew as a personality on television, but really knew nothing about her private life and her backstory,” Dunn said. “So that proved to be a wonderful journey.”

“Julia” tells the story of Child’s rise to culinary superstardom, going deep into the development of “The French Chef” for Boston’s public broadcaster WBGH in the early 1960s and exploring how fame changed her life. For Dunn, creating the wardrobe for this version of Child, played by the English actress Sarah Lancashire, required understanding who the woman behind the apron really was.

“Her whole life, growing up in California and even the backstory of her family, which began out East and then, with a very pioneer spirit, were part of the movement West,” he said. “And her family built great industry and wealth wherever they went, in fact. And they ended up in wonderful Pasadena, where she where she grew up in lap of luxury and did not have to do any cooking because there was somebody cooking for her family.”

In addition to the many written sources, Dunn also drew from the vast collection of photos of Child, including those taken by her husband, Paul Child (played by David Hyde Pierce in “Julia”). “One of his professions, actually, was photographer and he loved to take personal pictures,” said Dunn, whose work on “Boardwalk Empire” earned him five of his six Emmy nominations. (The sixth was for “Mad Men.”) “In the years when they were first married, he documented a great deal of her look, her style. And then, of course, once she became well known, more and more photographs of her surface that we were able to delve into and base our work on.”

Here, Dunn takes us through the looks of some of the key characters in “Julia.”

Sarah Lancashire in “Julia” (HBO Max)

Julia Child (Sarah Lancashire)

“I really wanted to define each of the characters and give them each a personal style because they are all very individual and idiosyncratic and most of them are older and have lived full lives,” Dunn said. “The clothing needed to reflect the journeys that these people had been on.”

For Julia, he continued, “I have a couple of key notes that I was trying to hit. One of them was the fact that she had such a highly developed sense of taste and flavor and putting things together. And I wanted to have her clothing reflect this interesting mix of patterns and color, away from bland American food, that reflected in her wardrobe where she was making interesting choices. I thought it was a reflection of her style of cooking and her wanting to bring a sophisticated sense to the American palette.”

With that in mind, Dunn mixed patterns, much like Child herself did and created a series of striking looks, most custom made for Lancashire, like her green-and-yellow blouse (above) and her bright orange-and-red ensemble (below).

Sarah Lancashire in “Julia” (HBO Max)

“I also wanted to reflect the fact that she presented as a supremely confident person. Part of that was, she was very tall, probably six foot two, and always stood out, ever since she had been a teenager. So she was used to being someone who stood out and I think she took that ball and ran with it. She reflected that in her wardrobe: She had a love of color. She had a love of pattern and she liked to put them together in interesting ways, which also was a key to her presentation to the world and how people were drawn to her.”

Dunn steered clear of doing direct replications of what Julia wore in real life, preferring instead to capture her overall spirit. “I always find it’s really important, instead of doing a carbon copy of what that person was known for, even if it was very well known, you should always tweak it a little bit and it should be personalized for the particular actor that’s playing the part,” he said. “It helps the actor a great deal because then they don’t feel like they’re sort of trapped in aspic, to use a cooking term, and can inhabit the character more comfortably.”

The one exception to this approach was the uniform Child wore on “The French Chef,” a blue blouse emblazoned with the “Ecole des 3 Gourmandes” patch, a tribute to the informal cooking school that Child ran in Paris in the 1950s with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, her co-authors of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” “I thought that was important because people would be very familiar with that,” Dunn said.

David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth in “Julia” (HBO Max)

Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth)

Julia’s best friend in the series is an extremely sophisticated woman of letters who has recently lost her husband. So her wardrobe of subdued colors reflects this period of mourning, all while remaining perfectly chic. “That very much is how you would’ve perceived her in real life because she had a full, cultured life in New York city, she and her husband,” Dunn said. “And when he passed away, she was just up there in Cambridge, (Massachusetts), and away from that life, but (her style) didn’t fall away. That stylishness was part of who Avis was.”

Dunn sourced the majority of Neuwirth’s costumes from vintage couturiers online. “Bebe wears the vintage clothing so beautifully,” he said. “Vintage clothing can be a difficult challenge in that it’s hard finding the right sizes. But we’ve been able to dress Bebe with a great deal of couturier vintage.”

Adriane Lenox and Brittany Bradford in “Julia” (HBO Max)

Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford)

The series features three impressive women who work in competitive, male-dominated workplaces. Brittany Bradford’s Alice Naman is an ambitious junior producer at WGBH who is the first to see the potential in Child and is instrumental in getting her show off the ground. As a young Black woman in a 1960s corporate setting, Alice must prove herself again and again, only to see her male colleagues take credit for her work. Her wardrobe at work is professional — think pretty, soft cardigans and pencil skirts — and more conservative than the fun, vibrant patterns we see her wearing at home (above). Though the character is fictional, she is key to the story.

Judith Light as Blanche Knopf and Fiona Glascott as Judith Jones in “Julia” (HBO Max)

Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) and Blanche Knopf (Judith Light)

Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) was the legendary editor who famously rescued “The Diary of Anne Frank” from a pile of rejected manuscripts. In the series, she works with Blanche Knopf at her eponymous publishing company, where she edits, among other works, a John Updike novel and Julia Child’s second cookbook. She is a steadfast supporter of Child as she develops her television program. Like Avis, Judith and Blanche are the height of sophistication, but their wardrobe has a harder, more formal side to it, reflecting the corporate setting where high-ranking women were still anomalies.

“Judith Jones was a very, very famous editor. She was a powerhouse in truly what was a man’s world,” Dunn said. “She was being mentored, of course, by Blanche Knopf, who was sort of molding her into a next generation female editor that had to steel herself to be in this rather hostile environment of New York City and the publishing industry. Judith Light as Blanche, we’ve resourced a lot in Los Angeles of couturier vintage that she wears for her office scenes, all the wonderful suits that she wears.”

“I just really went deep into into the known thought processes and what these people must have been going through in each of their journeys,” Dunn continued. “They were such a diverse group of people that Julia had around her that it was fun because there was nothing cookie cutter about it.”

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