On this hit show, the clothes make the 'Girls'

Karen Schwartz / New York Times News Service /


Published Jan 8, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Maybe it was the episode when Hannah, the main character on the HBO series “Girls,” wore a cardigan festooned with tomatoes to her first paid job, at a law office. Or the one in which Marnie, her uptight best friend, wore a bright little cocktail dress to a Bushwick loft party. Or the one where Jessa wore a long see-through eyelet dress over hot pink underwear to her gig as a nanny.

It’s hard to pin down the exact moment, but at some point while watching the show last spring, I had an unexpected flashback to an ensemble I wore when I was just out of college: a black romper with knickers paired with a white oxford shirt, a red necktie and tights with Lichtenstein-esque cartoons on them. I referred to this get-up as my “signature outfit” and wore it primarily on job interviews.

Such is the difference between “Girls,” whose second season begins on Jan. 13, and its most obvious predecessor, “Sex and the City.” You watched Sarah Jessica Parker et al and thought, I wish I had those shoes. You watch Lena Dunham and crew and think, There, with the grace of God, I wenteth.

The fashions on “Girls” may not be aspirational, but they are very much intentional. “We are very conscious about what the girls are wearing,” said Dunham, the show’s 26-year-old creator/writer/director, who plays Hannah. “We spend a lot of time talking about that outfit you can’t believe you wore but you know you spent three days dreaming up.”

The show’s costume designer, Jennifer Rogien, agreed. “The overall theme of the show is all the mistakes we go through when we’re trying to find our footing,” she said. “We wanted to embrace all those factors — the youth, the first job, the insecurity in relationships, both romantic and friendship — and see if we could reflect that through the clothing.”

Where “Sex and the City” created a high-end designer-driven fantasy, “Girls” strives above all else for authenticity. “We were really concerned about realism, verisimilitude,” Dunham said, adding that Jenni Konner, an executive producer, “is always there at my costume fittings to say, ‘That fits a little too well.’”

“She’s always calling out the potential for any TV-matchy-cutesy-ness,” Dunham said.

The wardrobes, said Rogien, who previously worked on “The Good Wife” and “Bored to Death,” “are extremely character-driven.”

For these characters, outfits are an important form of self-expression, Dunham said. “The clothes are really meant to reflect the fantasy the girls have about themselves and are sort of unsuccessfully fulfilling,” she said.

Each girl has her own distinct style. Hannah, Rogien said, is “lovingly disheveled.”

Many of Hannah’s mix-and-match outfits come from vintage and thrift stores and sometimes yield looks that don’t look that flattering on the character. “But she’s fully committed to them,” Rogien explained. In fact, she said, “sometimes we tailor the clothes to fit her even worse.”

Marnie, Hannah’s uptight best friend, played by Allison Williams, suffers from the opposite problem. “She’s very put together,” Rogien said. Marnie favors structured sheath dresses and wears pieces from Black Halo and DVF. “She’s trying really hard to be professional, to be grown-up, and sometimes she overshoots.” As in Season 1, when she dons a Tibi dress and pumps for a party in Bushwick. “She’s wearing essentially a bat mitzvah dress to a grungy loft party,” Rogien said.

Shoshanna, the quirkily nervous New York University student played by Zosia Mamet, is the most concerned with outfit propriety. “She’s someone whose reading every book, every magazine and kind of using every fashion rule together at once,” Konner said.

And she shops, as Rogien explained. “She’s got both time and potentially a little money to do a little bit of shopping, she said. “We shop her in Bloomingdale’s and Saks.”

Shoshanna is also a big fan of loungewear. She has been known to sport a Juicy Couture sweatsuit, and memorably watched TV in a purple peace-sign snuggy. (“I love that snuggy,” Rogien said.)

Mamet said: “It’s about the proper attire for every moment. Even her pajamas match.”

And the bohemian Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke, is, Dunham said, “a girl with an innately cool sense of style whose confidence can veer into the crazily inappropriate.” Not only did Jessa wear the aforementioned sheer dress to baby-sit (“it’s floor-length,” she said, by way of justification), but she also wore a bathrobe, Ugg boots and geisha-esque hair and makeup to meet up with an ex-boyfriend for a stroll in the park.

The character’s style is, in fact, quite similar to Kirke’s in real life. “I went to high school with Jemima,” Dunham said, “and dressing like Jemima was the top pursuit of every girl.”

Many of Jessa’s clothes have, in fact, been based on Kirke’s real-life outfits, and, in the case of some pieces, like her quickie wedding dress, culled from Geminola, the West Village store owned by her mother, the designer Lorraine Kirke. The elder Kirke’s repurposed vintage designs were featured on “Sex and the City,” and Dunham herself worked at Geminola during college.