The small-screen adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller, “Little Fires Everywhere,” is packed with simmering frustration, explosive conflict and slow-burn reveals of decades of lies. But the limited series — starring and co-executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington — is also a comprehensive ’90s time capsule full of pop culture references and fashion, which allows for welcome moments of levity and nostalgia. (The first episode alone has mentions of “The Real World: San Francisco” and Drew Barrymore in “Boys on the Side.”)
Throughout the mostly 1997-set series, veteran costume designer Lyn Paolo used fashion to help bring the novel to life and illustrate the juxtaposition of class and race in the conservative suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The lives of the affluent Richardson family — tightly-wound mom Elena (Witherspoon), buttoned-up husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) and their four teenage children — converge with newly-arrived single parent Mia (Washington) and her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). They must confront secrets in their pasts, social injustice and fraught mother-child dynamics when Mia’s restaurant co-worker and Chinese immigrant Bebe (Lu Huang) fights for custody of her baby, who is being adopted by the Richardson’s close friends.
“I lived through this,” says Paolo, best known for being Shonda Rhimes’s go-to costume designer, having dressed Washington in high-end suits, plush coats and loads of Prada bags for seven seasons of “Scandal.” In the actual year of 1997, Paolo was on her third year of “ER,” the long-running hit hospital drama on NBC. “I was shopping and buying to dress George, Julianna and Noah, so I really had a sense in my head of what was out there.” (As in, Clooney, Margulies and Wylie.)
After reading the scripts for “Little Fires Everywhere,” Paolo raided the ’90s aisle at the Warner Bros. costume warehouse, home to pieces actually worn on the aforementioned “E.R.” and on “Friends.” Paolo’s research process involved mining film and TV faves of the era, like “Ally McBeal” and “The X-Files” for coats and suiting. For the kids and their classmates, she looked at ABC’s “TGIF Friday” mainstays, “Full House” and “Step by Step.” (She also costume-designed the latter.) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was “definitely” an influence, she says, especially for a homecoming dance sequence featuring spaghetti-strapped, apron-front dresses accessorized with chokers and baby butterfly clips.
Also a “really big tell” for the team, according to Paolo? “Dawson’s Creek,” the iconic WB series that actually premiered in 1998 and launched Jackson’s career. “He constantly would say to me, ‘This is like Pacey grew up and became a lawyer!’ We would spend a lot of time laughing that his journey had come in a big circle from ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Little Fires.'”
Paolo also explains that the pop-culture deep cuts inevitably led to a brainstorm of definitive ’90s brands, like Ball of Cotton baby cardigans — which “all the girls” wore over their little slip dresses — plus a plethora of low-rider, boot-cut denim labels, such as Chip & Pepper and Gitano.
“Kerry completely embraced the jeans. We laughed so much in the fittings because, for us, it was such a difference from ‘Scandal,'” says Paolo, about Washington’s Mia, who wears a free-spirited mix of thrifted (or thrifted-looking) pieces. The costume designer admits to “cheating” with some contemporary ’90s-inspired styles from Urban Outfitters, but she mostly outfitted Mia in vintage Ann Taylor, Girbaud and Pepe Jeans. Plus, Paolo gave Washington the ultimate ’90s hand-me-down: “Kerry wears one cardigan that Julianna Margulies wore on ‘ER.'”
Mia’s wardrobe also features worn-in vintage band and concert tees, which would probably sell for $500-plus in a Soho boutique in 2020, including ones from David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust persona, Bob Marley‘s 1976 Rastaman Vibration Tour and The Velvet Underground, which pops up in more than one pivotal moment. Paolo concedes that the shirts do look badass, but also reveal clues about Mia’s mysterious past.
“This woman’s been a nomad and she’s traveled all over the country,” she explains. “So we tried to find shirts from concerts that happened all over to give a subtle hint. ‘OK, that concert was in San Francisco’ and ‘This one was in Chicago.’ When Mia’s creating her art, she listens to music. In her bohemian lifestyle, whenever she had any extra money, she went to concerts — or she bought them secondhand. Either way, it was an important part of who she was and told a story that she had been on the run, essentially — hiding all over the country.”
Mia’s costumes visually and subliminally contrast with the WASP-y, proper wardrobe of Shaker Heights Queen Bee Elena, who meticulously measures out her daily four-ounce allowance of wine and refers to her suburban book club pick, “Vagina Monologues,” as “Off-Broadway smut.” (What would “Avenue Q” advocate Madeline think over in Monterey on “Big Little Lies?”)
“We specifically wanted a very different color palette [for Witherspoon than what she] has worn on any of her other shows,” explains Paolo. The juxtaposition of Elena’s red, white and blue palette with Mia’s “blacks, grays and muted browns” help illustrate the socio-economic differences between the two families: “There’s a stark contrast in color, but also everything Mia wore was definitely a hand-me-down. Nothing looked like it was straight from the store. Everything of Elena’s was crisp and fresh. She wore her very ’90s, higher-end jewelry, little pearl studs and diamond earrings. All of that all felt very upper middle class.”
Pulling references for Elena, Paolo tapped her fashion house contacts at Brooks Brothers, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren for catalogs and line-sheets circa ’97 to custom-design most of Elena’s bold suits, knit twinsets and country club dresses (like the red belted chambray one, at top). “I mean, I didn’t think anyone in Shaker Heights was wearing really high fashion, but it just helped with the silhouettes,” she explains. Brooks Brothers also provided some archival pieces, plus Dooney & Bourke sent the production around “30 bags” from the era.
The blend, if not entanglement, of the two families is most depicted, costume-wise, through the Richardson’s eldest daughter, Lexie (Jane Pettyjohn, below) and, and Mia’s Pearl. Pearl becomes enamored with the seemingly idyllic life of the Richardsons, while Elena’s mini-me, like her mother, remains ensconced in her own bubble of privilege and ambivalent prejudice.
The Ivy League-aspiring homecoming queen wears the period’s top pieces, like Steve Madden Slinky platforms (which have since cycled back) and a personalized choker by teen TV favorite Peggy Li, who incidentally credits a placement on “Buffy” for kick-starting her jewelry line. (Related fun fact: For the series, Li resurrected her early-aughts design, which was inspired by the beaded “Jen” charm necklace that Brad Pitt wore on the 2000s Emmys red carpet in celebration of then-wife Jennifer Aniston. It all really does cycle back, huh?)
As Pearl becomes drawn into the Richardson family, she evolves her denim-heavy and Goodwill-procured style into more colorful cardigans and streamlined silhouettes. “There are beats where Pearl literally is wearing something that was Lexie’s,” explains Paolo. “She really does emulate [Lexie]. She’s looking into this world and she thinks it’s a perfect world.”
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Fittingly, the kids of the series also best represent the synergy between the costume and writing teams in bringing all the fun ’90s nostalgia into the wardrobes and dialogue. Before starting the first day of the school, Lexie says to Elena, “Thank you, by the way, for telling me to break in my Steve Maddens.” The brand sent over “boxes” of ’90s styles, including the aforementioned Slinky, for Paolo to sprinkle throughout season. (Tevas also make a contentious scripted cameo, which felt hilariously ironic considering how on-trend they are in 2020.)
“If we found something amazing, then [writer, creator, producer and showrunner Liz Tigelaar] would include it in the script and vice versa,” says Paolo, who searched high and low to find a very specific pair of “tartan Keds,” which self-expressive Izzy (Megan Stott) and Elena clash over for a holiday family photo.
“We were lucky we found a pair in her size online on some weird website,” says Paolo. “Someone had them in their house all these years and was selling them. It was absolute fate.”
Izzy’s goth-y black palette, distressed cut-offs and Dr. Martens combat boots constantly offend her image-conscious mother, but the subversive wardrobe holds up the most, two decades later. “Elena was flummoxed by this child,” says Paolo. “She didn’t understand why Izzy didn’t want to wear her penny loafers with some capri pants and a nice little gingham shirt from J. Crew.”
Paolo also found authentic ’90s pieces for the remaining Richardson kids, such as Trip’s (Jordan Elsass) jock-bro rugby shirts and the puka shell and ribbon chokers he and little brother Moody (Gavin Lewis) wear, which seemed to flummox the young actors.
“‘What’s with the chokers?'” laughs Paolo, imitating their skepticism. “So many necklaces!’ I’m like, ‘You guys, here’s some pictures. Have a look. Look at Matt [Le Blanc] from ‘Friends.'” Too bad she didn’t present a matching pair of chunky gold bracelets, too.
The first three episodes of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ are streaming Hulu, followed by the remaining streaming weekly starting Wednesday, March 25.