SNL’s Costume Designers on Their All-time Favorites

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This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live. In honor of the occasion, the Cut spoke with the show’s chief costume designers, Tom Broecker and Eric Justian, who have been working together at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for over 20 years. They reflected on the challenges of designing costumes on a three-day schedule, what it’s like to work with comedy writers who treat costumes like magical cartoons, and how the show has changed in the years they’ve worked there. They also shared their favorite SNL costumes of all time.

Read the interview below, and click through the slideshow to see their top picks — including Maya Rudolph as Donatella Versace, Justin Timberlake as an omelette, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in mom jeans, and many more.

So, what is the process of designing costumes for Saturday Night Live?
Eric Justian: We do a read-through on Wednesday nights with the cast and writers. There are about 40 sketches that we read, and then it dwindles down by the end of the evening to about 15 sketches a week. At that point, the writers and actors will start to come to us with their visions for the sketches, and we’ll interpret them. We do all the designing in three days. On Thursday morning, we start pulling, shopping, and building costumes for all the sketches. It’s a very quick turnaround, so our approach is often that we do what we instinctually think the costume should be. If it’s not clear what that should be, we gather a bunch of options as inspiration, and meet to collaborate. We’re used to this very chaotic system — it’s all we know.

What’s the costume closet at 30 Rock like?
E.J.: Let’s just say if we were to open up a vintage store in New York, it would be the most amazing store New York has ever seen. It’s giant, what we have.
Tom Broecker: It’s funny because it’s broken down into so many little rooms. In one room there’s jeans and chinos, and then there are shoes and then men’s suits, and women’s suits, and then there’s the maternity section and then sweatsuits. Then you go two floors down and there’s a section called “Whores and Tarts,” which is sort of a combo platter of clubwear and cheap clothes — like, girls going to the disco. These are clothes that we’ve been collecting for over 20 years.

What are the other costume categories?
E.J.: We have a category for everything: a vintage room that spans the turn of the century to 1980s clothing, a uniform section, a section that is costumes from across the world, our leather section …
T.B.: Biblical.
E.J.: Biblical, yes. We have our maintenance workers, our maids, suits for men, contemporary clothing, tuxedos …

What are the particular challenges of designing costumes for a show like SNL?
T.B.: Well, just the time constraint — and because we’re live, people want to keep changing things until they actually get out there onstage, so there are always last-minute changes.
E.J.: Also, oftentimes comedy writers think like cartoons. They’ll hand us things like, All of a sudden clothes just rip away from a body — and we have to figure out how to do that. All of a sudden, we need a hat that’s gigantic, or a dancing-pizza costume. We have to construct costumes that will do this magical thing that a writer has in their head.

Do you feel like there’s a certain Saturday Night Live aesthetic?
E.J.: We’ve both been here so long that there are certain -isms that are engrained in us about how to costume the show. We know what certain writers will like, and what works in our control room on camera. We try not to do costumes that are over-the-top comical. They don’t tend to fly here. But, that said, sometimes we do.
T.B.: I think there’s an aesthetic here where it’s more about listening to the words, as opposed to the costumes being the leading joke. It’s more about the writing.
E.J.: Yeah. But every once in a while we’ll have a sketch like "The Lawrence Welk Show," where the joke relies a lot on Kristen [Wiig’s] visual appearance — not just the costume, but hair and makeup as well. It’s really different on a sketch-by-sketch basis.

How has SNL changed in the years that you’ve worked there?
E.J.: It’s bigger, that’s for sure. And we do a lot more pre-taped pieces than we used to. They’re really successful online, so not only do we do more, but we do them faster than ever. Also, I think the quality of what we put on television has changed. We’ve gone from sketch comedy to what I would categorize as movie-quality costumes, as best as we can.  
T.B.: TV has evolved, and so have costumes — and hair and makeup. People expect higher-quality costumes. In those early days in the '70s, it was much more theatrically pulle- together and had that kind of flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants quality. The expectation now is that even if we are going to fly by the seat of our pants, the quality can’t look like that.

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