Chris Rock in Fargo


Jason Schwartzman in Fargo


Kelsey Asbille in Fargo


Kelsey Asbille and Karen Aldridge in Fargo


Timothy Olyphant in Fargo


Ben Whishaw in Fargo

Fill 1
Fill 1
June 16, 2021
Online Originals

The Mythology of Costume

Dressing Chris Rock and company for the latest season of Fargo was a feat of research and engineering.

"Doing a piece like Fargo was interesting because it's a period piece, but the tone and the kind of mindset of Fargo is like a mythology genre, like the genre that is that old cops and gangsters genre, and sort of American myth genre." says costume designer JR Hawbaker.

Season four of the series is even more so, because the story has changed location and time period. Set in the 1950s in Kansas City, the story follows rival Black and Italian gangs fighting for control over the movement of contraband. There are deals, and gunfights, and lots and lots of characters to clothe, and it all has to be authentic.

Hawbaker had a lot of help from her cast, as well, because so many of the cast and crew had photos from their parents and grandparents in that era. She says, "The photograph albums, family albums, online, I read-- I just read a lot of books too, they may not necessarily all be the visual research to try and get yourself immersed.

"And then in different walks of life too. Especially in this day and age, I find it to be a blessing of a job, because I get to basically walk in so many different shoes. And I really count on my collaborators, which are oftentimes, the showrunner, the writer. You know, Noah Hawley is an immense, powerful collaborator. He's like the dream collaborator. And then the actors. So it was fun.

"I can't tell you the number of actors that brought in their grandparents' or their parents' photo albums or I asked them, could you bring it in? A lot of the Black cast, I wanted them to bring in pictures of their family members. And let's just sit and talk - tell me about your uncle, tell me about your dad, tell me about ...

"Chris tell me that scene that took place in the garage that he owned as a front? He went, 'that was my uncle's, they were definitely always hanging out at a garage, wearing their clothes, overalls, beat-up hats - they had little swaggy ways of wearing their hats - they were taken out at this garage all the time.' So we talked about that.

"This is so much fun looking through authentic pictures of the period and I saw a lot of the cast's family photos actually. I was I was looking at a lot of those with them."

All that sharing came about because the entire cast and crew were committed to bringing the story to life authentically and keeping the quality expected from the Fargo franchise.

Hawbaker explains, "I was a fan - I was such a fan of the show before I even came to the fourth season of the show. So I had a love of the period, or the period details, just also Noah's interpretation of it, but the show itself, too, is such an inspiration. Every season, before, there's just this thing that is sort of special to it.

"I remember when Fargo was first coming out, the first season, and Carol Case designed it masterfully, and she and Noah set the tone. I [thought] 'they shouldn't remake Fargo into a series; that's a terrible idea.' Everybody thought that-- what are you doing?

"And then Noah's take on the series was just so wonderful that he changed it from this iconic movie, to this state of mind. Fargo is a state of mind more than anything else. So it's that combination of loving the history from that era, but also just loving what this show does so masterfully.

"And it's very special. It's that interplay of reality - it's heightened characterization. And it doesn't feel forced, it feels like it's with a purpose to storytelling. And storytelling in multiple layers.

"You're loving the characters for who they are, you're loving being inside a Fargo mindset, again, every season is a little bit different - in that person's state of mind, and you're loving the history. And then you're also loving it sort of like a meta contest that layers on top of everything - you can enjoy it for entertainment and you can enjoy it for commentary on the American myth.

"It's really fun. It's just fun and it's a dream job. And I think that I think all of us came to the table feeling that, so that's probably why it packed the punch. Everybody was just so involved with being there and being able to work at this puzzle with these collaborators on something that's fun. I used to call it costume calisthenics.

"Such a big cast, there were so many layers to design challenges. You didn't just design for a character - you designed for the frame; for the character to look beautiful and be evocative of the period. You designed for the character; and then you designed to help tell this additional commentary on mythology. So you always were designing on a minimum of three different levels on any one coat or dress."

Casting is always a consideration when building a world, and this season of Fargo is no exception. Hawbaker enjoys designing for the widely varied personalities.

She notes, "It's always so unique. We didn't have all of the cast when we first started the fourth season, but they were rolling in after I was hired. I knew I had Chris, and I had Jason [Schwartzman], and then everybody starts rolling in from Jack Huston to Glynn Turman to Ben Wishaw, to Tim Olyphant.

"I sort of quipped with Noah when I was interviewing for the job, 'Fargo, yeah I'd love to do it, it's all about outerwear, right, like five people killing each other in the snow.' And he just sort of smiled, that Noah smile, that just knows; it's very knowing smile.

"And later, after I got hired, I joked with him, I said, 'you bait and switched me. Not only are we not in Fargo, but this is not five people killing each other in the snow, this is like 25 to 30 and a giant cast. What happened to more snow than people?

"But, that was an opportunity more than anything else, to be able to play with that diverse and that talented of a cast. I mean those Fargo cast seem to have solid street credit, everybody on Fargo always has street credit for deep dives into character.

"Tim Olyphant coming into the cast was a good example of it. Because he came on to play another lawman, and Tim is the best modern actor doing a lawman. That, in itself, is just the fabric of entertainment.

"So when he was cast, I was so excited, but also it was a little daunting. Because I was like 'oh, my gosh, this is going to complete the holy trilogy of Timothy's hats'? Justified and now Fargo.

"I was thinking how, how to do this - do him justice, do the character justice? And that was a design challenge with him, but it was really fun because Tim is such a pro.

"And I think we all of us got into it pretty quickly. Noah, Tim and I all sort of knew that we wanted to play on a fairly more meta pop culture level with the audience. Because that's Fargo too. You can watch it from a strictly script and character story line, but it's usually always winking a little at the audience, and we're having conversations with the audience.

"And, with Tim, we wanted to say, 'yes, we know he's played the lawman before - a couple of times before - you've definitely seen Tim Olyphant play a lawman before, but not like this.'

"And he has to be a villain, a villain who says some pretty despicable things. He has to flip the cop mythology on its head.

The past seasons, the cops got to be the good guys for the most part, there was a morality centering and some character that was anything but. So it was fun to be able to take him the hat I put on him, it's called the Carl's Hat and I got it out of the Montgomery Ward 1949 catalog, the hunting section. You just don't throw that hat at anyone."

The women's costumes were also a challenge. Among the most interesting were those for Karen Aldridge and Kelsey Asbille, playing a pair of escaped convicts and bank robbers.

The two were a mix of comic relief and a terrifying pair of killers. Hawbaker explains her approach to the complex characters, "Karen plays Zelmare and Kelsey played Swanee, and they were just magical. They felt like some old vaudevillians, they felt like they were taking like the old vaudevillian history and moving that forward. I loved every time they showed up on camera.

"Kelsey said she has never had so much fun before in a fitting when we were trying to find her character, We have so much fun with those two, because really it's about comedy and tragedy pairing and parity, where you get to really play inside both of those things.

"And doing comedic, nothing should feel intentionally comedic, I feel like. And Noah was very careful to train us all that way, like it's not about landing the joke, if it happens to be funny - if drama happens to be funny, all the better. But it should always feel grounded in what was going on with the characters.

"But Swanee and Zelmare have to do that heist on Gaetano in the middle of the show. They have to go in and do this heist and they go in camouflaged or dressed - as call girls. And I remember, Kelsey, we were in the fitting room trying to figure out her character. And we, one, felt like she had to have a wide-brimmed hat on still because she decided that was her thing.

"But then I was like, you've got a gun. You have a gun to wield too. I think we might need to get you a muff and you can hide the gun in the muff.

"As you're coming up and creeping into the house, we see these photos in the sitting-room that were so much fun. Because she's like, so I pull the gun out of the muff. She yanked it back toward her chest.

"And I said, 'no, I think you go for a Godfather and you shoot through it. You ratchet the gun from inside the muff and just go full Godfather in what was that violent scene you just shoot through it, You punch your hand out of the muff with the gun and you shoot through it. And I sent all those photos - we took so many photos with different ways to make this costume, wield a gun, wield a muff.

"And we sent those to Noah and our director for the episode, just with the heading - and the subject line was, 'Is that a gun in your muff, or are you just happy to see me?". So, we have fun on Fargo too. That was my costume approval subject line - of course the muff got approved with a subject line like that."

Perhaps the biggest challenge in the season was a black and white episode. Hawbaker explains, "There is a big difference. I've done black and white scenes before in a project, I've never had the opportunity to do an entire episode of the entire project in black and white, so that was a lot of fun.

"Dana Gonzales was shooting that episode, and he sent some beautiful scout photography to us which was very helpful. I can't remember if he shot on 35 millimeter or not, but he sent them to Warren Alan Young, the production designer, and myself so we can really see the depth of contrast and of the stuff from the location.

"And then black and white is unique because there's a lot of color that used to be used that looks very good on camera. Like reds are actually really wonderful in black and white camera, it's kind of like a mid-tone to your dark tone.

"Pale blues are very good with a light tonality, and you really need contrast between not only the pieces on the body, but the pieces between. I feel like you're always aware, on a show like Fargo, that deals in imagery and frame as much as it deals in character.

"But in a black and white episode you're hyper aware of the distinction between the characters moving around in the black and white background and foreground, and then also the pieces are actually on them.

"So luckily the iPhones, these days, they have all those shot settings. So technology is helpful in that way, where I just use a noir setting on the iPhone and just walk around the department rack fully looking at everything through the noir setting.

"Then sometimes I really want to use dark - like I really wanted to use a really saturated, what would look like black on camera, on Rabbi Milligan, the Whishaw character, so that you can really track and find him, find the gravity of situation he was in.

"That was a very almost black, navy sweater. But that episode also has a moment of Kodachrome fun-- has it has a very Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz reveal.

"I like that technicolor, and the technicolor reveal, just like they did in The Wizard of Oz at some point, They open up the color in that episode.

"And I was plotting with Noah, to land that sort of Wizard of Oz moment really early, because that character, that little boy, he leaves, Satchel leaves the house two or three episodes earlier. Maybe two episodes earlier. So he basically leaves the house with Rabbi two episodes earlier wearing something that is going to carry him all the way through, so even before, [when] we didn't have the script for the black and white episode yet at that point.

"But Noah had told Dana, the DP, and Warren, the production designer, and I, that he wanted to be landing this little yellow brick road references throughout the season. He had sort of told us that back in the first episode.

"So you'll actually kind of notice yellow popping up in many places and Warren, the production designer, and myself, called it the Kodachrome football, and we would just make sure there always some piece of yellow bouncing back and forth between either the sets or myself, the costumes.

"And just make sure there was a little bit of a yellow brick road to follow, because that was what he told us to do. And we didn't even know why or where it was really heading. And he was just sort of very wizard of Ozzy and tornado episode on black and white, and we're like, 'oh - we were following the yellow brick road to that episode.'

"And even though I didn't have that episode, the episode earlier when Satchel left the house with Rabbi Milligan, I wanted those Dorothy colors on them so we did the blue jacket, and the pale blue shirt, that red baseball cap and his ruby slippers, and we got them out the door in that back in those episodes.

"It was really satisfying that when we finally did the black and white episode and they did the Technicholor reveal, it did open up the colors that were on him were Dorothy's colors, so that was a nice long-ball play that worked out."

Hawbaker traces the roots of her career back to the Television Academy Foundation's internship program.

She says, "I started at the theater school at DePaul University in Chicago, so I actually have a theater conservatory costume design degree from there, which is the old Goodman School of Drama. And I came out to Hollywood less than two days after graduation, several decades ago. I did a lot of theater in Chicago, but I loved the film and television medium. So I came out and I was the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences intern way back when.

"I was the costume designer in my year, so I came out and did that, and then I did everything and anything in the beginning, said yes to everything. And did a whole bunch of really awesome projects that I feel blessed to have found myself in.

"I was working in the department on Batman, True Blood, and then I met my mentor, Jacqui West, Jacqueline West. And I designed for her for well over a decade, and we did five Terry Malick movies together, and The Revenant, and many, many things.

"I also worked with Michael Wilkinson, we did American Hustle, Joy, and Batman v Superman so those were all my assistant designing jobs. And then finally got pushed out of the nest by Jacqui - she said, 'you really need this, you could stay here with me forever, but you should really get out there and do your own stuff.'

"It's invaluable knowledge, really. You get all that book knowledge, but once you go and see these shows, work with people, I can basically put a direct line all the way directly back to my internship for pretty much every job, and how I got to where I got."

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