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From Ball Gowns To Underware: Designing The “Masters Of Sex” Costumes

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Costume designer Ane Crabtree was too young to understand Masters and Johnson’s sexual behavior studies during the researchers’ peak.  However, she does remember her mother using the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue as a template for hand-made clothing.

“They had some pretty nice dresses as well as lingerie at that time,” said Crabtree.  “There was my mom in Okinawa, flipping through the pages and fashioning dresses from what she saw in the catalogue.”

In a role reversal twist, Crabtree is now pulling examples from classic lingerie catalogues to use as a template for the costumes in “Masters of Sex.”: the Showtime series based on the life and work of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson.  When approached about the project, Crabtree was enthusiastic to join the strong team of producers and actors attached to the fact-based show.. Her work began with researching the fashions of the mid 50s as well as the studies conducted by Masters and Johnson at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

“As I begin the questions I ask myself are, ‘How do I keep things fresh? ‘  ‘How do I keep things rooted in what really happened?'” said Crabtree.  “1956 sounds like the tail end of the 50s, but the Midwest was really set apart.  The fashions were more behind the times.”

Armed with research acquired from sources ranging from biographies of Masters and Johnson, vintage periodicals such as “Life and “Look” magazines, and photographs taken on campus, Crabtree began customizing the series’ fashions.  With many crowd scenes ranging from train stations to ballroom dances, costume houses provided the wardrobe for the background players.  However, all leads have custom tailored outfits built by hand.  While the styles are accurate for the period, Crabtree took some liberties to ensure the costumes stayed true to the life of the series.

The palette during that time period consisted of bright colors, including reds, yellows and greens.  Recognizing these colors strayed from script’s tone.  Crabtree muted them, finding shades that read well on camera and were in line with the character’s stories.  Men’s suits and many dresses were made with wool flannel during the period.  While some outfits were made with original fabric, Crabtree found a lighter weight, stretchy wool that had matched the authentic fabric’s drape on the actors.

“Some days the actors are shooting for 12-16 hours.  Wool authentic pieces became too hot in studio settings,” said Crabtree.  “I used lighter-weight wools.  You need the clothing to be in good shape.  I love to build and have everything be right on the person.  You often save time by building.”

Maternity ware proved to be one of the greatest design challenges Crabtree faced.  Through her research she discovered that women didn’t exhibit the fact that they were pregnant.  Clothing was designed to hide the pregnant belly, no stretchy fabrics or elastics were used.  Additionally, outfits often had the appearance of baby’s clothing – they had large bibs and fabric resembling children’s pajamas.  Crabtree experimented with traditional fabric and colors but found their appearance to be unfavorable onscreen.  She reviewed images of Mia Farrow and Grace Kelly during their pregnancies, and crafted a more elegant style for Libby Masters (Caitlin FitzGerald) based on those examples.  One example had a small lace color and proportionate charcoal grey outfit with pale yellow silk top.

“Women went into hiding when they were pregnant.  Lucille Ball had a TV show and it was ground breaking when she appeared pregnant on the show,” said Crabtree.   “I did my own take on maternity fashion.  I wanted to show a reality but didn’t want all the women to look like babies.”

Additionally, Dr. Masters’ clinic welcomed women of all ethnicities and walks of life, including the poor, black women, and the Shaw of Iran’s wife who experienced conception problems.  This diversity continually provides a wealth of styles to create and define.   Background actors seen in the clinic’s waiting room were authentic maternity pieces.

Crabtree and her tailor of 23 years also create evening gowns for the series.  “We’re building couture in two days, something that normally takes at least two months,” said Crabtree.  Fabric used ranges from a wool/silk combos to duchess sateen.  The structure of the gowns are reinforced with boning to provide the best shape.  Complicating the crafting of these intricate and fitted items is the inability to have all day players on set.  These cast members occasionally are contracted with no lead time before shooting.  Crabtree provides on the internet and pictures of actors to gather as much sizing information as possible.  She’ll often have a backup vintage piece on standby to ensure an accurate fit.   To create under ware, Crabtree discovered vintage lingerie catalogues from Sears and Montgomery Ward to be valuable resources.  The undergarments are a combination of pieces made from sketches and original items.

While Crabtree remembers the names “Masters and Johnson” from her youth, she wasn’t fully aware of the extent of their research.  After doing her own investigations for the show, she marvels at what they accomplished, especially at a time of sexual repression.

“Masters was a maverick, when you consider the world at that time, what they were doing was making history,” said Crabtree.  “What amazes me about the show is we are getting to recreate the incredible things they did.”

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