Netflix’s new original series Orange is the New Black is making headway as a gritty comedy-drama set in a women’s prison. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same title, the series tells the story of Piper (starring Taylor Schilling), whose past as an accomplice to her international drug-runner girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) catches up to her cozy life with fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs). It results in her arrest and a year-long sentence to prison where she meets an eccentric bunch of inmates. Created by Jenji Kohan, the same woman behind Weeds, each episode is punctuated with flashbacks of a character’s past. The show is incredibly compelling—and the costumes even more so. Costume designer Jenn Rogien, also the mastermind behind the boho Brooklyn look as the costume designer for HBO’s Girls, reveals to us the challenges that come with styling prison jumpsuits, combing the city for ’90s clothes and testing makeshift ‘prison’ accessories (like a shower slipper out of maxi pads). “I do appreciate and love watching pretty clothes on TV, but I gravitate toward the grittier stories that show how complicated and how messy we can be as humans,” she tells InStyle.com. Scroll down for her complete interview.
What drew you to Orange Is the New Black?
“I heard Jenji was doing a show for Netflix, and that combination alone was so intriguing and compelling. When I found out about the premise, read the book and discovered how the show was structured—that it wasn’t about the walls of the prison, but about the characters, family and flashbacks—that entire combination made it really interesting.”
A major portion of the costumes is inmate uniforms—did that make it easier or more challenging to dress the characters?
“I found it a little more challenging—it was a creative challenge: How do I portray a character with a limited range available? In some cases, we followed the rules and regulations within prison, no alterations to the uniforms, which are real prison uniforms from prison suppliers. In other cases, we folded and rolled cuffs. Sometimes, there were a few actual alterations to the uniform that characters could have executed on their own. These were the few key decisions that we had to make to differentiate these women that are all wearing the same thing.”
There are two jumpsuit colors on the show: orange and khaki. What do they represent?
“In our world of prison, orange represents newbies, and as you go through orientation, you’re assigned a khaki uniform. In the real world, there are different colors at the federal and state levels. But in our fictional prison based on actual research, we felt that the colors helped convey the story. Orange is more obvious—it’s the title of the show and book and a recognizable uniform color. Khaki was cinematic for us—it dehumanizes, defeminizes you. The bland color expresses the drabness of the world we’re building.”
How else do you use the costumes to express life in prison?
“There are so many nuances. We definitely capitalize on the civilian scenes. We use a lot of jewelry—everyone on the outside wears jewelry and color. Larry’s [Piper's fiancé on the show] whole palette is jewel toned. He wears rich sweaters and plaid to introduce more color. When he’s sitting in the visitation room, we hope that the audience can feel, even if they don’t recognize, the freedom and flexibility in the clothing choices of the outside world. It’s juxtaposed against the limited reality of prison.”
Let’s talk about dressing for the flashbacks.
“It’s incredible—one of the real highlights of the project. I had the mindset of ‘Oh, it’s just a uniform show’ for two days. Really, it’s more of a period costume show designed as a prison show. I’ve amassed a library of research of vintage catalogs that date back to the mid-seventies. We rely on the New York Public Library picture collection. For the ’70s and ’80s, we rent. The ’90s are tricky because it’s right before people started posting pictures online and right after vintage clothing, so it’s not available for rental. My team and I spend hours and hours at thrift stores, Salvation Army and Goodwill all over the city for ’90s clothes. Early 2000s is tricky, too.”
What about homemade creativity? There’s a scene in which Sophia [the transgender on the show] fashions a slipper out of duct tape.
“She’s ingenious! There’s an undercurrent of ingenuity on the show—we see that with Piper’s maxi pad slippers. We did a whole afternoon session on figuring out how maxi pads could resemble flipflops. My tailor was really into helping me out. We tested the shoes, how maxi pads would take water and if we were able to walk around in them soaked in water.”
Piper is the lead character. How was dressing her character different from the rest, inside and outside of prison?
“Her character was particularly fun because we get to see a lot of her life: 10 years before and right before prison. Her flashback looks had to have a certain style to them so you could see what she lost and how out of her element she was when she landed in prison. Her character had a creative profession who had a comfortable lifestyle. Her jewelry in the flashbacks also nod to her travels from when was with Alex, too. In prison, it was important that we didn’t alter her uniform. Instead, we used varying sizes—sizes up to overwhelm her on emotional episodes, and more fitted sizes on episodes where she’s starting to see how prison works.”
Has the storyline affected the costumes?
“Always. I take everything I’m doing from the script. It goes back to the basics of being a costume designer, breaking down the script and understanding the emotional level what they’re doing. In prison, when the girls are in their bunks, we see with just white shirts with their khakis off, so you see them as humans instead of inmates. If there’s a scene in a flashback, the costume is a direct response of what’s happening to her.”
How is the costume designing process different from Girls?
“Strangely enough, I see the similarities. I see them both as incredible character-driven stories—those attract me. If I could always do them, I would probably never retire. I love a good style show, like Sex and the City and Lipstick Jungle. I do appreciate and love watching pretty clothes on TV, but I gravitate toward the grittier stories that show how complicated and how messy we can be as humans.”
The show got renewed! How will the costumes differ in the next season?
“I don’t know yet! I’m just getting the scripts. It depends on where the season takes us. We’re starting to see more stories behind the inmates—it’ll be exciting.”
Plus, see more of TV’s popular costume designers!