What do The Smashing Pumpkins, Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray, and David Lynch have in common? The sartorial wizard that is Nancy Steiner, of course. Having cut her teeth working in a Santa Monica punk rock shop in the early 1980s, Steiner is one of the most prolific costume designers working today. Kurt Cobain’s grandpa sweater? That was her. Gwen Stefani’s little ’40s frock from “Don’t Speak”? Came from Steiner’s closet. The haunting ’70s styles worn in Coppola’s dreamy 1999 take on The Virgin Suicides? Also the work of Steiner. Abigail Breslin’s Little Miss Sunshine leotard? Yep, you have Steiner to thank for that, too. With a resume that ranges from dressing the Red Hot Chili Peppers to fashioning the looks for Lost in Translation, there’s not much Steiner hasn’t done. But her latest project, working on David Lynch’s hotly anticipated Twin Peaks reboot (debuting next year on Showtime) might be her biggest—or, at the very least, most daunting—yet. Here, Steiner talks Lynch’s impenetrable brain, the flawless Audrey Horne, and why old people have the most intriguing outfits.
Katharine K. Zarrella: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into costume design?
Nancy Steiner: I studied fashion design at L.A. Trade Tech. But really how I got into costume design was, in the early ’80s, I was working at a punk rock store in Santa Monica and we had a lot of stylists come in for videos and things. Some of them said, “Hey, if you leave here, you should come work for us.” I remembered that when I left, I called a couple people, and I started assisting them on commercial shoots and whatnot. And I liked it. I never really knew about costume design. I never set my sights on that. It just kind of happened.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner
KKZ: How would you describe the role of the costume designer?
NS: My job as a costume designer is to serve a story. It’s not about making an impact or a statement. A lot of my work is subtle. It’s all about the character. To me it’s: Where would that person shop in real life? Do they care about their clothes? Everybody dresses for a reason. I think about whether they care, would they go out and buy new things, or have they been wearing the same things for the last 10 years? I am really into thinking about who this character is and how they think about clothes, because everybody thinks about clothes in such a different way.
KKZ: Obviously everyone is awaiting the return of Twin Peaks with bated breath. How did you come to work with David Lynch on this project?
NS: Well, that was a little surreal.
KKZ: I can imagine.
NS: I got the job because David’s producing partner—her name is Sabrina Sutherland—she and I had worked on a Wim Wenders movie back in 1998. Somehow, she remembered me. She came to work with David years later and has been with him probably 10 years now. So she gave me a call one day and said, “I’ve already shown your work and your resume to David and basically, if you want the job, it’s yours.” I’ve never been told that before in my life. You always have to meet with the director first. I was stunned.
Nancy Steiner with Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray during Lost in Translation (2003)
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner
KKZ: Were you a fan of the original show?
NS: Yeah, I was fan. I watched it when I was young. And I knew that David Lynch worked with a woman named Patricia Norris, who was an amazing costume designer. She did the Twin Peaks pilot with him, and she had worked with him on several of his projects. Well, she passed away last year. She was 82. I think her last movie was 12 Years a Slave. She’s incredible. I knew that I was stepping into really big shoes because I was a fan and an admirer of hers. So it was daunting. And when I was doing the series, I kept thinking that I really wanted it to be right, for not only David, but for the fans, because when I started on it, I realized how big of a cult following Twin Peaks has.
KKZ: It’s insane. People live for it.
NS: I really appreciated the show, but I was not a fan in that way. So when I got the job, I went online and I thought, Holy shit—this is huge. I was like, Oh, okay, I am entering a world that is beyond what I’ve ever worked on before. So I really was aware of that and it was in the back of my mind the whole time.
KKZ: The original show had a very particular aesthetic in that it was almost vintage, even though it was filmed and set in the ’80s. How did the original show inform your approach the new series?
NS: Well, the cool thing about it is this show is 25 years later. We are really, literally, 25 years after the original show ended. So we were interpreting that. But David Lynch’s taste runs from the ’30s through the ’50s, so that’s what that vibe is from—he loves those silhouettes, he loves the clothes from back then. I just incorporated some of that in my characters depending on who they were. There are 238 speaking parts in the new Twin Peaks.
KKZ: That’s a big job.
NS: Yeah. I thought about each character and their vibe. When I do a contemporary story, it doesn’t mean it’s just contemporary clothing. Because, as we all know, people wear vintage. When I was young, I only wore clothes from the ’40s and a little ’50s. I was a ’40s queen, big time. There’s a navy polka-dot dress that Gwen Stefani wore in “Don’t Speak,” and I’m not sure if it came from my closet or not, but it’s very similar to the things I used to wear back then.
Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne, wearing the iconic saddle shoes in the original Twin Peaks (1990), styled by Patricia Norris
Photo: Getty Images
KKZ: What was your biggest takeaway from working with David Lynch?
NS: I was so flattered to be on David’s team. I consider David Lynch a true artist. He’s not only a filmmaker, he’s a painter, he’s a musician, he draws. He thinks about the world in such an artistic way, and it’s not often that you get to work with someone that is a true artist in many realms. And he’s got his way. I’ll tell you this: I could never really get inside his head. It’s so unique to him—his taste. And I kept trying and trying and sometimes I’d hit it on the head and sometimes I wouldn’t and we’d have to try it again. We got to create some amazing characters.
KKZ: Was there a character in the original series whose wardrobe you really loved?
NS: Oh, well of course Audrey Horne, who was the little ’50s pinup girl. She was the sex kitten. She was the girl that everybody wanted to be. And I love that she was this ’50s-’80s girl. I learned afterwards that they wanted to have saddle shoes for her, but they couldn’t find saddle shoes when they were shooting, and Patricia Norris painted a pair of black shoes to make them saddle shoes. And now, those are kind of iconic little shoes.
KKZ: In the ’90s, you did so many iconic music videos for everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins to No Doubt. Music videos are so different now—MTV isn’t the same thing that it used to be, and we interact with videos in a different way. Do styling and costume design still have an important role in that realm?
NS: I don’t do videos anymore and I haven’t really done them in a long time. I worked on a [Red Hot] Chili Peppers video recently because they’re my friends and they call me when they need help. But, for the most part, I’m not the video person anymore. I think it gave me a place to really be creative. Doing videos was so fun and free back then. You really could experiment and be creative in a way that you can’t now. That video world morphed into a more corporate world. Like, Oh, now we want to find a style, we want to create an image for our singer or our band. When I started, it was just like, let’s have fun, let’s do this weird concept, and let’s just do what we do. It was much freer.
Director Sophie Muller and Gwen Stefani on set of No Doubt’s music video “Don’t Speak” (1995)
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner
KKZ: Do you think that there’s still a visual or cinematic platform that allows designers to be as creative today as when you were starting out doing music videos?
NS: There could be. I think maybe in the independent world there’s a little bit more leeway. Film has changed so much in that it is much more of a product now. You have to hit certain notes. That’s why I still do independent film work. Because it has never been about the money for me, and to do big films, you have to go through levels and levels of approval. When you do a studio film, you’re beholden to the producers and the actors and the producers’ wives...everybody has a say. But when you do independent films, it’s much more about the director’s vision. And that’s what I really want to do as a costume designer is serve the director’s vision.
KKZ: Which character has been the most challenging for you to dress?
NS: The characters who are the opposite of [the actors]. For instance, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl. She was kind of at the height of her popularity when that was filmed. She was married to Brad Pitt then. When I was doing that movie, all these jeans companies wanted to send me free jeans to put on Jennifer so that she would look cool. But I wanted to go as far away from that as possible. So I went to Sears and bought Lee jeans. I put her in high-waisted mom jeans, that I know all the kids are wearing now, but back then, it was all about hip-hugging, low-rise flares. It’s so fun to take somebody and make them different.
Costume sketch of prom dresses for The Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner
KKZ: On the flip side, has there been a film or character that really allowed you to indulge your sartorial fantasies?
NS: Doing The Virgin Suicides was really great for me because it was my junior high. I grew up in the ’70s and it felt very comfortable and familiar to me. I remember dressing the boys in that film, and when we did fittings, I was explaining that the jeans needed to fit on your waist and you wear a belt and you wear your shirt tucked in. And they were like, “What? We don’t do that. We wear baggy jeans and our shirts untucked and no belts.” They were young boys, they were in their early teens, and they didn’t get it. I was like, “I know it feels uncomfortable, but this is how people wore clothes back then.” And that changes the way you move. It changes the way you walk. It changes your posture. It puts you in a different place. And that’s interesting about period clothes, you know, it’s that they were worn in such a different way.
KKZ: Have you ever had an actor really push against something you had chosen?
NS: There have been a couple times. Again, going back to The Good Girl, Zooey Deschanel was in the movie, and I knew Zooey—she had worked on a video with me before. We had a great rapport. But when she came into our fitting for The Good Girl, she really had a different vision of what she thought her character would be. She thought she would be this outgoing sex pot. And I had discussed with Miguel Arteta, who was the director, that she was this grungy, punky girl. So she came into the fitting and she looked at the clothes and was like, “Oh, that’s not what I was thinking.” I said, “Well, you’re here now. Let’s just try these things and see how it works.” The director loved what we did, so I was like, “Okay, Zooey, look at this. This is what Miguel wants.” It wasn’t like I had to talk her into it, she just had a different thing in her head. It’s such a collaboration. The actor needs to feel right in her costume. So many times, when you work with good actors and actresses, the fitting is the first place that they feel their character—they start to really get it. And I love that people come in my room, we try on things, and we find the one outfit that [embodies] the character.
On set of The Smashing Pumpkins' “Thirty-Three” (1995) music video
Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Steiner
KKZ: How is costume design different than fashion design?
NS: We as costume designers use or are inspired by fashion, but what we do is not fashion. What we do is create characters, and it’s quite different. You know, people think, Oh, it sounds so fun—you just get to go shopping. Well, it’s a lot more than that. And it’s very intimate, what we do with actors. You get them in a room and you make them undress in front of you. We have to make the audience know who that person is from how they look. There’s so much to take into account. It’s very complicated and I think most people don’t understand how much goes into it. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours. It’s emotional, it’s physical, it’s psychological. Even if it looks easy, you can’t imagine what is behind that.
KKZ: As a costume designer, do you pay attention to what’s going down the runway?
NS: I don’t, really. I get more inspiration from walking down the street or going to the farmer’s market and looking at people there. Because, to me, that’s where the really interesting stuff is. I love fashion, don’t get me wrong. But fashion doesn’t really play a part in most of the work I do. Most of the work I do is real people that may be inspired by fashion in some off-handed way, but, unless they are fashionistas themselves, fashion has nothing to do with what I do. I really love people-watching. The greatest kind of looks are on like old people that put together who have been wearing the same sweatpants for 10 years, and the same Mack cover jacket that hangs right on them because it’s been hanging on those shoulders for years. That’s the most interesting stuff—the way people put their clothes together says so much about them. That’s really what inspires me—everyday people.