For “Pose” star Billy Porter, “as an actor, one of the greatest moments in the development of a character is when you find out what their clothing is. Very often it’s the edge-tipper.” So while some say clothes make the man, everyone knows clothes can make the character.
Through the aristocratic the post-American Revolution attire of Alexander Hamilton (L in-Manuel Miranda) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), the English Regency flourishes of “Bridgerton’s” Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the high-fashion 1970s couture of designer Halston (Ewan McGregor), the regal 1980s suits of “The Crown’s” Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), or even the sporty middle-age coaching gear and signature mustache of Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), leading men are leaning further into using how their characters look to reveal who they are.
“It’s one of the last layers of the development of the character for me — the transition from something that’s inside of me to what I share with the audience,” lead drama actor Emmy nominee Porter says.
The often-outrageous, gender-fluid outfits of his 1980s and ‘90sera ballroom emcee Pray Tell on the FX drama spoke volumes. “We found out really early on that he was a disruptor, he was authentic,” says Porter. “We came in hot, because [executive producer] Ryan Murphy’s idea was to make Pray Tell a fashion icon.”
Porter found dramatic inspiration in “that diaphanous, Dorothy Zbornak caftan realness moments, those flowy robe-ish things.” This inspired him to push his own personal style further, turning him into a fashion idol in his own right. “I’ve always been a person who has expressed themselves through how I present vis-a-vis my clothing,” he says. “Pray Tell actually empowered me, Billy, to take risks — even more than I ever had before.”
Paul Bettany’s elaborate look as the super-heroic synthezoid Vision was already established in Marvel films. (“I’m never sure how much I’m aided by it, except I think the suit’s got a much better butt than I have,” he deadpans.) But Disney Plus’ limited series “WandaVision” required a succession of different incarnations inspired by TV sitcoms spanning several decades.
Initially concerned about how to portray his role through the lens of a TV icon like Dick Van Dyke, lead limited series/TV movie actor nominee Bettany discovered that the series was guiding Vision to a transcendent “Pinocchio moment,” in which the artificial being becomes “a real boy.” Vision’s story, he recognized, was always about “self-improvement and change and adaptation,” providing a logic for transforming into sitcominspired personas.
“I realized that there was a warmth to Vision and to Dick Van Dyke that is similar — a sort of decency,” says Bettany, who strove to preserve a certain Englishness and inherent dignity in Vision’s appearances, while at the same time “wanting to leave room to then undermine him and make him ludicrous.”
Eschewing the late ’50s’ boxier suits, Bettany embraced Van Dyke’s lean, streamlined aesthetic. “He had a much more European, svelte, tight-around-the-waist, less-shoulder-padding suit, so I thought we should move slightly more toward that,” says Bettany. “I was really, really fastidious over the collars of my shirts, because whoever was making Dick Van Dyke’s shirts, they’re beautiful, they’re so elegant!”
Other iterations prompted unique inspirations. For the ‘70s, for example, Bettany suggested a modified Robert Redford look from that period’s “Three Days of the Condor.” There were consistencies as well: The color schemes of all Vision’s clothing paralleled his superhero palette, while accessories morphed subtly with the times.
“In the way that we have the same car that progresses through all the eras, I wanted a watch that changed,” he says. “So, I had the first Casio calculator watch. It’s very funny that Vision has a calculator, I think.”
Lead drama actor nominee Jonathan Majors knew early on he wanted a masculine, militaristic simplicity to the 1950s garments of his “Lovecraft Country” character, ex-G.I. Atticus Freeman, to showcase his physical build and proud carriage.
“His build was something I didn’t want to shy away from in the wardrobe, because I felt you were looking at his DNA,” Majors says. “Because the story is so much about legacy and family, when you see Atticus Freeman, what you’re seeing is essentially the latest version of the Freeman family. One of the things that went along with letting the body be seen was the vulnerability that comes in that.”
That vulnerable quality was expressed in the low-necked T-shirts Atticus favored that left his clavicle exposed, Majors says. “All the strength that he was living in, [yet] one of the most vital parts of his body was exposed. That gave a great sense of alertness to the situation, that we were in danger.”
Majors says a character’s wardrobe, which he tends to embrace and adopt, “has to belong to you. I try to do as little pretending as possible. And so, these clothes have my sweat in them, my cologne is on them, my hair grease is staining the collar in the back. That makes it feel like it’s mine — and it is mine — and therefore I can really infuse it with the story.”
“Perry Mason” star and lead drama actor nominee Matthew Rhys admits the 1930s sartorial choices of the HBO series hooked him instantly, inspired by period photos of men in ill-fitting, mismatched clothing.
“What I loved right off the bat was how strongly the writers established Perry’s look, given that he would buy clothes from corpses,” says Rhys, reflecting the hardscrabble necessity required to get by during the Depression.
“I didn’t have anything tailored, nothing was meant to fit well or look good — those were big criteria for me,” Rhys says of his distressed ensembles, down to his footwear. “You were just getting shoes from wherever you could get them, so whether they were Perry’s brother’s, his father’s old shoes, whatever, they didn’t quite fit well. I let that form his walk a bit. It was all pointing me in a certain direction.”
As Mason’s public profile rises during the series, his courtroom suits also display a nattier evolution, until the climactic courtroom sequence. “In the final closing statements, we had him go back to his old suit, because it was like, ‘He’s just going to speak from the heart. This is who Mason is. He’s not the sunny, tailored suit,’” Rhys says.
And sometimes, even in modern Hollywood, necessity comes into play: After trying on scores of period fedoras, knowing Mason’s hat would be a defining feature, Rhys’ discovery was more practical than inspired. “I have quite a big head,” he laughs. “So, we tried on one particularly big fedora and we were like ‘Oh, that’s it! Something that actually fits.’”
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