The series is really about people trying to figure out who they are — and, in the process, who they’re not. So there’s a lot of trying on identities, and therefore trying on clothes.
—Melina Root, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend costume designer
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has some of the most deceptively complex costume design on television. A musical comedy-drama, the show takes place both in real life and in heightened musical sequences frequently paying homage to and critiquing a wide range of genres. This unique combination of moods requires the show to convey the nature and emotions of its characters in a variety of contexts, all the time staying true to their messy, complex, nuanced selves.
Thankfully, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s costume designer Melina Root has proven more than up to the task, creating wardrobes for its characters that combine stage-ready outfits with readily-available fashion. (Root shops for the characters’ real-life outfits at stores in West Covina to ensure authenticity and ground the series in reality.)
This series of posts will examine each of the primary characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, paying attention to and highlighting how the costumes they wear reveal and inform their personality and storylines.
The obvious starting point for this feature is, of course, the show’s protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (played, in a bravura performance, by show co-creator Rachel Bloom). Root notes that “Rebecca’s never really known who she is, and has never had any sense of self-identity beyond what other people expect of her, and you see that in her clothes.” At the beginning of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca leaves her job at a high-profile New York law firm to follow her summer camp teenage crush Josh Chan to his hometown of West Covina, California after the two have a chance meeting on the streets of New York.
Up until that point, Rebecca had been extremely dissatisfied with her life and career, and hopes that moving to West Covina — where she will ideally reunite with Josh and the two will fall in love. By all means, this is a ridiculous notion, and much of the first season is spent denying that Josh is the reason she truly came to California. As she argues n the first season’s title sequence, “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that”:
The principal motif recurring throughout Rebecca’s wardrobe throughout season one is the colour blue. On a basic level of costume analysis, blue can represent everything from sadness to the existence of possibilities, but for Rebecca, it’s a colour most closely aligned with Josh Chan, as it’s what he was wearing at the end of their summer camp romance, back in 2005, and what he wears when they unexpectedly reunite in New York ten years later:
It’s in this second, unexpected meeting with Josh that Rebecca’s association between him and the colour blue becomes apparent. This is the first full outfit we see her in as an adult, and several aspects of it define the nature of costumes in the series as a whole.
First, the darker a character’s costume is, the more certain they are of who they are as a person and what they want. (Whether this certainty is misplaced or misguided is another subject entirely.) Rebecca has been confident for over a decade that being a high-profile lawyer is her calling, but has always carried a torch for Josh. Second, the length and existence of a costume’s sleeves dictate the straightforwardness of its wearer’s emotions. Finally, the jewelry of female characters in the series plays a huge role in conveying their sophistication and social status. Rebecca’s simple necklace perfectly fits her job.
All of this immediately becomes apparent after Rebecca meets Josh, learns he lives in West Covina, and decides to leave her job. She throws away her jacket, revealing the sleeveless bright blue dress underneath, and bursts into the series’ first musical number, “West Covina”:
Once she arrives in West Covina, Rebecca gets a job with the small law firm Whitefeather and Associates, and her denial of the reason she moved to California is reflected in her carefully-curated outfit for her first day at work. Her jacket is in a bright but tasteful reddish-pink (and even resembles marsala, Pantone’s colour of the year for 2015
, suggesting a further awareness of current fashion trends).
While she wants to present a declarative, uncomplicated version of herself to her new coworkers, the busy print of her skirt strongly indicates the complexity and restlessness at the core of her personality. (One could even argue that the skirt resembles an inkblot test, suggesting an aspect of her past that she wants to keep hidden as much as possible.)
The next day, she’s in a beige-and-pastel blue ensemble at work, then changes for a party she believes Josh will be attending that night:
Rebecca’s entire outfit at the party is an exercise in denial, from the uncharacteristically bright pink colour of her dress — she occasionally wears reds and pinks throughout season one and the entire series, but they’re always in darker, more muted tones — to its lack of sleeves in a town where having bare shoulders is the exception, not the norm. (Her hair is also more exaggerated than we’ve seen thus far.)
As the season goes on, Rebecca’s wardrobe continues to reflect the motifs established in the pilot — blue and similar shades are associated with Josh, whereas she often wears dark reds when at work, and neutral shades in her daily life. Much of Rebecca’s real-life wardrobe is reactionary rather than declarative; many of her most significant outfits are worn during musical numbers.
Early-season numbers “I Have Friends” and “I’m a Good Person” feature Rebecca wearing dark blue dresses covered with pastels or patterns. In the former, we’re introduced to how the colour yellow signifies a character’s reasonableness and stability. Both Rebecca and her younger self incorporate shades of yellow into their outfits, even if Rebecca assuring herself that “No one can say that I do not have friends!” is overwhelmed by other aspects of her personality:
“I’m a Good Person” finds Rebecca attempting to convince sarcastic bartender and potential love interest Greg Serrano of her selflessness (“My nickname is Mother Teresa Luther King!”) while at the same time revealing how selfish her actions truly are. No matter how many butterflies and flowers she has on her dress, they’re all set against an almost inky-blue backdrop. As well, note her uncovered sleeves in a room where pretty much everyone is wearing a long-sleeved shirt or top:
While many of the reactionary costumes Rebecca wears in the first half of the season are in vibrant colours, the most prominent of these outfits ranks among the palest-coloured things she’s ever worn. When Rebecca is invited by Josh’s mother for Thanksgiving dinner, she arrives at their house in a Chanel-inspired outfit that is almost over-the-top in its demureness. (Root made the outfit herself, as the scene specifically required a dress “appropriately Chanel-inspired but parent-friendly … the least threatening, most desexualized, wholesome dress imaginable.”)
Rebecca’s outfit — which also includes a matronly string of pearls — stands in direct contrast to the dress worn by Josh’s longtime girlfriend Valencia, whose clothing is almost too on-the-nose in how inappropriate it is for Thanksgiving dinner in a traditional Filipino household. (Despite Rebecca’s demure outfit in real life, the accompanying number, “I Give Good Parent”
, is replete with hyper-sexualized Puritan costumes and turkey-feather bras.)
These motifs and themes continue throughout the first half of the season, building up to one of the show’s most pivotal moments. In the eleventh episode, “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh!”, Rebecca breaks into Josh’s apartment to delete a dangerously candid text from his phone. When Josh unexpectedly returns mid-break-in, her convoluted explanation leads him to conclude that she lied. This leads to arguably Rebecca’s most important number of the entire season.
If the songs Rebecca sings present a particular narrative she either believes exists or wants to impose on a particular situation, We very rarely see Rebecca wearing white, and the half-sleeves and exaggerated frills of her blouse channel several different archetypes at the same time. Perhaps as a way of resolving this confusion, she imagines herself as a glamorous, glittering Barbra Streisand figure in a cohesive and unfussy gown. Even as she sings about her dysfuctional and self-destructive tendencies, she’s in the most uncomplicated look she’s worn since the pilot.
In the next part, we’ll look at Rebecca’s costumes in the second half of the first season.