Have you seen Fleabag? I binged the second season in a weekend and have now developed a somewhat unhealthy obsession with creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Curious to learn more, I spoke with costume designer Ray Holman. He shared his thoughts on dressing a complicated character, the importance of affordable clothing, and those just-a-tad-too-short skirts…
As a style reporter, I couldn’t help noticing Fleabag’s clothes throughout the season. It’s not a show about fashion — the way, say, Sex in the City or Girls was. Most of the scenes rely heavily on tight camera shots, actually making it tricky to spot the full ensembles. But when you catch a glimpse of a head-to-toe look, you will see that the clothing is actually really good. It’s chic in a wait-I-would-actually-wear-that way. And I’m not the only one taking note. The fantastic keyhole jumpsuit from the first episode of the second season sold out in a day, and viewers went nuts about her signature red lipstick: Mac’s Dare You.
Here’s what costume designer Ray Holman told us:
How do you dress a character as complicated as Fleabag, especially for a show that’s not designed to be about the clothes?
In Fleabag, they’re more of a supporting character. We worked quite hard to make sure that every character was wearing the absolutely most suitable thing they could for the script and for the scenes. We tried to dress Fleabag herself according to her environment. For example, in Episode 2, where she goes to the priest’s jumble sale, I said, ‘Why don’t we do a floral dress with a denim jacket?’ It was like she was trying to impress the priest but in a not too overt way.
How do Fleabag’s clothes reveal who she is?
Fleabag is an urban woman who runs a café; she’s not a woman who runs around the city in designer clothes. She’s practical. She doesn’t wear high heels – she has on her comfortable Superga shoes.
Fleabag is slightly French, so there’s the idea that the French are quite chic and actually Fleabag is quite chic in her own way. We put a few striped tops in, and I did actually buy her berets, but they didn’t get on screen — we laughed about them. We liked the idea of her trench coat and denim skirts. She knows what she likes, and she knows what looks good on her.
Fleabag also doesn’t wear anything that’s outside of her price range. That’s the key to it. The clothes in the show were from stores like Benetton, Muji, Cos, Zara and Reformation.
Sex plays a big part in the plot lines of Fleabag, and yet she never dresses in a particularly revealing way.
It felt inappropriate to do that. Sexuality is fluid these days; it’s all about what’s going on in your head. You don’t have to dress a certain way. She dresses for practicality and for a bit of style as well.
Fleabag does wear a skirt that’s maybe a little too short, you know? Not in a sexual way, but it’s just a little bit near the knuckle. In the wedding episode, when she went up to the attic to talk to her dad, she had to hold the hem down. Most of her clothes fit really well, just some of her skirts are a little bit too short.
Tell me about the jumpsuit from the first episode. I love how it is at once revealing but powerful.
I remember the moment I saw the jumpsuit. We were in the fitting, and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to show you this, just put it on.’ She put the jumpsuit on and went, ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, this is Episode 1.’ It looked amazing on her. It was making a statement, because at that point in our story she hadn’t seen her family for a year. So, she did make an effort. The jumpsuit, with her flat Supergas, not with her high heels.
What was the most difficult ensemble of the season for you?
The funeral outfit. The script had everyone remarking on how good Fleabag looked, as in ‘You look great — even at a funeral.’ It was the worst day of her life and everybody is saying she looks marvelous. Fleabag didn’t want to look good, so her funeral outfit had to be the simplest thing. If I’d dressed her up in an overtly sexual dress, that would have been completely inappropriate. That was a quite difficult thing to land on, really, but we did it, with a dress from Reiss.
Do you have a favorite Fleabag outfit?
In episode four, Fleabag is wearing a pair of wide-cut jeans, with white Superga canvas shoes and a stripey top and her coat. I like the simplicity of it. When you saw that silhouette, you knew it was her.
You dressed the other characters on the show, too. What was it like to juxtapose Fleabag with her sister, Claire?
It was actually easy to make them look different. Claire is a business woman and she is a bit obsessed with what she wears and how she looks. She dresses completely differently from Fleabag — in suits and bodycon dresses.
My favorite Claire moment was the wedding outfit. I was shopping with Sian [Clifford, the actress who plays Claire] picked it up and went, ‘I’d quite like to try this on.’ I went, ‘It’s nude.’ That was meaningful to us as a representation of her raw emotional condition at the wedding. She made some life-changing decisions and laid herself bare. Then I bought her the most beautiful emerald green shoes and emerald green clutch to go with them. You hardly saw them but when you did see them, they popped out and we liked that.
And then there is Olivia Colman, Fleabag’s godmother-turned-stepmother — who is an envelope-pushing artist.
In Episode 1, her character says, “Oh well, we’ve been to Japan on the art tour.” So, I bought some lovely Japanese fabrics. I made head wraps out of them, and you probably can’t even tell they were Japanese fabrics, but we both loved them.
Was it difficult to dress Boo, Fleabag’s dead best friend? We see her only in flashbacks.
I couldn’t really go shopping for her in the shops in the same way that I could for Fleabag, which is why I went down the vintage road. Boo is more of a hippie, so I went to secondhand stores and bought trendy vintage stuff — but stuff that didn’t cost a lot of money. It helped to make her feel like she was a different kind of person to Fleabag.
And the priest! What a fascinating, complicated character he is. How did his wardrobe reflect that?
At the beginning of the first episode, Phoebe and I wanted to slowly reveal the fact that he’s a priest. If we had put the collar on him from the beginning, the audience may have had a different impression of him. Instead, he wore a plain shirt. Then, during the dinner scene, you discover that he’s a handsome, swearing priest. It was quite nice to let him reveal it himself. After that, he wore his collar when he was on official business.
For his off-duty style, we decided his clothes would be a bit old and not up-to-date, but good clothes. The shirt he wore in episode one wasn’t overly expensive. It was just a shirt that looked nice on him. In another episode he wore an ordinary sweatshirt, but it was nicely fitted. Quite humble clothes, nothing flamboyant because we felt that the flamboyance in the priest came when he was wearing his vestments.
What do you hope viewers take away from Fleabag and her wardrobe?
Fleabag is an ordinary woman. She’s an ordinary, stylish woman. I’m quite thrilled that people are enjoying the clothes.
Thoughts? Can we just keep talking about Fleabag forever?
P.S. Q&As with the costume designers of Girls and Crazy Rich Asians, and what are we supposed to do after Fleabag?