White tulle peeked out of the five-dollar sale bin like the frothy crest of a wave in a sea of throwaways. I pulled and out came a chic white tutu. Sarah Jessica Parker loved it immediately.
I knew she’d relate to it because she had a background as a ballet dancer. But just as important, the tutu style was whimsical, adventurous and unexpected — just like this new show I’d been hired to work on called Sex And The City.
The trouble was, the boss did not understand it. The creator and producer of the show Darren Starr has great instincts, but when he saw the look I put together for the all-important opening sequence — tiered white tutu, body-conscious pink tank top, neutral strappy high-heeled sandals — he questioned my choice. ‘I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘Who’s going to understand this girl, in New York, in a tutu?’ Luckily, I had Sarah Jessica on my side. For a show about sophisticated, honest and contemporary women in the city, she fiercely believed the clothes were just as important as the writing or acting.
‘It’s the princess syndrome,’ I told Darren. ‘Trust me.’
In the end we compromised: Darren let us shoot the white tulle on condition we shot another option, for which I found a powder-blue, sleeveless sheath dress. But it was only ever about the tutu. As soon as Darren saw Carrie Bradshaw getting splashed by a passing bus hitting a street puddle — with her image and the line ‘Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex’ on its side — he loved it. And thus was born the most iconic outfit of the series that has had the most influence on fashion in the history of TV. Ever.
Lady in red: Patricia Field with Sex And The City’s Kim Cattrall. Patricia is the fashion mastermind behind Sex And The City
I was 55 years old and the owner of a famously avant garde boutique in New York’s Greenwich Village when I was asked to be the costume designer for Sex And The City.
It was 1997 and, for three decades, I’d been at the very cutting edge of the fashion and club scenes in New York, with a clientele at my Patricia Field shop that ranged from Madonna to Ivana Trump, Naomi Campbell to Boy George, Beyonce to Lady Gaga.
I was something of a latecomer to the show. There had been another costume designer on the pilot, but nobody had been happy with the clothes (in that first episode, for example, Carrie is tapping out her column from bed in a sloppy oversized button-down shirt and schleppy sweatpants — an outfit I wouldn’t wear at home, let alone on TV).
This was going to be an honest exploration of adult female sexual relationships, and the fashion had to reflect that sort of open-mindedness. None of the characters were stereotypes of women along the slut/prude spectrum, but instead were juggling a complex mix of careers, sexual desires and real friendships.
The Devil’s in the detail: Getting the white-haired look right for Meryl Streep’s character Miranda – Patricia Field with Meryl Streep
Darren needed someone who would think outside the usual Hollywood box. My style was eclectic, I was synonymous with New York and my shop was very cool. It felt like the perfect fit.
Oddly enough, the only character in the beginning without a clear, precise identity like the others was Carrie Bradshaw. If Samantha was the sexcrazed one; Miranda the serious lawyer lady and Charlotte the girl-next-door, then who exactly was Carrie?
All my uncertainty about the nature of her identity disappeared the moment Sarah Jessica and I sat down for the first time to discuss her. ‘I will always be bare legged,’ she said. ‘I don’t care where my character is going, what temperature it is outside, or what kind of heels I’m in.’
A decision like that might seem minor, but it was actually revolutionary. In 1997, tights were still very much an integral part of a woman’s wardrobe. Especially on television, everyone wore them.
Sarah Jessica’s statement — that Carrie was going to be walking down the street in heels and bare legs — was more a manifesto than a costume direction. She went on to ban scrunchies and butterfly hair clips as well, not only from her costumes, but those of all the other characters too, and made a plea to the makeup artists to forgo foundation, seeing it as another vestige of a bygone era.
Patricia (pictured was 55 years old and the owner of a famously avant garde boutique in New York’s Greenwich Village when she was asked to be the costume designer for Sex And The City
At the start, I had a team of just two assistants, and for each half-hour episode we would need to create roughly 50 separate outfits. Fittings for Carrie could turn into eight-hour-long marathons, but they were true collaborations and we were all up for it.
My relationships with the other talent on SATC weren’t as immediate. As with Darren, I had to prove I wasn’t nuts. My shop was good training to be a stylist. As a stylist, the actors are your customers — and the customer is always right. Even if they are wrong. I admire Cynthia Nixon, who played the ambitious, hardworking and good-hearted Miranda.
But did being a partner in a law firm also mean she had to look terrible? No! I thought we dressed her way too seriously in that first series.
I don’t like formulaic and I felt like Miranda looked like a cliche of a lawyer. From the first episode of season 2, we made her character more playful. I put her in pencil skirts with slim-silhouette jackets that were kept open to show her waist. High heels, drop earrings, all that fun stuff — and no more buttoned-up collars.
With Kristin Davis, the issue was her love of A-line skirts. I fought her over them. ‘You have a fabulous figure!’ I told her. ‘We have to show it off.’ When I chose body-conscious Dolce dresses and skirts to elevate Charlotte’s lady-who-lunches look, she worried they were too tight.
Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in the famous white tulle dress for Sex And The City
I practically had to pry the Ralph Lauren sweater sets from her hands to get some tailored Prada on her.
In some ways, however, it was Samantha who was the core of the show — at least in terms of its ground-breaking depiction of female libido — and when it came to her, I really had to lay down the law with the straight types from the production company HBO. All those male producers who thought the only way to read sexy on-screen was by trotting out the old stereotype of big boobs, miniskirts, and high heels.
I understood that her role was ‘the sex one’, but I didn’t want her to be the cheap sex one. Instead, I dressed her in elegant stretch fabrics from the designer Georgio di Sant’ Angelo. I put her in clothes so soft and supple you wanted to reach through the TV screen to touch her. Sometimes she was a goddess in metallics, a bright, shiny and reflective object of desire.
We put her in halter dresses and spaghetti straps because Kim Cattrall has the most beautiful broad shoulders. We marked Samantha as a woman of pleasure but we did it subtly, on our terms.
What we didn’t know at the start of pulling together these outfits for season one was how hugely important SATC would become to the fashion world. And the fashion world had no idea what was about to hit it.
Before the show aired, most of the labels we contacted to ask if we could borrow clothes didn’t even return our calls. They had no idea what this quirky new HBO show was, and they weren’t about to help us.
That’s partly why Manolo Blahnik shoes became such a big part of it.
I already had a relationship with Manolo Blahnik through a man called George Malkemus, who ran the Spanish shoe designer’s Manhattan boutique. Princess Diana, Bianca Jagger and Vogue editors were wearing Manolos, but they were not a household name.
After George and I became friendly, I made a deal with him. At the very end of their shoe sales, I would pick up whatever was left, and literally headed for the bin, and pay $10 a pair to take them off his hands.
He agreed, and I turned right around and sold them at my store for $20-$25. The profit margin was slim, but I was happy to offer such great shoes to my customers at a price they could afford.
On Devil Wears Prada, producers went into a frenzy – to them, white hair equalled old lady
George was more than happy to supply shoes when I began working on SATC, and Sarah Jessica was more than happy to wear them. We were all happy — except perhaps my customers.
After the show first aired in the summer of 1998, Manolo Blahniks would never be bargain basement fodder again.
It was three-quarters of the way through that first season of SATC that the show began to light up the ratings and grow the cult following which made it so extraordinarily influential. Designers began to sit up and take note.
Shopping for the second series at Fendi, I suddenly became aware they were rolling out the red carpet for me.
Assistants fell over themselves to tell me I could have my pick of the many variations of their new Baguette bag — a cute little shoulder bag which tucked under the arm like a loaf of French bread — to use on the show.
It represented a turning point, where people went from ignoring my calls to throwing their clothes at me. (The Baguette bag became a huge hit after its TV appearance in late August 1999. It even got its own plotline in the season 2 episode where Carrie goes to therapy to get over her breakup with Mr. Big and starts dating a fellow patient played by Jon Bon Jovi. It was solely the success of the Baguette — which women lined up around the block to buy — that led the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH to purchase Fendi in October of the same year for $850million.)
It was clear that Sex And The City was defining culture in many ways. Women all over the world came to idolise these characters and find a personal sense of freedom through them — and their sense of style. HBO increased my budget and my team swelled from three to 12, plus a couple of tailors and an accountant.
By season six we had become a bona fide juggernaut. Each episode was like doing a weekly version of Vogue, with every designer under the sun wanting their stuff to be in our show.
At HBO, our bulging racks of clothing began muscling in on The Sopranos territory down the hallway. At the height of the show’s success, no scenario was too extravagant if we felt something was needed. Once we flew a hat — the Chanel couture chiffon camellia-flower fascinator Carrie wears to the baptism of Miranda’s son Brady, to be precise — from Paris to New York on its own ticket, in its own seat.
SATC ended on February 22, 2004, and at the risk of sounding ungrateful, for a while it felt like an ex who won’t get out of your life. It’s hard to move on from a show with that kind of reach, and where the costumes were so central.
My luck was in with my next big job, however — on the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada — dressing one of the world’s greatest movie actresses as a sadistic style fashionista was certainly a soft landing after saying goodbye to Carrie and the gang.
Indeed, the only problem we encountered was with Meryl Streep’s amazing white hair. She and her long-time hair and makeup stylist had thought a lot about how the look could serve the character of ruthless magazine editor Miranda Priestly.
The element of Emily In Paris’ look that has become iconic is the red beret Lily [Collins] (pictured) wears with shorts and blazer
Their references were a mix of the octogenarian model Carmen Dell’Orefice and the president of the European Central Bank (then a minister in the French government), Christine Lagarde.
But when the producers heard about the hair, they went into a frenzy. To them white equalled old lady. ‘Did you talk to Meryl?’ a hysterical producer said to me. ‘White will kill us.’
I did my best to talk them off the ledge, explaining she’d have a stylish haircut with killer clothes to match, but they couldn’t see it. Finally, I had to relay their concerns to Meryl.
‘They won’t stop bugging me about this white hair,’ I told her.
‘I’ll take care of it,’ she said — and promptly laid down the law on the hair. White, high-style and shocking: it was perfect. You can do that when you’ve been nominated for dozens of Oscars.
I like to think I’ve got to the stage in my life and career when I can call the shots too. When I signed on to Emily In Paris, for example, I invented the job of costume consultant.
It means I set up the department and hired the costume designer and analysed the characters with her to come up with a road map of the style and fashion story.
But I’m not responsible for any of the boring bits like administration or accounting. I am 81 this year after all.
Before the first series, I took a trip to France to see what Parisian women were wearing, but all I saw from arrondissment to arrondissment was jeans, sweatpants, hoodies and sneakers. ‘Forget French chic,’ I told the showrunner on my return. ‘It’s dead.’
Fashion is an art form like painting, sculpting, writing, or music. It tells the story of the culture of the time, and today the state of fashion is depressed, by which I mean it’s limited and standardised for most people.
‘Athleisure’ is a cheap commercial churn-out of sweatsuits and trainers that through the magic of marketing is passed off as ‘in fashion’ by the style industrial complex.
The truth is, it’s all ordinary people can afford these days, and yet if you follow the Instagram accounts of celebrities or the wives of oligarchs, you’ll see luxury that would have made Marie Antoinette blush. Fashion is a mirror of society’s bigger issues.
So I ignored what I saw on the streets and instead dressed Emily in hats and bright colours to convey the great optimism of her character. I never put her in black unless the script demands it.
When we got to Paris to start filming, we went to Chanel’s headquarters, where they kept saying they wanted to develop a younger clientele. But when I looked around the showroom everything was for ladies, and not young ones.
In many ways, the iconic French fashion house was an important element for Emily in Paris. A totem of aspirational style, the interlocking “CC” logo is an instantly identifiable symbol the world over.
But I needed to figure out how to incorporate the staid pieces in a youthful way for Emily, in the same manner in which I had paired a Chanel jacket with jeans on Carrie Bradshaw, which was considered revolutionary at the time.
Perusing garments in Chanel’s showroom, I was thinking about how boxy many of the pieces were when it hit me: I’ll make it oversized! Lily is so petite that having her swim in clothing was a snap. I picked a jacket in the brightest green and largest size—and voila, a classic instantly became cool.
Chanel featured prominently in season 1, but probably not in the way the luxury house ever could have imagined.
For example, I used a white Chanel shirt, with crochet and eyelet work forming interlocking C’s, for Emily’s jogging outfit by altering it into a crop top.
‘Shorter! Shorter!’ I kept telling the tailor.
The element of Emily’s look that has become iconic is the red beret Lily [Collins] wears with shorts and blazer. In fact the beret is too small for her — it was for a child, but I liked the way it sat on her head, so we cut it.
That meant every time they shot Lily from the back, we had to turn the beret to hide the slit!
I call myself the happy clothes expert, because no matter what’s happening in the world, I live in my own world of pretty pictures. Like the play of bright light and colour in a painting or the thumping beat of a song that forces you onto the dance floor, a gorgeously vibrant garment raises my spirits and brings me joy.
A frothy white tutu, a bright red beret — our lives are richer, happier, fuller when we put them on.
- Adapted from Pat In The City: My Life Of Fashion, Style And Breaking All The Rules by Patricia Field published on February 14 (Fourth Estate, £20) © Patricia Field 2023. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 20/02/23; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.