mscl hour

Plaid Shirts and Bib Overalls: The Complete History of Angela’s My So-Called Life Wardrobe

Photo: Maya Robinson

Welcome to day three of our survey of the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found FriendsER, and My So-Called Life hobnobbing on the same schedule with SeinfeldThe Simpsons, and The X-Files. We’ve counted down the season’s 100 best episodes; checked back in on the bonkers fifth season of Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210; presented an oral history of the first season of Party of Five; heard crazy tales from the season-three writers’ room of Melrose Placetalked to former NBC executives behind the Thursday night Must-See TV lineup; and much more. But now? Now it is time to spend a full hour with arguably the best show to debut on the 1994 fall schedule: My So-Called Life. Its cruel cancellation after just 19 episodes still mystifies and pains us, and the only remedy for it is looking at a bunch of photos of Angela Chase’s amazingly ’90s outfits with the help of the show’s costume designer.

One cannot think about My So-Called Life’s sensitive teenage heroine Angela Chase without thinking about so many oversize plaid shirts. Somehow she made them work, thanks in no small part to the vision of former costume designer turned prolific TV director Patrick R. Norris. As part of our My So-Called Life Power Hour, we asked Norris to walk us through every outfit Angela wore (minus sleepwear!), which you can click through in the gallery above. But first, we discussed how he designed Angela’s heavily layered wardrobe, putting Claire Danes in that first plaid shirt, and why he never shied away from repeating outfits.

How did you get involved with My So-Called Life?
I started costuming just to get a job in the business. I’d always wanted to be a director, but I was kind of a wayward kid, so that wasn’t going to happen unless I got into the system, and I did that through the laundry room. I became David Carradine’s costumer back on Kung Fu and worked my way up the chain. When I did the series thirtysomething, I won a couple Emmys, and after that, I thought I was done. I still wanted to direct. But when My So-Called Life came around, Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Winnie Holzman wanted me to design. I was kind of at the top of my field, and I knew I could probably negotiate a deal somehow, so I told them, “If you let me direct an episode, I’d be really into it.” They took me up on it. I knew going into this job that this would be my last costume-design job, so I wanted to go out doing something different with these kids rather than what would be normal for television kids. It was a lot of fun getting in there knowing I could do anything I wanted.

I can’t remember anyone on television dressing like Angela. What was your inspiration for her look?
When it came to Angela, and every one of these characters, I had to conceive looks that I liked throughout my own history — meaning from movies, rock stars, whatever — and bring all the things I really enjoyed and liked to look at into these closets for individual people. For Angela, I was thinking about the grunge movement and Kurt Cobain, but also the softness and silhouettes in Annie Hall. I thought if I could blend something like that together, I could give her this whole kind of soft, vulnerable, protective look of who she was as a teenager. Sometimes it would be as simple as knowing Doc Martens are really happening and any kid that could get a pair of Doc Martens at that time would want them — so sometimes you would literally start with the shoes and go, Wow, I got these great Doc Martens, now what am I gonna put with it? Where normally, it’s the other way around: I got this great outfit, what shoes should I wear? I was kind of challenging myself that way. If I found an item for Angela, I knew that her silhouette would have to be somewhat conceived around an item.

Angela’s look really evolves in the first episode, where you learn that she’s become recent friends with this wild child Rayanne. In the first scene, she’s in a very feminine outfit with a floral skirt, but by the end of the hour, she looks completely different.
Rayanne was a big influence on her over the course of the show. Claire Danes and A.J. Langer are literally different types of people with different types of energy in their personal life. A.J. had a little more street experience when they started. I let that just bloom. I fed off their personal demeanors for clothes. I remember the first day I threw a plaid shirt on Claire and I thought, Wow, this is kind of cool because here’s somebody who can come in straight, but twist it with a little plaid, or twist it with these boots, and keep the jewelry simple and clean. The bonus for me is when they decided to have Claire dye her hair red. That was the key to the city right there. That was the key to finding the new look and trying to let her fit in more, into Rayanne and Rickie’s world. To make that statement. If you look at some of the bodies of the clothes, they look normal, but the fact that we could layer it made it. I really got into this whole sense of design of layering things to keep that individuality for Angela, like giving her a little bit of this and a little bit of that and maybe something her mom bought her at a normal teen store. I just think that if you go to your closet, you can create these great looks, if you’re just not afraid to mix it up a little bit.

Where did you do most of your shopping for her?
For most of the kids, I went off and brought together every artist, every designer, every shop on Melrose, every thrift store in Venice, every thrift store in Silverlake, and I would throw closets together with cool stuff. As the characters revealed themselves, it was a no-brainer picking things out for them. Angela is so internal, so she was open. The character was open to taking risks in many senses. But she was so deep internally that I never wanted her clothes to really outshine who she was, you know? Whereas someone like Rickie would make a big statement with his wardrobe. It’s like everybody kind of used their clothes to let you know who they were. I remember one day we were shooting a scene and A.J. had lost one of her earrings, and we were like, Oh, fuck! We went searching for it or whatever and then we realized that she doesn’t need two matching earrings. Her signature became mixing up the earrings and stuff. We were like, Yeah, that’s cool, just do that.

Did you use anything from high-end designers on Angela?
Some of the jumper dresses you’d find at Macy’s, or you’d find at the kind of lower-end store, but then you’d mix it in with a period piece or, yeah, a designer piece or a thrift-store piece. If Sharon was the most normal person on the show, costume-wise, she was 100 percent at Bullocks. Now picture Angela grabbing some of that, and then throwing on a plaid, and then putting on some Doc Martens, and then layering it with a sweater. You would do your normal shopping, and then you’d go to your street artist to paint tennis shoes, or you’d go to a really cool British boot store down on Melrose and try to get shoes that could be really kind of cool. And then you had this core of individuality all of a sudden.

But she didn’t always look like she’d nailed it.
It was never quite right, but that was kind of the risk of it all. Thank God I had the support of the showrunners because through my career I’ve been involved in shows where they’re like, “Oh, really, would they wear that?” and “We don’t like this with that,”  and they would make it more straight. Everybody was just open to it. And when I would get Claire or A.J., sometimes with their parents, and I wouldn’t just say, “Here’s your outfit.” I’d say, “Well, what do you think of this?” We’d do these fittings where shit was thrown all over the room. It was an open forum between me and the cast whenever they did wardrobe fittings and stuff.

Did Claire ever say, “I don’t understand this?”
What’s really funny is I don’t ever recall her rejecting anything. She was new and vulnerable enough and really focused on this character that she was open to what was being introduced to wear. And she would put it on, and I think what she would like about it was the fact that it was different, and when it was different, it would help her go to a different place as well.

I don’t remember being so brave in high school.
Well, sometimes questions would come up like, “Are you sure?” And I’d literally say, “No, I’m not sure, but you look cool! It looks different, and it looks like something you put together maybe to risk the idea of attention, fashion-wise.”

Did Angela have favorite pieces in your mind?
The sweater with the green sleeves — that was definitely one of her favorites. And her plaid shirt she loved, the kind of rusted-red one. That was almost like a comfort jacket, and a statement of almost Jordan Catalano. She was just really cool in that, and felt both really vulnerable in it and protected. And I also think that layering [it] with the longer dress on the inside, treating them almost like skirts, always protected her as well. I think Angela loved those pieces. And her overalls, of course!

How did anyone ever make overalls work?
My whole palette for this whole show was my own life, basically. When I introduced the overalls to Claire, she was really excited. And again, this is a teenage thing, because I wore them as a teenager back in the early ‘70s, late ‘60s. They’re comfortable, they’re nonthreatening. In a way, I was always able to keep a balance with those overalls; it was vulnerable, it was safe, it was protected. You could even dump a plaid dress on top of it, which we did.

I also remember thinking some of her clothes looked like she didn’t pick them out. Which makes sense when you realize she’s 15, but again, is rare to see with teens on TV.
I tried to go off on her being 15. What kind of gifts do you get from your family that you’re forced into wearing because you don’t have anything warmer or whatever? Okay, so you get this kind of bizarre Indian blanket-jacket, or you get this waist-dropped kind of peacoat thing that you wouldn’t normally wear, but this is what you got. How do you doctor that up? You could have a really cool undershell, and then all of a sudden, you’re reaching in your closet, you’ve got nothing to go with it. Happens to me all the time. Still!

What I appreciated, even when I watched 20 years ago, was how often they repeated outfits. I can’t think of a show that does that regularly.
The repetitiveness of it was the ticket to making it real. Also, you don’t really have a lot of money in television, as much as you’d like. And we had a big cast, and between blending designers, whether it’d be Betsey Johnson or Armani or Donna Karan, through the cast, you end up spending good money for pieces. With that balance, I would never have been able to a new outfit in every episode. I thought if I just kept my mouth shut and just repeated stuff everybody would be cool with it. And they were. Everybody was cool with it. Nobody ever said, “Oh, did she wear that in the last episode?” And if it did come up? Well, she’s 15! When you were 15 and every time you went to school, did you buy a new outfit? I don’t think so. And then we all had pieces that we loved, and we would always repeat those pieces because they were cool. It wasn’t just like one time and it’s back in the closet.

The Complete History of Angela’s MSCL Wardrobe