behind the seams

How The Muppet Show Turned Kermit, Piggy & Co. Into Style Icons

It’s time to put on makeup / It’s time to dress up right… Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Polly Smith’s memories of working behind the scenes on The Muppet Show sound a lot like Kermit the Frog’s experience onscreen as the show’s emcee. The costume designer, who started on the show in 1978, four seasons into its five-season run, admits things were usually chaotic. Her workshop was right next to the green room, so the writers, puppeteers, set builders, and prop designers were always rushing through as she furiously tried to finish last-minute costumes. But it wasn’t just the notoriously tight deadlines of episodic television that made things stressful. She also had to contend with tours of fans being treated to impromptu performances from the puppeteers. “They’d grab the Muppets, put them on their hands, and talk to these people and it’s like, ‘I’ve got to get this done’,” she says, still sounding exasperated.

Somehow, she always did. Forty-three years later, she’s still not sure how. Now that The Muppet Show is streaming on Disney+, Smith is enjoying the chance to reminisce about the “dream job” that became her life’s work. At the age of 28, she was hired as a temporary assistant to Muppet costume designer and Miss Piggy’s personal dresser Calista Hendrickson. “I went in for my first 10 days and left 25 years later,” says Smith, who went on to design for other Jim Henson projects such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, the ’90s TV show Dinosaurs, and, her personal favorite, The Dark Crystal. 

She left The Jim Henson Company in 2002. “It was like [the Muppets] were my stepchildren,” she says. “Then there was a divorce and I didn’t get to see them anymore. They didn’t write and they didn’t call.” While she did spend a few years working on Sesame Street,Kermit and Piggy were out of my life,” she says wistfully. Still, she remembers those early years working with Henson fondly. “He was just a fabulous boss who really brought the best out of all of us,” she says. “I would just jump out of bed. I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning.”

Shortly before joining The Muppet Show, Smith helped her two friends create the first sports bra. “I made the bra under duress,” she says, claiming she was the only one they knew who could sew. Her friends went on to great success with the design; all three are set to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year. But Smith has never regretted not following them into the corporate world. “My friends were spending their time at sportswear trade shows,” she says. “While I was in London measuring David Bowie’s inseam.”

Unfortunately, that’s a story for another time, but Smith did share some of the Muppet costuming lessons she’s learned regarding Kermit’s fits, the trouble with Gonzo, and why Miss Piggy never looked better than she did on The Muppet Show.

Every piece of Muppet clothing had to look real

In the beginning, “there was a temptation to be like, ‘Oh, it’s a puppet,’” Smith says. “But that was just really dissatisfying for me.” She worried about the effect an unfinished hem could have on a young fan. “In their mind, especially kids, the minute they look in the Muppets’ eyes they think they’re talking to a real thing,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be on my watch that they become distracted and realize that isn’t the case.”

Having gotten her master’s in costume design from NYU, she knew how to drape and draft — which came in handy when designing for Kermit the Frog, who was “like dressing a football,” and Electric Mayhem bandleader Dr. Teeth, who was “a hoop skirt with a costume on it.” To get the tailoring on these unusual bodies just right, the designers had to get creative. “Back then, we’d have an old Miss Piggy body and put it on a stand,” she says. “Then you’d have your dress form.”

Kermit bein’ green actually made things easy

Green goes with everything. Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Green’s the color of spring, but it’s also nature’s neutral shade, which made Kermit easy to dress. The same couldn’t be said of the other brightly colored Muppets. “Gonzo was a nightmare,” she says. “His skin color was so hard to work with. A lot of colors didn’t look good on him.”

Not the case with Kermit, whose style was sensible. He always dressed for the occasion — that is, when he was dressed at all. She could put him in a shirt and tie and he’d look ready to hit the town. “He looks brilliant in eveningwear,” she says. “Black and white and green, you can’t get any better than that.”

The most difficult part was figuring out Kermie’s formalwear fits. “We had to learn how much of a little shoulder pad you had to put in there because he doesn’t have any shoulders at all,” she says. Once they figured out how to set his lapel and collar, he was practically set for life. In fact, for 2011’s The Muppets, Brooks Brothers gifted him his first new tuxedo since 1979.

The Great Gonzo wasn’t so great to dress

When it came to Gonzo, the more eccentric, the better. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Smith

The first costume Smith ever made was Gonzo’s plumber outfit in the original Muppet Movie, so she admittedly has a soft spot for the little blue weirdo. Yet, he earned the honor of the most difficult Muppet to dress. Not just because of his skin tone, but because of his longtime puppeteer Dave Goelz, who had final say in Gonzo’s wardrobe choices. “Working with puppets I’d become used to them not talking back,” she says, “and to all of a sudden have one talking back to me,” well, it made things a little more difficult.

By her own account, she drew thousands of sketches for possible Gonzo looks that never came to be because, she says, Goelz put the kibosh on them for one reason or another. “I could have done something I loved if I had been left alone,” she says. A costume she did love was a metallic Aladdin costume for an Arabian Nights sketch in an episode hosted by Marty Feldman.

When designing Gonzo’s attire, Smith always felt the more eccentric, the better. It’s why she’s still annoyed that Gonzo never wore the “beautiful little black-and-white checkered suit” she designed for him. Unfortunately, Goelz, according to Smith, hated black-and-white, so the Muppet never wore it. “I had to move to this gold-and-black checkered suit, which was a lot harder to get his weird shirts and ties to match,” she says.

Still, she was able to make some iconic looks for the argyle sweater vest–wearing Muppet. “To this day, I still see him and think, ‘Oh my gosh, that shirt’s gotta be 30 years old!’” she says. “I guess he takes good care of his stuff.”

The teeny-tiny details matter

Yolanda Rat’s teeny gloves in Muppets Take Manhattan were made with “the teeniest crochet hook in the world,” according to Smith. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Smith

Nothing drives me crazier than the wrong-sized buttons,” Smith says. It’s why she kept a tackle box full of teeny buttons she found at flea markets in New York City and London, where The Muppet Show was filmed. They came in handy for the smaller Muppets like Rizzo the Rat, her favorite Muppet to dress. The smaller, the better for me,” she says.

The fun part of dressing the little guys was making sure the accessories were proportionate. In a pinch, the designers would have to cut down full-size scarves or ties to make smaller ones for the characters. “I would turn my nose up at it,” she says, preferring to make the winterwear and other fun-size accessories from scratch. In 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, she remembers her assistant crocheting a tiny pair of gloves for Yolanda Rat’s little hands. “It was just the teeniest crochet hook in the world and it was amazing,” she says. “It sort of took my breath away.”

The fine details of her work were rarely visible onscreen, but that didn’t bother her. “I could see it and Jim Henson could see it,” she says. “He appreciated it.” Not to mention, she found it very therapeutic. “I think it’s just calming for me to sew or knit a little something for Rizzo.”

Brooke Shields is the host with the most memorable costumes

In Smith’s opinion, the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational episode was hosted by a 14-year-old Brooke Shields, the youngest person to ever host. Her episode had a running Alice in Wonderland theme in which Gonzo played The Mad Hatter and iconic hecklers Statler and Waldorf dressed as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Tweedle-Statler and Waldorf. Not pictured: Brooke Shields. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Smith

Big ensemble numbers were “all hands on deck” for the costume department, which, in the final season, was just Smith and her assistant. “I remember I did it all with felt,” she says. “I did a lot of cutting out of squares and dots and gluing them to create patterns.”

Unfortunately, the episode isn’t currently available to stream due to music-licensing issues, but Smith will always remember Shields for one special reason. “She was the only host who hung out in the workshop with us,” she says. Due to child-labor laws, Shields could only spend so much time working. To keep her occupied in between scenes, “she helped make some puppets for the show.” Shields’s handiwork shows up in the episode’s truly surreal Jabberwocky sketch.

Miss Piggy’s style evolution

Smith with the one and only. Photo: Courtesy of Polly Smith

When Smith joined The Muppet Show, Miss Piggy’s look was well-established. Created as an homage to “Fever” singer Peggy Lee, she was “this old movie star from the ’30s or ’40s, but in her own mind.” (The pig’s original name was Miss Piggy Lee, but they changed it to not upset the singer.) “Unless she was in some production number, Piggy was always in her gown and boa and gloves,” she says.

Piggy’s body was hand-clipped, which meant they could easily change her proportions. “Like any woman, she goes in and she goes out,” Smith says. During those early years, Piggy was as glamorous as they come. Her old-Hollywood style is why Smith believes Piggy’s puppeteer Frank Oz never trusted her to dress the stylish swine. When Hendrickson left the show in its final season, costume designer Barbara Davis took on the role of Piggy’s dresser. “Barbara had the makeup and hair done up and Frank Oz sort of fed off of that,” she says. “I didn’t have the hair and the makeup.” Davis ended up making most of Miss Piggy’s clothes and “she became the fluffer,” Smith says. “She would go on trips and be the one to hand Piggy to Frank Oz. She could do the hair and everything.” Smith was just as happy. “I ran screaming when Piggy’s hair got messed up. I didn’t know what to do.”

Piggy’s style has evolved over the decades to become more in vogue — and literally, in Vogue but Smith is partial to her early look. “Back then, she was in her own fantasy world and I think she should have stayed there,” she says. “They’ve tried to change her into Jennifer Aniston. She’s just a movie star of this day and that’s just not quite as silly.”

Turning her into every other Hollywood starlet means “she’s sort of in our world and that doesn’t sit well with me,” Smith says. She tried watching the newest Muppet TV show, Muppets Now, “but they’re not my guys. I can’t watch.” Though she doesn’t want to keep anyone else from enjoying. “That’s just me,” she says. “They’re my children.”

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