Costume designer Kiersten Hargroder talks designing Supergirl and diversity in the fashion industry


In a wide-ranging interview, costume designer Kiersten Hargroder talked to Culturess about her work on Supergirl and her new movie To the Stars.

For most people, costume design evokes the image of royalty: women (and sometimes men) in elaborate, corseted gowns and headwear that looks more like sculpture than clothing. Look at the category’s history at the Academy Awards, and you notice that every winner from the current decade is set either in the past or in a fantasy world.

However, with a decade-and-a-half of experience under her belt, Kiersten Hargroder knows there is more to the art of costume design than beauty. The former protégé of Oscar-winning legend Colleen Atwood has worked on a staggering range of projects over the course of her career, from action blockbusters like Star Trek into Darkness and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice to art house dramas like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and commercials.

Her latest project, a 1960s-set coming-of-age story directed by Martha Stephens called To the Stars, premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Hargroder is also working on the second season of Netflix’s thriller You.

We had the opportunity to talk with Hargroder about working on The CW’s Supergirl for two seasons, avoiding period piece clichés, and surrounding herself with diversity.

How did you get interested in fashion design?

I studied apparel design in college; that’s what my degree was in. I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do with that interest. I think I was always interested in clothing, especially as a form of communication. I think we say a lot with our clothes. And then I had a family friend that was in the film industry in Minneapolis, and I just started talking to people, trying to figure out what the job entailed. I just kind of started working from the bottom, working under people to try to [see] what the career involved.

Did you have any particular inspirations when you started designing costumes?

I really always loved a lot of the 1950s movies. Elizabeth Taylor… was just such a fascinating woman to watch, and I think she was always really beautifully dressed. I also loved Audrey Hepburn. They’re kind of blanket, easy answers that I think a lot of people were influenced by. It just felt like another world; it didn’t feel like reality in a way they make a lot of TV shows and movies now, which are more based in reality… I really started paying more attention to those types of actresses and who was designing those costumes. Edith Head, obviously, was a really influential costume designer and I started researching what she did. I think all of her work has been amazing. Yeah, it just kind of started to snowball – the research and all the movies [where] you start to realize how much work goes into that job.

How did you end up working on Supergirl?

That was an interesting situation for me because I was working for a costume designer named Colleen Atwood. She designed the actual Supergirl costume. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. I was helping her at the time, and that’s how I got introduced to the folks that made Supergirl. So, that kind of didn’t happen in a normal way. She was influential in me getting my job, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity…

I read the script, though, and I really liked the female empowerment and having a girl in power. I think growing up with… the Christopher Reeve Superman and his ability to just seem like a normal guy, I tried to reflect that in her character for Supergirl. To me, that thought that everyone is strong and powerful – just the hero story – everyone sort of loves that, so it’s a fun story to be able to tell. So, I was excited to get to do that.

How do you approach designing costumes for superhero characters?

It’s doing research on how these characters were portrayed in the comic books. And they had been around for 20, 30 years in the comic books, so it’s looking at every version. Then, it’s trying to tweak the colors and the fit to the actor that’s going to be wearing the costume and to what we need to do for that particular show. Like, does it make sense for this person? Some of the characters that maybe had capes [in the comics] we didn’t add the cape, because it didn’t make sense for that particular story we were telling. So, it’s really taking into consideration the script and the actor and the color palette. There are a lot of elements that influence where you end up. And ultimately, the studio and DC Comics have to sign off, making sure it fits their representation of these characters.

Supergirl — “Medusa” — Image SPG208a_0054 — Pictured(L-R): Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl and David Harewood as Hank Henshaw — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — © 2016 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

How closely do you work with the actors and the other craft departments? What’s the collaboration process like?

I would say when I’m coming up with a character’s costume… it is not typically collaborative at that stage. You’re doing more research, looking with your illustrators to find the right balance of what you need in this particular project. And you’re taking into consideration your timeline, if there are things I can or cannot do with how much time and money I have to build this particular character. So, it sometimes leads you in a certain direction if you only have three weeks to make a costume, which is pretty standard time-wise. It’s not a lot of time to come up with a concept, make it, and put it on camera. So, it’s a short amount of time we typically have to do these crazy costumes.

Of course, cohesiveness is super important. But I would say at the design stage, it’s really just me, and then the collaborative stage happens to make sure the colors are the right tone for the setting or… it’s making sure that all the superheroes you design are in the same world, so that drives the colors and certain things that you’re creating. I would say that the production designer and those aspects are involved, but not as much in the early design process. But everyone comes together to make sure it’s cohesive and everything looks good together.

Do you have a favorite costume that you designed for Supergirl?

For Supergirl, my favorite was Martian Manhunter just because I had a little bit more time to do that costume, and he’s played by the lovely actor David Harewood. I just really felt so pleased with how that costume turned out, and it functioned really well. DC even made little figurines of it. It’s pretty cool. I would say that was a fun one to do for me. But I love all of them.

Moving on, your last movie was To the Stars, which was at Sundance. What motivated you to do that project?

It was the script for that project. My approach to work is the same, I guess, no matter if it’s superheroes or the 1960s. I just connected to the story, and I always like a coming-of-age story and being able to do 1960s small town felt like a really different fit from superheroes, so that was appealing to me. I get inspired by being able to stretch my range and refine my work.

How did you make the costumes unique for that movie? Because people sometimes have stereotypes of what fashion looked like at that time.

For that project, I rented a lot of costumes from a costume house, and then we were able to purchase things online through some vintage stores to get the right color palette and the right feeling for certain types of costumes that we needed. [With] the timeline and the budget for that project, we didn’t have the ability to do manufacturing, so that’s when the costume houses come in handy. You get to go find the right pieces and just rent them.

Did you have any specific inspirations?

That ended up taking place at the same time that my mother was in high school, and it was about the same age as the girls that were in the story. So, I had my mother mail me her yearbook. Because it fit the right story of a small-town farming community, which is where my mother grew up, I was able to use that as a lot of inspiration to find some real stories to tell… When you do research sometimes, it’s difficult to see that research as real people. So, to be able to connect it to someone I know and talk to her about some of her experiences, I was really able to help shape these characters.

PARK CITY, UT – JANUARY 25: (L-R) Madisen Beaty, Shea Whigham, Malin Akerman, Kara Hayward, Lucas Zumann, Liana Liberato, Sophia Bairley, Jordana Spiro, Martha Stephens, Adelaide Clemens, and Tony Hale attend the “To The Stars” during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at The Ray on January 25, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

How do you approach fashion if it’s from a background or place that you aren’t familiar with?

I think an aspect of costume design that most people don’t think about or entirely understand [is] it does require a ton of research, even if it is something modern. Like you’re saying, you’re inevitably showing people of different classes or something that is maybe not something I can personally relate to and bring my own experience to. That’s where you gain more experience just doing the job, doing more and more research.

I think in a lot of ways, it gives you empathy for people who have different stories than yourself and different backgrounds and different classes and different races, all those elements. Also, it opens your eyes to a lot of things. Like, with all these socioeconomic things that we don’t always think about, it needs to be reflected in order to tell the story correctly.

For most people that I know in the business, you do that through research and talking to people and really thinking about how, if it’s a historical 1950s piece… you really have to dive into more than just what clothing was manufactured at the time. You have to dive into how much money did these people make, what did their life look like, where would they have shopped, how did they get all their clothes? And you’re thinking about how most of their clothes they probably bought 10 years ago, like most of us now. That’s always an interesting aspect that you hope to reflect in good costume design.

I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s important to have diversity. Because if you get people from different backgrounds, you can have different points of view.

Absolutely. It’s really important to surround yourself with different people and work with different people and different vendors. All those things that you kind of start to absorb, all this different knowledge, influence your design work. And you hope to do that in a way that’s reflective of the world. The whole point of filmmaking and TV and storytelling is trying to get people things to relate to, or learn from, or laugh at, or cry at, or feel something. And it can be done in so many ways, but ultimately, you want a connection… I take that very seriously and sometimes it’s very hard and difficult, but ultimately, you want to give the viewers something to connect to.

In your experience, do you feel like you’ve been able to work in environments that feel inclusive and that represent the kind of different points of view that you were talking about?

I think we’ve made some good strides, and we’ve opened up the conversation. But like any business, the film business is going to be a little bit slow to change. When there are that many people involved in an industry all over the world, I don’t think it’s going to be a fast change. But I’m hopeful that it will get better because I think that everyone is on – or maybe not everyone – but a lot of us want the change and want the work environment that is diverse and inclusive.

I’m fortunate that the showrunners and creators of Supergirl and the show that I’m working on now [You] – they’re the same people, Greg Berlanti – promotes a lot of those things that we believe in. That I feel really lucky for. I do think there’s a lot more work to be done. But it’s hard. You can’t expect a massive change like that to happen quickly.

That makes sense. Since costume design is an area mostly dominated by women, do you feel like that affects your experience in the film industry, which is otherwise mostly dominated by men?

It’s so cultural and historical to think that filming and looking at and caring about clothes is a female-driven sort of ethic, I guess… It’s viewed as women’s work to sew and shop and do this side of the creative art. I definitely have moments where it feels almost borderline offensive. I think it’s so creative, and I enjoy it. So if someone sees that as “women’s work,” I guess I just have to go with that… It’s so deep in our culture that I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon.

I think that’s the reason a lot of men don’t get into the business, and if they do, like it or not, it’s typically gay men that care more about fashion and clothing and style and design. And it’s just the nature of what it is. So, I think straight men who might actually be interested in that are less likely to pursue that career. There are some great historical male fashion designers who were straight, but they’re not as common. Men are not encouraged to pursue that or care about how they look. But that’s such a deeper conversation about our culture and how we kind of view that type of work and that it’s not “manly” to want to do these things or care about these things.

It’s [also] true with the make-up and hair departments. Those are typically women. So there’s often a way that people view our positions on set. It’s like, oh, the costume girl. It’s not necessarily condescending, but it’s sort of viewed as work that’s less important at times than cinematographer or the lighting department. But it’s, obviously, to me just as important as the cinematographer. It’s such a collaborative art form that I think we should all have equals right to the artistic endeavor.

A place like the Sundance Film Festival, which is so great to promote these great films, I think they are very much a type of festival that promotes and celebrates certain parts of the art form. And frankly, costume design is not one of them. I think it’s viewed as not important enough. The cinematographers all give speeches and go to different discussions. To me, our side of the business and our side of the art form is just as important in a film… but it’s just not given the credit that it often deserves. It’s changing a little bit, but it’s going to be slow to change because certain departments are used to having a certain sort of celebration of their work.

I definitely see that. And I feel like part of it is that people take it for granted. Like, if you see a dress, maybe you think it looks pretty, but people don’t usually think about the work that goes into it.

Yeah, for sure. A lot of people look at a movie or a TV show and they think either the actors pick it out themselves, or they, as the viewer, wear clothes and shop for clothes. There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into it that is unseen and not known.

Pivoting off that, how do you judge what a good costume is versus one that isn’t as well-designed?

Sometimes I feel that a costume doesn’t fit a particular character or storyline or just doesn’t feel like it’s the right color. But it’s such a personal opinion most of the time…

I realized in doing this job that there are a lot of other factors that are not just the costume designer. I never have the last say in what costume someone will wear. It’s usually a director or a writer or a producer or someone else that has the final say. And I may not agree with that as a designer. I may look at something and say, well, that’s not the right choice for this character. But ultimately, I don’t get to say that. So, when I’m watching another show and I see that the costume is something I don’t like, it may not be that the costume designer did a bad job. It might be that someone else above them made a poor choice.

My work is my résumé, but I also know that sometimes the work that I put out there isn’t what I want it to be all the time. I don’t have total control, and that’s where the collaborative effort of filmmaking is, for the good and bad.

In the future, is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t been able to do yet?

Oh, so much. I want to kind of do everything, really. It’s the good and bad of having an insatiable appetite for work and wanting to keep working with great storytellers and people who are good at their job. Because ultimately, I spend a lot of time with the people that are making the project, and sometimes the project itself is not as interesting to watch, but I had a good time or learned a lot and met new friends. And that’s how I spend my life. And I want to enjoy that. I just want to keep telling good stories and connect with audiences and make pretty dresses.

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You is set to return for season 2 on Netflix, and you can catch Supergirl Sundays on the CW.