One of the most overlooked aspects of a TV show or movie is costume design. It is one of those things that can greatly enhance the vibe of a character yet can go unnoticed until something just looks a little off. We visited costume designer for Magnum PI, Ashley Heathcock and assistant designer Alison Uhlfelder, to chat about what it’s like to work on the show as well as the life of a costume designer.
Grit and Determination to Get Started
Ashley got her degree in Fashion Design from American InterContinental University. Some people in the industry get a formal education while others do not. But whatever one’s background, it takes hustle and hard work to break into the industry.
Ashley heard of an HBO series being filmed in New Orleans, It was Treme. Once she realized that she could transfer her fashion skills to a costume department, she began sending her resume out to every production company shooting in New Orleans. It wasn’t until she met a producer at random who was shooting a small indie film. She boldly asked, “Is it all who you know in the film and television industry? I keep sending out my resume but nothing comes from it.” The producer said, “If you're serious about working in costumes call me in the morning.” So she called him early the next morning at his surprise and he put her in touch with the Costume Supervisor. After interviewing with the Costume Supervior, she landed her first job in the costume department as an intern. A few years later, after gaining experience, she would get hired on Treme as a set costumer.
A year or so before applying for the costume designer position on Magnum PI, she was working on an inspiration board for costume ideas for a movie. And by coincidence, she had a picture of Tom Selleck, the original Magnum PI himself, on that inspiration board. She said it was as if she put out some of that Magnum karma out into the universe and fate responded. Her agent called her to let her know that she got the job on Magnum PI a few months before filming began for Season 2.
Ashley (center) with Alison (left) and costume tailor Cynthia Renaud-Kim (right)
It Takes a Team
Ashley told us that the costume team consists of around 15 people. Coordinating all the outfits for all the characters for each scene is a major undertaking. Outfits must be bought and tailored or custom sewn from fabric. That means fabric and garments must be found, purchased, and delivered from around Hawaii and the Mainland way ahead of filming. All graphics or Halloween costumes must be cleared by the CBS legal department to make sure there are no potential issues such as logos or other brands appearing on camera. To avoid unauthorized logos and t-shirt designs from appearing on the show, Ashley actually designed several t-shirts for characters to insure that the clearance process could be expedited.
All outfits must be bagged, tagged, photographed, and entered into a smartphone app to help the team keep track of everything. Since the scenes are usually shot out of sequence and some scenes require reshoots, it is important to know exactly what each character was wearing and how they were wearing it so there are no obvious continuity errors when the episode airs. Pictures and details of each character’s look is cataloged in an “Episode Continuity Bible” that the team can reference whenever a scene needs to be reshot. Ashley's colleague and costume supervisor Fletch Incaprera is in charge of creating these bibles for each episode. And coincidentally, Fletch's husband is the producer who Ashley worked with on Treme.
Costume Supervisor Fletch Incaprera creates a Continuity Bible for each episode.
TC's Island Hoppers van in storage in the costume design warehouse
Every detail is tracked just as any business would do. All receipts are kept and every item is accounted for. If the department gets audited, they need to know exactly what how much was spent, what it was spent on, and where those items are. And since so many clothing-related items arrive from the Mainland, they even have an in-house logistics team that manages all incoming and outgoing shipments. It really is like a business within a business.
Magnum PI costume design studio in Honolulu
The Fun and Not So Fun
Ashley’s favorite part of the job is doing all the creative work such as coming up with the different outfits for each character and scene (even background characters). Sometimes that means finding the perfect Aloha shirt, dress, or other garment online or at a store. Other times it means finding the right fabric at various fabric shops in Honolulu or from somewhere in Los Angeles and making the garment from scratch. And since she doesn’t want everyone’s clothing to look brand new, the team will often run items through the washer and dryer and apply various inks and other methods to make them look aged and well-worn.
Garments are aged with these washing machines, dryers, and various inks.
In addition to loving the creative aspect of her work, she also appreciates the fact that the cast and crew get along really well. It’s not uncommon for laughter to fill the set between takes because the actors really enjoy working with each other and have fun at work. This friendly working relationship makes her job of outfitting everyone all the more enjoyable. In fact, Ashley said that the personalities you see on screen are pretty much the personalities of the actors. Jay Hernandez (Thomas Magnum) is laid back. Perdita Weeks (Higgins) is a cool bad-ass. Zachary Knighton (Rick) and Stephen Hill (TC) are fun. Amy Hill (Kumu) is warm and witty. There is one notable exception. Tim Kang, who plays the Detective Katsumoto, portrays him as a serious no-nonsense guy who rarely smiles. But off-screen Tim the total opposite and is fun and outgoing. They all get along with each other and with Ashley which makes her job even more fun.
But like any other job, there are necessary aspects that are not so fun. Dealing with and staying on top of logistics and legal clearances can be a hassle and time-consuming. Those things are critical parts of the job that are simply necessary in order for everything to run smoothly. Ashley gladly takes the good and the bad and knows that’s just part of the game.
Creating the Look for Each Character
Magnum, Rick, and Detective Katsumoto often wear Aloha shirts on the show. Ashley and assistant costume designer, Alison Uhlfelder, have books about the history of Aloha shirts and are students of this fashion genre. And their backgrounds and experience in fashion and past costume design jobs give them a broader perspective when picking out or creating different looks for the characters on the show.
Ashley and Alison review what the characters wore in each episode.
When Ashley selects an Aloha shirt for a character like Magnum, someone may have to go out and purchase several of those shirts just in case some get damaged or wet during shooting. But it isn’t as simple as just grabbing 5-10 of the same shirts off the rack and calling it a day. Each of the shirts must also have the major design elements in the same places on the shirt so all the shirts look nearly identical. That way, even if the character or stunt double wears different shirts for the same scene, it will appear that there is only one shirt. For example, if a flower appears in a certain location near the collar of the shirt, all the shirts need to have the same flower in the same place otherwise viewers might notice that the shirt changes from scene to scene. Since most Aloha shirts with the same print differ slightly based on how the layers of fabric were cut during the manufacturing process, each shirt is different. Sometimes the differences are subtle and some they are very obvious. Finding multiples or “mults” of 5 or 6 shirts that look exactly the same can be a challenge, especially if the supplier of the shirts has only a few of them in stock.
We found the Midnight Bamboo shirt (and Star Orchid at the right end of the rack) that Jay Hernandez wore on Magnum PI.
Ashley also told us that she feels it is her job to make the actors look their best and wants them to feel comfortable in whatever they wear in each scene. She usually gives them several different looks to try on then photographs them in the studio. She can tell just by their facial expressions whether they like the proposed outfit or not. And if you noticed, each of the characters have developed their own look. Perdita looks great in warm earth tones with open necklines that feature her exquisite face. Zachary somehow always looks good in blues and pinks so his character often wears those colors, along with colorful pants.
The outfits of background characters and extras are also carefully considered. When outfitting the cast and background for a scene, she makes sure that main characters stand out. One way of doing this is to make sure nobody stands next to the main characters wearing similar colors. That means that every outfit for each person in a scene is deliberately chosen and designed. This can be challenging for some scenes like the costume house party in the Halloween episode “Make it ‘til Dawn”. What looks like a random sea of characters and costumes is anything but that. Everything that everyone wore was deliberately planned and approved by the show creators.
Ashley shows us where she takes pictures of the actors in their costumes before each look is selected.
Life as a Costume Designer
Due to the long hours, tight deadlines, and necessary logistical hurdles, the life of a costume designer can be challenging (yet rewarding). The nature of TV and film means job security is often fragile or non-existent. Movies have finite schedules. TV shows are seasonal and can be cancelled. On the flip side, those very qualities also provide opportunity to work on diverse projects in different locations. That is why it is important to have both a good reputation and a solid network of connections. Despite all that, getting to work on a show like Magnum PI is a great job. Every week, Ashley and company get to create the look of Magnum, Higgins, Rick, TC and all the other characters in the studio that millions of people see on TV a few weeks later. It is a blast working with fun and personable actors who get along and enjoy who the ride together. How awesome is that? It’s no wonder Ashley is loves the job and is so passionate about her work.
We got a few inquiries from people asking about Higgins’ dress in the karaoke scene at the end of the “A Game of Cat and Mouse”. Ashley purchased that dress from a regular store but was heavily modified it match Higgins’ style. So even if you find that dress somewhere on the internet, you won’t find the version that Perdita wore because that one is one of a kind.
Many people have also emailed us asking about TC’s awesome helicopter shirt. We searched high and low for info on that shirt and couldn’t find the source of those shirts. Well, as it turns out, the reason for that is because that aloha shirt was designed by the Costume Designer on the pilot, Kelli Jones. The print was designed in-house and manufactured into shirts for the show by a company in Los Angles called Anto. The shirt is made specifically for TC and is not available to the public.