If you were born in the early or mid-’80s, the fashions of Hulu’s Up Here will look very familiar to you. Set in the precarious and exciting year of 1999, people were experimenting with shapes, silhouettes, and even fabrics–throw metal on your clothes. Why not! There is a specificity to the duds worn throughout the musical’s first season that costume designer Nicky Smith was thrilled to explore.
Y2K nostalgia is having a moment. You cannot escape the high-contrasting colors or the low-rise jeans–if high schoolers could get their hands on a flip phone, you might even see them making a comeback (well, maybe not). For those of us who experienced this era of clothing or wore them ourselves, we can recognize it the moment we see it.
“The first thing I loved about it back then was that it was a great mixture of grunge meets tech with fabrics,” Smith said. “It wasn’t about silhouettes being sexy or fabulous–it was about marching to your own beat. We were wearing dressing with pants underneath. We made interesting choices! I think people are embracing it again now, because, back then, ugly was sexy and women wearing boxy clothes was in. It wasn’t about the bodycon dresses. Youth culture right now is very about not being told what to do. If I want to wear this micromini with combat boots and fishnets, I’m going to do it.”
Carlos Valdes’ Miguel is having an identity crisis. The jerks in his office call him Jimmy because they mispronounce his last name, Jimenez, and he is desperate to become successful at work. The late ’90s still felt reverberations of the comedown of the excess of the ’80s, and Miguel’s costuming reflects his insecurity with a dash of Wall Street douchbagerry. Chandler Bing would want all of his neckties.
“With the ties, they are all vintage,” she said. “We found them in Philadelphia, and my assistants and I started looking to help set the tone. I wanted to remind us what the silhouettes look like, because I can’t talk to my team about the cut of a ’90s suit if I don’t know it myself. We were digging through bins of vintage clothes, and we found this amazing stock of ties and we grabbed as much as we could. I’m talking vintage Dior ties and all these wild silhouettes that you can’t find right now. The width and silks are very specific, and you cannot find these fabrics and fabrications at the moment. From there, I knew I wanted Miguel to have character and not be a boring banker, so we had his shirts custom built to make sure they had a color palette that I could control. If the ties and the shirt were a vibe, it would give the outfits more vibrancy. A lot of the suits that he wore were vintage and we tailored them. We found some on Etsy, and we also had a great source in Chicago with Knee Deep Vintage. We kind of made a capsule collection that took him from the green suit that he dances in at the beginning in “Tiger Shark” to when he becomes more of one the bankers. The suits get duller and more boring.”
Remember the first outfit or item of clothing that made you feel good? For Mae Whitman’s Lindsay, that item is a pair of bright red pants that, she hopes, will point her in a new direction. Smith knew that something so important and integral to Lindsay’s confidence was something they needed to make.
“Jennifer Hebner, my tailor, is a genius, and those were custom made,” Smith reveals. “I knew we needed more than one pair because Mae dances in them, and we needed to make sure that she was comfortable in them. We sourced that beautiful trashy red vinyl, and, I think, we made four pairs to give more options. It reminded me of ’90s Candies girls–that girl on Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s very It Girl, because you know that they would make noise and people would be looking at you. Maybe wear them with Steve Madden shoes…you know the ones.”
Another eye-catching moment for Lindsay comes when she attends a fabulous party inspired by The Great Gatsby. With guests in clean top hats and bangly dresses, she opts for something truly out of this world–a purple, galaxy-themed dress that hugs her shape. It feels totally right for Lindsay’s misunderstanding of the assignment.
“Because we are finding a lot of the period elements in store, when you have body types like Mae’s, you can’t always find it,” she says. “Mae is very petite. That is actually a modern adaptation. I do not like doing that at all, but, for that look, it felt right. We didn’t do a single alteration on it. The gloves were so right. We know she is at the wrong party, and we know what kind of party she should be attending.”
Up Here, after all, is a musical, and every episode has fantastical, top-tapping performances. Something you may not see on Broadway right now comes in “So Many Ways” sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Mr. McGooch, a Seussian-like children’s book author. When he invites Lindsay to an underground club, it’s like a horny “Circus McGurkus” complete with juggling dildos and queer performance art. One of the best pieces of the entire season comes in McGooch’s sparkly red suit jacket.
“We built that in house, and that is from the mind of some very talented people all coming together,” Smith says. “Originally, they wanted “So Many Ways” to be Steampunk, but I don’t think that aesthetic was going to work with what we ultimately wanted. I suggested we look at the Limelight or the “Say You Will Be There” music video by The Spice Girls. It should feel like it was pop and sexy and not necessarily feel like a circus, because that’s what the music brings to it. My shopper found these gorgeous waterfall sequins, and we put it together with the coat with a vinyl collar. Brian Stokes Mitchell wanted to look like a show daddy, so they added add glitter to his hair too. Everyone came together to make a really cool look for that number. It’s my favorite song in the whole season.”
As Lindsay and Miguel try to shut off the voices inside their heads, the more prominent they become. Initially, we think they are just a figment of their imaginations, but we soon learn that these characters are latched onto memories and instances in their lives. For such unique character descriptions, Smith knew that she wanted to present a different viewpoint of these people. Katie Finneran, as Joan, has some of the best costumes in this first season.
“When we started with The Head Characters, we needed to differentiate from how we see them in the real world,” she says. “I thought why not attach them to a particular moment where they become those characters. How do we bring that when we are outside of that moment? When Lindsay’s mom shames her from writing that story, we went from there. Keeping her in that soft jewel-tone fabric felt very ’80s mom. The way that we wanted to style her was the idea that she was always ready to go but always a little uptight. A little bit annoying. As Lindsay’s mom, Katie is nudging you to do what she wants, so that’s what I needed to echo. There is so much polyester–I apologized to Katie beforehand.”
Valdes wears a sweater in a Christmas montage sequence that I would gladly steal for my own yuletide collection. With so many colorful options to choose from, Smith had a few ideas of what she would like to snag for her own personal closet.
“Almost everything that Lindsay wears maybe,” she muses. “The “Please Like Me” suit is so fun. The burnout velvet with silk dress in the running montage in the final episode. The red plastic pants, of course. The sexy top that she wears when McGooch comes ago with the neon blue and red. There is so much that I love that I would snatch. I am stuck in the ’90s myself–it looks like I am on trend but I never really left.”
Up Here is available on Hulu.