Sew, let's meet the costume designer

NKC Tribune, Thurs., November 5, 1992

By M.J. "Squeak" Giaudrone

On location with Northern Exposure

Katharine Bentley is not the first name on the credits shown at the end of each episode of CBS' Northern Exposure, but her name stands alone amid the mass of people who have something to do with the technical end of the weekly production. (Her name also appears in graceful script on the sign in front of her parking stall at Pipeline Productions in Redmond, where a friend and I traveled for this interview.)

Some of her pre-Northern Exposure work includes doing tbe art direction for catalogs produced for tbe Bon Marche, Frederick & Nelson and Eddie Bauer. She also has worked on television commercials produced for Nordstroms and other department stores. She has done industrial and documentary films, too, but Northern Exposure is her first series.

As a student at tbe University of Washington where she majored in history, Katharine also worked as a paralegal. She laughed when she mentioned that, but went on. "I grew up in a family where we made our own clothes," Katharine explained. "Mom used to take my dad's Pendleton(TM) shirts after she could no longer repair the elbows, and cut the bodies into plaid skirts for me. Sewing is one of the things girls did. "When I went to high school, you took cooking and sewing," Katharine elaborated, "and a little typing on the side just in case something happened--so there would be another skill to fall back on.

"During my career, Mom used to suggest that, with my 'law' background, I could have a 'really good job'." But now, although Katharine isn't practicing law, her mom isn't suggesting a related profession anymore. Katharine's abilities as a designer have become well-known.

It's Not All Design Work

All of the clothes used by the actors on the show are not designed by her, though. Maggie's (Janine Turner) and Shelly's (Cynthia Geary) clothes definitely are--right down to Shelly's earrings. While talking with Katharine, she gave a suggestion and final approval to a staff member for a pair of earrings Shelly will wear in a future episode about an environmental problem [4.11 Survival of the Species]. One was a miniature bag of garbage, the other a trash can.

"Shelly's earrings always reflect one of the two story lines in each show," Katharine noted, "and so do her tights."

In one episode [3.19 Wake-Up Call], Shelly was plagued by a rash and terrible itching problem. Her earrings were bright red lobsters. A recent telecast [4.4 Heroes] about a rock singer had Shelly wearing tights with musical notes on them. All of the mackinaws worn by Maggie are designed by Katharine - a kind of insurance that no other television show will have a performer wearing the same thing.

Dr. Fleischman (Rob Morrow) is noted for his ties. And Chris (John Corbett), the somewhat disheveled D.J. in Cicely, appears to have made his own fashion statement--behind the microphone, who sees? In front of the microphone, who cares? Katharine related some of the things which must be done for "Chris's look." "We cut sleeves and collars off of his shirts, remove some buttons break stitching; tear his jeans. His boots are soaked in water and then we drive over them with a truck." Except for the shoes, most of the work is done on a "distressing table" set up in the work room.

"We use a lot of mink oil," Katharine added. "Because we don't always shoot scenes in sequence, we have to be careful that what the actor wore in part of a scene shot on Tuesday is exactly the same as when the rest of the scene is shot on another day. "Of course, we have to launder the clothes after they've been worn. So we use mink oil to stain the garment. When the dirt is washed out, the mink oil stays. The next time the piece is to be worn, we have an exact map of where to replace the dirt."

Every Garment Bears a Tag

When Katharine receives a script, she reads it to find out what will be needed. If, for instance, Dr. Fleischman will be wearing pajamas, they are pulled from his rack of stored clothes or purchased, whichever is necessary. New items are assigned a garment tag which bears three crucial pieces of information: The character's name (Joel), the scene number (2), and the "change" (pajamas). The tags coordinate with the daily call sheet, on which a list of wardrobe items have been noted for each show. Sometimes more than one garment must be used.

"If Joel (Dr. Fleishman) hasn't slept for three days, we may use three pairs of pajamas," Katharine said. "One clean pair, one that is slightly wrinkled and one that would be really wrinkled and dirty by the third night." Keeping track of all of the garments, the actual sewing and construction work of designed ones, buying others, distressing, etc. is part of the reason Katharine has a staff of five assistants.

All of them are vital, but were especially so when 90 costumes and 60 masks were required for the shooting of the Thanksgiving Day Parade show [4.8 Thanksgiving], which will air November 23. Ten extra mask makers were hired just for the one show. (Can anyone imagine making that many costumes in only eight days? It takes me a week to make a simple blouse; my friend took a little less to make one eight-piece Batman costume for her grandchild!)

Thanksgiving Was A Challenge

When I first met Katharine she had just finished a long day on location in Roslyn, where she had personally traveled to deliver the truckload of costumes for the show. "It's the first time I ever had to use a truck," she had commented. "We've been sewing and sewing and sewing," emphasizing each word with a descriptive "vroooom, vroooom, vrooom" and emulating someone bent over a zig-zag. Designing or planning each costume to be worn for the native Cicelians' "Day of the Dead" celebration--a mock Halloween parade--had left her exhausted. "What's next?" was a question that began each new idea and each new challenge.

The "Bone Man" (a difficult wiring job, for he wore real bones attached to his costume to make him look like a skeleton), "Rag Man" (layers and layers of shirred fabric glued to ready-made garments, then dis-tressed into tattered strips), and "Father Death"--the biggest challenge--took everyone's help and attention to detail. "Father Death" is the caraciature which rides on the Mayflower. "I'd never engineered anything like that before," Katharine noted. What 1 5-foot-tall Father Death was when it was completed was right out of a Disney movie--animated arms operated by a person in the bottom of the figure, and yards and yards of fabric. It, of course, had to be assembled when it got to Roslyn.

When traveling to location, or in the workshop, Katharine has her own tool kit. "A measuring tape and scissors live in my purse," she laughed. But her other can't-do-withouts include seam rippers, three glue guns (all with different melt temperatures of glue), a staple gun and her most important " sewing item"--double-stick carpet tape. It holds when nothing else will, Katharine claims. Katharine's favorite fabric has become known as "flaid," a name she coined.

"We use so much plaid flannel on the show, I don't know what else to call it. I don't know if everyone calls it that, but Katharine may ask one New York designer, Donna Karan, when she goes there in the near future to meet her. "She has come out with a fall line called the 'Northern Exposure Look'," Katharine told us as she pointed to a picture from Women's Wear Daily. It showed models wearing mackinaws and parkas, boots and socks worn with skirts, and hats with ear flaps. They looked very familiar, in a Monday-night sort of way. If having another designer create a line of clothing around the line you have created is a measure of success, and working on an Emmy-award-winning show is another, than Katharine has every reason to believe that she has succeeded after a ten-year struggle of becoming established in the business.

Created 2/14/02
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