Dressing For Radio – Melissa Heller on Costume Design

Melissa Heller Intro



How the war, opulence, rationing and Dior influence the costume designs for “It’s A (somewhat) Wonderful Life!”




First, a little history…

Ladies Dresses

After the era of boxy-boyish cut dresses combined with extreme opulence in both men’s and women’s wear, the latter 30s and early 40s became somewhat more subdued.  The cuts became more body conscious, with waistlines beginning to emerge once more after a decade of baggy and bejeweled frocks and three piece suits. The early 40s saw the beginning of the war and with it, rationing. Silks, cottons, and wool all became a scarcity and man-made fibers, such as rayon, worked their way into the majority of everyday garments. Both men’s and women’s garments were all cut with the idea of conserving material that could be better used in the war effort.In the example to the left,  we see a women’s suit that has been made from a man’s suit.

After the war, Dior’s “New Look” became the main influence on women’s fashion for the next decade. The New Look is characterized by incredibly full skirts, a high amount of intricate tailoring, additional layers, and construction from fabrics that remained scarce up until this time.  Fashion in the UK didn’t catch up quite as quickly, as their clothing ration restrictions remained in place until May of 1949.

SinatraMen’s fashion during the war was influenced by the same factors, but was more heavily influenced by militaristic zeitgeist. Trousers lost all fullness by the elimination of pleating, jackets were given one or no back vents, the use of a vest or waistcoat was no longer a required part of an outfit, and everything became a little shorter.  Men’s jackets were cut at or slightly above the hip, where it’s predecessors were well below.

When rationing ceased, men’s fashion took much the same path as women’s fashion, though in slightly more subtle detailing. During the war, younger men chafed at the restriction and rebelled by wearing the iconic, and resource heavy, Zoot Suit. Double back vents, deep pleats, waist high trousers, double breasted jackets, wide lapels, and the trouser cuff became standard. The new fashion favored the Zoot Suit so lapels also became wider. However, is interesting to note that peaked lapels paired with a double breast ceased to exist as acceptable styling just before the war. The vest also continued to be absent as a necessity in casual, and most business situations.


Now that I have that out of my system…

Here is my design plan!

aquaThe aqua is the main color that was suggested by Megan Wilkerson, our Scenic Designer, as representative of the era and set.  I have built my color concept around this. The colors should be rich, fresh variations of primaries combined with metallic toned neutrals.  Because this aqua color is so prevalent in this era that I am treating it as a neutral as well.




Color rangeThe rest of the palette is built on this and will be shot with metallics, especially in the women.  While the premise of the story is that most everyone despises Christmas, I feel that a certain amount of social pressure would dictate that everyone has at least a touch or two of holiday fashion.




LanaThe women will carry most of the shine with Lana being the most opulent, as she is kept by Winston-the most “fashionably” dressed one on stage. She dresses how she thinks that Winston’s girlfriend should. She is our Marilyn Monroe with a twist of Lucille Ball.






announcerWinston is an outsized man, with a personality to match. He is a flustered papa bear who loves his cubs but would rather snog the hot idiot gazel over there as soon as everything isn’t falling apart. He is on trend and likes to grab the best of the moment. He is our Fred Allen.






PetuniaPetunia, is the polar opposite.  She cultivates a storm front of frigid disinterest, while her core burns with alternant hatred, and passion. She is a working professional, just trying to catch her big break, or any break.  She sees clothing as functional, and as a tool.  This is not to say that her presentation is dull.  Quite the opposite, she chooses her clothing to best accent one of her greatest assets as a performer (regardless of what medium she happens to be appearing on). She sees frilly petticoats as a tripping hazard, and can’t be bothered to be swathed in frothy embellishments. That would detract from the main point, her uncontested raw talent. Oh Petunia… She is our Hedy Lamarr.



CarlsonCarlson is a serious man. He fit in well during the war when people eschewed silliness, kept their heads down, and did what needed to be done. His believes that quality is timeless. Alas,  most of his suits are a little tight after he returned from the war and the only available replacements are cut more generously than he prefers.  This is not to say that he does not have excellent taste.  All of his clothing, regardless of whether or not he prefers the cut, is expertly tailored to suit his frame. He is our Bing Crosby.





FrancisFrancis-snide, a little sneaky, he always has a bemused smile that threatens to break into a stinging sneer. He is as fashion aware as Winston, but much like Petunia, doesn’t dress for enjoyment. Every pocket square and pair of socks in his wardrobe has a purpose, though only he may know what that purpose is. He is our Frank Sinatra.





PeteLittle Pete is of the budding generation that saw his older brothers or father fight the war while he was stuck at home.  He has very little male influence because of this, and is sometimes shy when dealing with adults. He finds it easier to ask forgiveness than permission. He is of the very first teen generation where his style dictates what his elders wear, instead of the other way around.  He is the most casual of the bunch and favors sweater vests and the playfulness of bowties, but still feels that he should wear a jacket to his very first job in the city. He is our Ricky Nelson.




Color paletteThe makeup should reflect the color palette. Bright reds, rich plums, brightening eyeshadow to compliment both outfit and skin tone. These women were taught from a young age how to cultivate the best of their features. The men, of course, should not wear obvious rouge, but should have high color in their cheeks, heavy eyebrows, and defined cheekbones and chins. The overall look should be fresh and clean.




And that is how you DRESS for RADIO! Boom!

Melissa Heller
Resident Costume Designer
Bag&Baggage Productions

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