The Art of Dressing Funny

by Beatrice Springborn

"There's only one other profession that's on their knees this much."—Victoria Farrell, Costume Designer, Strangers With Candy.

Watching Strangers With Candy, the twisted Comedy Central spoof on afterschool specials, one just can't help notice that the lead character Jerri Blank wears an awful lot of turtlenecks, multi-hued hip packs, and has an affinity for satin stretch stirrup pants. In one episode, she even sports suede fringe hot pants, black lace tights, and a cowboy vest. The year-old show has some of the most amazing costumes on television. Amazing, not because they are beautiful, but because they are just plain wrong.

For 32 years, the character of Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) has lived the life of a teenage runaway, dabbling in "a little prostitution, a little drug dealing, and a lot of alcohol." SWC picks up at Flatpoint High School, where Blank is trying to get her life back together. And as John Miller-Monzon, the associate producer of SWC told Amy Sedaris, Jerri has been a user, a boozer, and a loser, and the character has brought fashion from each part of her life with her. Monzon also believes that Blank is bringing the hip pack back to high fashion (Was it ever there before?)

"In New York, you see tons of people who are well dressed, but we're just not interested in them."—Victoria Farrell

When SWC launched in April 1999, Television critics took notice of Blank's signature style. Michelle Greppi of the New York Post said that Jerri resembled "a distant relative of Swoosie Kurtz in Tammy Faye Bakker makeup and clothes that were tossed out by the Goodwill thrift shop." And Joyce Millman of Salon referenced Jerri's "throwback wardrobe, which is so hideous I suspect it came from somebody's actual closet, not a Hollywood costume shop." Ana Marie Cox of online magazine Feed said, "In buck teeth and a bad haircut, clothed in fringed jeans and a vest, Jerri returns to high school even more of an outcast than when she left; Cox also points out that Blank "seems barely able to dress herself."

Fortunately Jerri doesn't have to dress herself. The masterminds behind her outfits are costume designer Victoria Farrell, assistant costume designer Anne Kenney, and wardrobe supervisor Antonia Xereas. The clothes are not Goodwill throwaways, but carefully crafted and thought-out fashion statements, bought with an actual budget. On the show, Blank buys everything at a store called "The Comfort Zone." In reality, most of the clothes come from thrift stores in New Jersey. The stores aren't as picked over as the ones in New York, where SWC is filmed, and are more likely to have the "Jerri look," meaning an endless supply of doily-sized dickies (mock turtlenecks with no arms) that Blank loves to wear. "In New York, you see tons of people who are well dressed, but we're just not interested in them," says Victoria.

Both Victoria and Anne got their first taste of costuming during childhood shopping trips to neighborhood thrift stores. Victoria's father used to take her to a thrift store called the Crippled Civilians store, which could be a setting for an episode of the un-politically correct Strangers With Candy. She got into costuming when her neighbor hired her to be his assistant on the 1995 Parker Posey-film Party Girl. Anne's costuming roots are also in thrifting. As a child in Waterville, Maine, she could get a bag of clothes for a buck at the Blessed Sacrament thrift store. Her first gig was making monster puppets for a low-budget Japanese movie. Victoria and Anne hooked up to do the wardrobe on High Art, the 1998 Sundance award-winning romantic drama with Ally Sheedy.

"That's a job hazard of the show—you're not on the trend-watching end of fashion."—Victoria Farrell

Dressing Ally Sheedy as an artsy lesbian proved to be easier than the pair's task of dressing Jerri Blank. All Sedaris gave them as a hint into the character's fashion sense was that Blank was a snake lover. When the show first started, the costumes were more toned down, with outfits that were only slightly weird—flats and socks, and pants that were a little short. But over the past year, the duo has gotten a little wilder, adding glitter to make Blank more rock-n-roll, crazy squirrel iron-ons, fur earmuffs, not to mention making her wig a little crazier with each new show (courtesy of master wig stylist Stephen "Perfidia" Kirkam).

While iron-ons of small animals and a fatty suit would make most people cringe, Sedaris can't seem to get enough. "Amy makes it really fun. Whatever you give her, she's like 'give me more!'" says Victoria.

To step into the SWC costume department in Greenwich Village is to step into a dress-up playland. As research for her position, Victoria went to the stacks of the New York Library for inspiration and tore fashion layouts from '80s fashion magazines. That may explain the boxes of legwarmers, dangly earrings, and crazy acid washed one-piece jumpsuits. Victoria has a hard time pinpointing modern designers who embody the "Jerri style," but says Chloe and Cavallini come close. "That's a job hazard of the show—you're not on the trend-watching end of fashion," she says.

But the Jerri look is actually trend setting. Fashion staples of the '80s, like dickies, satin stirrup pants and acid washed one-piece jumpsuits are coming back as the look of 2000. "Jerri is both at once behind and ahead of the times. A year ago we never would have thought people would like turtlenecks, stirrups, and '80s revival," says Anne.

And a year from now, people will be appreciating another wacky style. But it's inconsequential because Victoria and Anne don't take direction from fickle fashionistas. They get all of the bad fashion tips they need from ordinary people, in the places they visit regularly like the 2nd Street Deli, thrift stores, and even from co-workers. Mary, who works at the production office's front desk, walks in with a picture of herself at nine years old at Banff National Park in Canada. She's wearing a t-shirt with a tank top sewn on, a tight pair of jeans and teased hair. Mary calls this her "Trans-Canadian adventure" ensemble, which screams, "I may be nine, but I pick out my own clothes."

"You can tell you think you look good in this picture," Victoria says smiling, as she pins the picture to her bulletin board, her eyes glazing over as she envisions her next Jerri creation. Fashion that's wrong is just plain right.

Beatrice Springborn is the ChickClick content strategist. In her spare time, she watches Strangers With Candy and looks for dickies and squirrel iron-ons in local thrift stores.

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