One of “Dallas’s” brightest stars works behind the scenes: Rachel Sage Kunin, the TNT drama’s costume designer extraordinaire. I’ve loved Kunin’s work since the series began and was excited to hear what it’s like to dress the Ewings.
Let me begin by saying this: I love your work! The cast looks gorgeous this season. Every character is stylish, but no one’s look is “over the top.” The clothes feel glamorous yet accessible. Is that your goal?
It is a conscious decision and a goal to make the clothes feel glamorous yet accessible. How great that someone can be sitting at home, enjoying the show and get inspired. Even I go into my closet and think, “What would Pamela do?” When shopping for myself I’ll go to the deep discount rack to find high-end looking pieces that Sue Ellen would wear.
I love this! Some of the Ewings’ clothes come from the discount rack. Who knew?
I also love going into secondhand shops in search for something special. I want the audience to be encouraged to do the same and know that it is possible. You don’t have to invest a million dollars to look like a million dollars.
How does the wardrobe process work? Do you receive a script and then try to decide what garments and accessories will work best for each scene?
Every costume choice I make is based on the needs of the script. I get my direction from the mood of each scene, what the characters are doing and how they relate to the story. Often times, I’ll buy a piece for a character not knowing where it might fit in. I’ll wait and wait just hoping the right moment comes along.
I love collaborating with the cast. My motto is that they are the ones that have to be, feel, embody the character on camera and I am part of the process to help them do that. Everything I bring into the fitting room I feel has potential to work. From there, I like to play dress up and find the character with the actor. We discuss what looks and feels right. Ultimately, it is my responsibility to make sure the costume serves the story and the actors are on board with that goal in mind.
What’s it been like to dress iconic characters like Bobby and Sue Ellen? When choosing their styles, were you influenced by the way they dressed on the old show?
I have had many “pinch me is this real?” moments dressing the original cast. It helps a great deal having the huge amount of backstory known about each of their characters. The way they dressed does inform me how they would dress now, 20 years later. We all had so much fun figuring that out.
What are your memories of working with Larry Hagman? What was it like to dress J.R. Ewing?
The first time I met Larry was an enchanting experience that I will never forget. I had no idea he was a lifelong admirer of costume. I brought in a rack of clothes that we started to try on. The first few fit well and looked great but we both knew they didn’t exude that special J.R. swagger. When he put on the tweed jacket with its suede western front yoke we got excited. He was so enthused he threw on his cowboy hat, looked in the mirror with that unique sparkle in his eyes and said, “Now… this is J.R.!” We knew we had found an important J.R. look.
I can picture that. What a great experience for you.
Every time I was with Larry was just as special and interesting as the time before. He was always so generous telling stories, showing me around his amazing collection of family pictures, always willing to share the highlights of his life.
I genuinely enjoy dressing all of the characters for various reasons. They all give me a different creative outlet. Christopher is great for his modern but classic all-American aesthetic. I love putting together looks for John Ross because we can get away with taking some fashion risks. Elena is fun because she goes from rugged to elegant with such ease. I’m enjoying Pamela Rebecca’s transition, going from soft color and styles to being more sophisticated and sleek. Sue Ellen’s statement looks are always very exciting to produce. I could go on and on about each and every character, whether they have had one line in the show or pages and pages.
If you could raid the closet of one “Dallas” character, whose would it be? Whose clothes would you most like to wear yourself?
If I could raid one of their closets it would have to be Elena. She has the most range with lots of comfortable pieces and this season we have been building up her chic work looks. Head-to-toe, there is not a piece in her entire wardrobe that I would not wear.
I would imagine you get to see the actors when they’re not in costume, so give me some “Dallas” dish: Whose personal style is most unlike their character?
I would have to say that Patrick [Duffy] and Linda [Gray]’s styles are most unlike their characters. Patrick is more modern in his real life. He doesn’t wear Wranglers and is less conservative than Bobby. He has a light pink and white stripe shirt that I absolutely love on him but Bobby could never pull it off. Sue Ellen generally gilds the lily a bit more than Linda would.
You mentioned those “pinch me is this real” moments. Were you a fan of the original “Dallas”? Do you have a favorite look from one of the classic characters?
I am a big fan of the original series. Looking back on the show as an adult and more importantly as a research tool, I have been inspired by some of Sue Ellen’s black and white moments. I subtly incorporated that into a couple of her looks this season.
Thank you. Linda and I knew that we wanted to elevate Sue Ellen’s style this year. We have such a great time working together! We’ll email ideas back and forth before a fitting, throwing ideas around about our thoughts on the changes she has coming up. Or we’ll grab lunch together and chat about it. Then, we get in the fitting room and Sue Ellen appears. She is always so thankful for what I bring to the table and I am grateful to now be able to call Linda a friend.
Tell me about HSN’s new HSN’s new “Dallas” boutique. People are going to be “dressing like ‘Dallas.’” That’s such a huge compliment to you!
Being involved with the “Dallas” and HSN partnership has been wonderful. Yes, what a huge compliment that people want to dress like “Dallas.” The idea that people have a direct go-to place to shop for the “Dallas” flare is brilliant. It really has been the cherry on top of an already amazing experience.
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