Rachel Sage Kunin is standing inside an antique store on the edge of Dallas, carefully examining an ornate ring. “This could work,” she says before handing over her credit card, scribbling her signature on the receipt and dashing back to her car.
It’s early April, and Kunin — the costume designer for TNT’s “Dallas” — is collecting jewelry for the show’s newest character: a woman who happens to be the secret daughter of J.R. Ewing.
In less than 24 hours, the cast and crew will film the scene that introduces the daughter, who’ll only be shown from behind. This is slated to be “Dallas’s” third-season cliffhanger, but after it’s filmed, the producers will decide to save the character’s debut for the following season — only to have TNT pull the rug out from under them by cancelling the show.
Of course, no one knows that right now. On this Tuesday morning, the “Dallas” cast and crew are focused on wrapping up production for the season — which is why Kunin is rushing around town, trying to find J.R.’s daughter’s jewelry before the cameras start rolling tomorrow morning.
But this isn’t anything new for Kunin. In her world, the clock is always ticking.
During the 1980s heyday of the prime-time soap operas, costume designers were almost as famous as the stars they dressed. The “Dynasty” cast wore Nolan Miller, while the women of “Dallas” were outfitted by Travilla, the man who put Marilyn Monroe in a white cocktail dress before she stepped onto a subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch.”
The ’80s soaps employed separate costumers for men and women, but Kunin did it all. She created every outfit worn by ever actor in every scene on “Dallas,” including the extras who hovered silently in the background.
Kunin, who grew up watching the original “Dallas” on Friday nights with her family, sees costuming as an essential ingredient in TV storytelling. John Ross’s pinstriped suits helped the audience know he was bold and ambitious; Christopher’s plaid shirts and jeans reflected his all-American, boy-next-door qualities.
After reading a script, Kunin came up with a concept for each character, and then she fitted the actor with the costume she created. Next, Kunin snapped a photo of the costumed actor and emailed it to executive producers Cynthia Cidre and Michael M. Robin, who usually approved her creations but sometimes asked for tweaks.
Kunin occasionally designed outfits herself — the beige, brown and orange dress that Sue Ellen wore in the third-season opener is a Kunin original — but she got most of the cast’s clothing off the rack. After three years on the job, Kunin forged relationships with many of the city’s top retailers, including several who allowed her to borrow clothing and jewelry.
Kunin considers herself a “method costumer,” putting herself in the shoes of each character when choosing their outfits. She would go to Dillard’s department store to buy clothing for Elena, but the wealthier Sue Ellen’s clothes came from upscale retailers like Stanley Korshak.
“I want every character to be as authentic as possible. If the audience doesn’t believe this is how a character would dress, they’re going to have a hard time believing everything else that character does,” Kunin says.
Each season of “Dallas” was usually filmed in Texas from fall until spring. When the show was in production, Kunin’s days usually began before sunrise and stretched into the night.
On this Tuesday in April, Kunin — dressed in jeans and sneakers, her hair in a ponytail — arrives at the “Dallas” production offices before 6 a.m. She puts the finishing touches on the costumes the actors will wear today, including choosing Bobby’s necktie and Sue Ellen’s earrings for the season’s final corporate showdown at Ewing Global.
Kunin then heads to the antique store, where she buys the ring for J.R.’s daughter. Kunin’s been working on this costume for two days; it’s proving tougher than most because producers haven’t given her a lot of information about the daughter, except that she’s a bit of a free spirit.
Since the character will only be shown from the elbow down, Kunin has nicknamed her “The Hand.” The extra who’ll play the role will have no dialogue, so the jewelry is going to have to do most of the work, cluing the audience into what the woman is like.
Kunin has also collected rings from a strip mall jewelry store, as well as leather bands, bracelets and other pieces from shops around town. She always gathers more than she needs because she never knows when a last-minute script change might require her to come up with a different concept for a character.
“You always want to have options,” Kunin says.
By 12:30 p.m., Kunin is back at the production offices, which are located in an industrial neighborhood in the city. Her desk is crammed into a room shared by the rest of her team, including an assistant who helps shop for clothing and another who manages the department’s budget.
The walls are plastered with call sheets and production memos, as well as random notes like a list of each actor’s shoe size. Scattered about are the real treasures: the clothing racks that hold virtually every costume that has appeared on the TNT series — Sue Ellen’s suits, Harris Ryland’s socks, the leopard skin bra worn by Candace, John Ross’s hot-to-trot secretary.
Around 1:20 p.m., Kevin Page appears inside Kunin’s doorway to be fitted for the trench coat and boots he’ll wear during tomorrow’s big scene, when Bum accompanies John Ross to a foreign locale to meet The Hand. (The scene will be filmed in a nearby restaurant that’s been transformed into an exotic bar, courtesy of the “Dallas” set designers.)
A few minutes later, Kunin returns to her desk to email her snapshots of Page to Cidre and Robin. Her inbox contains bad news from the show’s casting department: The extra who’s been cast as The Hand can’t come in for her fitting until after dinner.
This means Kunin won’t be able to email Cidre and Robin snapshots of The Hand until much later than expected. If Kunin’s concept isn’t what her bosses have in mind, she’ll have to come up with a new look for the character before filming begins early the next day.
In other words: Kunin could be in for a long night.
Rachel Sage Kunin grew up in Malibu. According to family lore, she refused to wear anything that didn’t twirl between the ages of 2 and 6. After attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, she took jobs designing costumes for small feature films, and then landed her first series gig: “Cane,” Cidre’s “Dallas”-esque drama about a sugarcane-raising family in South Florida.
Although Kunin has spent her career behind the scenes, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine her finding success in front of the camera. She’s beautiful and poised, with a dazzling smile. Colleagues describe her as remarkably mellow for someone who works in a pressure cooker.
Yet Kunin is also a notorious perfectionist: Soon after Page’s fitting, the extras who’ll appear in the background of the bar scene begin streaming through the office for their fittings. Although many of them will only appear on screen for a split-second, each one gets the full Kunin treatment.
After placing a hat atop one man’s head, she steps back, studies him and renders her verdict: “No, I’m not buying it.” Back into her clothing pile she goes, looking for something that will fit him better.
Sometime after 3 p.m., Kunin realizes she hasn’t had lunch and scarfs down a plate of food from the craft services table. The protein boost comes in the nick of time, because the rest of the afternoon becomes a whirlwind.
When Kunin isn’t doing more fittings with extras, she’s dying a T-shirt that will be worn by an actor playing a medical examiner.
When she isn’t reviewing her latest retail receipts with her assistant, she’s using a marker to change the “gemstones” on the antique store ring from orange to red.
When she isn’t lugging around a pile of costumes for later in the week, she’s having a pow-wow with hairdresser Charles Yusko, who wants to know how high Judith Light’s collar will pop before he styles the actress’s hair.
Sometime around 5 p.m., there’s a lull. Kunin plops onto her dressing room floor with tomorrow’s script and scribbles some notes in the margins.
It’s the first time she’s sat down in hours.
In the early evening, Kunin heads over to the soundstages, which are located next to the production offices. Outside, the building looks like an anonymous warehouse. Inside, it’s a land of make-believe. Here’s the Southfork kitchen. There’s Bobby and Ann’s bedroom. Around the corner is Harris’s den.
Kunin spots Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray, who are standing on their marks inside Ewing Global, getting ready to film a scene. Looking at Duffy, Kunin tilts her head, puts her hand on her hip and furrows her brow.
This is her light-hearted way of asking him why he isn’t wearing Bobby’s jacket. He gets it and explains that his character has probably been in a back room for hours, locked in tough negotiations with a government official over the future of the Ewing empire. Wouldn’t Bobby ditch his jacket under those circumstances?
Kunin isn’t convinced, so Duffy breaks into a comical whine and offers the truth: The studio lights are especially hot today. Gray playfully punches him in the arm and tells him to grow up.
By 7 p.m., Kunin is back at her desk. Yet another round of extras for the bar scene show up for their fittings, and then she receives an email from casting, telling her The Hand will be there soon.
It’s well past 8 when The Hand finally arrives. She’s a young woman, and she seems sweetly nervous. She tells Kunin she has previous experience doing this kind of thing — she once served as a hand double for Ashley Judd — but the only thing she knows about tomorrow’s scene is that she’ll be filmed from the elbow down.
The Hand has no idea how close she is to making “Dallas” history.
Kunin brings out the jewelry she’s collected, sits at her desk and arranges the pieces on the woman’s hands. When she’s satisfied with the look she’s created, she snaps a picture and emails it to Cidre and Robin.
Twenty minutes later, there’s a ping from Kunin’s phone. She picks it up and reads the message. A smile breaks across her face.
“Cynthia loves it!”
Several months later, after the season finale has aired, Cidre will tell interviewers about the scrapped scene that introduced J.R.’s daughter. She’ll also talk about shooting it again, this time with the actress who would’ve played the role permanently.
In other words: If “Dallas” had been renewed, Kunin would’ve gotten to do this all over again.
Not that she would’ve minded. As Kunin drives off the “Dallas” lot after her long day in April, she talks about how much she enjoys her job — even if it’s not as glamorous as a lot of people assume.
“It’s actually a lot of work,” Kunin says. “But I love it.”
Here are some of the other looks “Dallas” costume designer Rachel Sage Kunin assembled for the show’s third-season finale:
What are your favorite “Dallas” looks? Share your comments below and read more features from Dallas Decoder.