When Amanda Needham took the job as costume designer on Shrill, the new Hulu series based on writer, activist, and self-described “loud woman” Lindy West’s memoir, she knew that dressing plus-size performers would be a little tricky. “I was excited to take on the challenge,” she says. Lead actress Aidy Bryant, who plays Annie on the show, warned her that it might be harder than she thought — maybe impossible. “I was like, ‘No way, girl! I got this.”
The show captures Annie at a turning point in her life, as she consciously chooses to break free of the fat-girl tropes imposed on her and come into her own as a woman — a fat woman. The first season follows her as she pushes forward in her career (despite a difficult, anti-fat boss), tries to build an adult relationship with her juvenile boyfriend, and confronts the relentless and ridiculous biases that plus-size people face. In many ways, the show is about challenging those biases and depicting women like Annie as people with real, normal lives.
But when it came to creating Annie’s real, normal wardrobe, Needham quickly ran into a roadblock. As soon as she started looking for pieces, Needham learned the ugly truth about plus-size clothing: It is, for the most part, ugly — as well as cheap, poorly made, and, above all, limited. So she started from scratch, designing the majority of Annie’s clothing herself with the help of her team. Now she’s on a mission to make Shrill a conversation starter among clothing designers and retailers: “The fashion industry needs to catch up.”
First off, congratulations. There’s been such a huge response to Shrill, and to the style in particular.
My gosh, it’s been wild! I’m loving it, though. I’ve been getting all these people reaching out to me separately, just to say “Thank you for seeing me.” It makes me want to cry.
I bet! Obviously, this show is a first in many ways, but as a plus woman myself, I’d never had the experience of watching a series and really taking note of the clothing and thinking, “Ooh, where can I get that dress?” It was a very pleasant surprise.
I think a lot of people feel that way. We never see women of size in fashiony pieces. I couldn’t even find anything for inspiration. You can’t find any examples of looks on people over, like, a size 8 — and even a size 8 is really a faux pas.
Before this show, I really believed in the fashion industry more. In the beginning, I think maybe I had a little ego about it. Aidy knew going in that this was going to be a struggle, and I was like, “Oh, there’s stuff for you out there, don’t worry! I’m about to show you the world, and it’s going to be amazing.” Then we ordered all this stuff and when it came in, it was terrible — all polyblend and so cheap. I was like, where are they even buying this fabric? It was borderline insulting. And the sad truth is there was nothing out there. It was a dead zone.
So how did you make do? How do you create a distinct personal style for a character when the options are so limited?
We just had to go back to the drawing board and make this world ourselves. It was absolutely a collaboration. Aidy has such incredible fashion sense, so I took a lot of cues from her everyday look and then added some moments where it felt more elevated in terms of colors and cuts, just to highlight and celebrate her body.
You literally had to make some of the pieces yourself, correct?
Yes, most of them actually. There are a couple off-the-rack items. She wears a Rachel Antonoff dress in the first episode, and a Mara Hoffman swimsuit at the pool party, but almost all the other pieces are custom. All the dresses.
All of them? Wow.
I know. This is the hardest thing for me right now — answering all these questions from people reaching out to me on Instagram, wanting to know where they can buy these things. It really underscores the message that the fashion industry needs to start catching up.
Truly, designing this show would have been impossible to do off the rack. You actually cannot create a look for a plus-size character without a tailor and the resources to create customized pieces for their body. Because the retail stuff — it doesn’t seem like it’s plus-size people designing them. It’s like they’re guessing what a plus-size body is shaped like. There’s no attention to detail, and once you get past a certain size, it really seems like the designers are ... uncomfortable with those bodies. There’s so much shame around weight, I’ve realized, and we’ve got to get rid of it. I want the industry to just celebrate whatever size we are and work with it. It’s like, stop building tents and caftans for anyone over a size 14.
Amen. Speaking of celebrating bodies, let’s talk about the pool party. What was your goal for that scene?
I wanted it to feel like an oasis. I wanted lots of color and a lot of really stylish moments. Often I think plus-size swimwear can be so one-dimensional. I mean, how many black bathing suits can you look at before you’ve seen them all? And at a certain size, everything starts to get bigger and really drapey, and it’s more about covering a body than celebrating it in any way.
I just felt so upset that there was nothing available for these women that I worked even harder to give them options. I really didn’t want to just roll into there with one rack. So we built a lot of those pieces and ordered as much as we possibly could. We wanted to present a world that made everyone feel accepted and seen. There were so many tears that day. It was incredible.
What was it like working with the women in that scene? Was everyone comfortable, dancing on camera and being exposed like that?
Oh, I’m not kidding you when I say everybody was crying, myself included. It was crazy. I remember our call time was really early and we all got there before sunrise. By the time the sun came up, everyone was dressed and everyone was in tears. It was because everyone felt like they were heard and everyone felt so beautiful. My team catered to every single woman there, and everyone got the full works — swimsuits, bags, bracelets, bags.
Lindy West had a cameo, and I think her look was one of my favorites. It was a black suit, but we designed it with all these cutouts, and we gave her a beautiful flower crown. But there was not one single person there where we were like, “Oh, I’m sorry, we have nothing for you.” No. It was, “Oh, you’re a size 24? Here are your options.”
Options! That’s huge! Just hearing you say that, I can understand why everyone was crying.
It really felt like we were a part of something bigger that day. I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and there are a lot of special moments and great times when you’re producing and building characters. But I’ve never been a part of something so ... humane? Something where you’re actually working with a part of our population that is just not seen or heard. It was just so cool to be a part of that process.
There’s a part in that scene where Annie compliments another woman’s skirt and says how hard it is to find plain staple items like that — without ruffles or garish prints. I really appreciated seeing Annie sometimes dressed in just basic jeans and a T-shirt. Were any of those off the rack?
Yes, some of the basics were from Asos. The T-shirt where she’s walking with her mom was from there. But the brand we used the most was Tuesday Bassen. It’s an LA-based designer, and they make XXL-5X. They’re so on it, and they use recycled fabrics too.
Much of this season is about Annie really embracing and embodying herself for the first time but struggling with some moments of insecurity along the way. Did you try to reflect that journey in her wardrobe?
Y’know, we did have those conversations during prep, but my stance is that I didn’t want it to be about the wardrobe. Aidy is a genius, and she doesn’t need the clothes to tell the story. And no one wanted it to be like, oh, here’s the part of the story where she’s suddenly Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, coming out in this crazy outfit. I really wanted it to be about her trying, and showing vulnerability when she wanted to — and oftentimes we did that without clothes. There are these incredibly vulnerable moments where she’s not wearing clothes, like when she’s with Ryan.
I wanted to ask about those scenes, and the lingerie specifically. Those moments are so intimate and emotional, and I imagine it’s hard for anyone to be exposed in that scenario. How did you and Aidy work together to find looks that felt comfortable — and also just not crappy-looking underwear?
Oh, my god, the fittings for those scenes were amazing. It was really just Aidy and I in her trailer, and we have such a good relationship, thankfully. She had to do sex scenes where she was exposed or straddling the actor, and we rehearsed a lot of them, just to get a full look at what the lingerie was going to do — where the underwear was going to go, how the bra was going to look in different positions.
We did custom-design a lot of that, but we also used Rihanna’s Fenty line, which was a real hit. She has some really beautiful pieces that go up to a 2 or 3X. But with most of the lingerie, again, once you get over a certain size, it’s like everyone has to look like a nursemaid or something. It’s all really padded and the straps are really thick.
Plus intimates are often enormous. As with other clothing, it seems like it’s more about hiding a body or obscuring its shape, rather than just dressing it. Would you agree?
I would wholeheartedly agree with that. That’s the biggest thing.
And ... okay, everything’s been really positive for the most part, but there are also people sliding into my DMs saying things like, “Why are you celebrating obesity?” First of all, what I’m celebrating is people feeling good about themselves and having no shame. And second, just because you are a bigger person doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. I know skinny people who can’t run a mile. Good health and poor health comes in all different forms. There’s such a misconception with that.
Yes, misconception and bias. It’s really telling when someone brings up health or uses phrases like “promoting obesity.”
Yeah! I see those messages and think, how do you know? Who are you to look at anybody and tell them they have health issues? I don’t see a doctorate after your name, so back off. It’s so wild! But it also makes me feel so happy to take a stand and have conversations like this one.
You know, when I was asked to do this project, I had just wrapped another show. I have two little girls and I was thinking I just couldn’t jump into another series right away. But the producers asked me to just please read it, so I did. And at the end of the day, I realized this is the work I want to do. I want to be in people’s corners — those who feel like they aren’t being represented in fashion. So that’s why it was really important to me to push through and do this. These are the conversations I want to be having.
What do you hope others in the industry take away from your work?
This should be a wake-up call. It was, truly, for me. We cater to people on the other end of the spectrum all the time. We’re making J. Crew in XXS, but designers can’t even think of making something in XXL.
What kills me is the designers who argue that it’s extra fabric, and that’s why they don’t make those sizes, when, of course, the XXS is not cheaper than the medium. It doesn’t make sense.
It is such bullshit. And it is so important to me to be at the table for those conversations. There are some designers and retailers out there doing good work, like Asos, 11 Honoré, and Wild Fang. Anthropologie just announced a plus-size line. But it’s still kind of a dead zone out there. Zara has nothing. Eloquii is okay but it all looks the same after a while.
I’m hoping Shrill lights a fire under people and starts opening things up, because I would love to be able to put off-the-rack clothes on Aidy for the second season. Designing the clothes is really fun, but on a human level, it would be much better to see plus-size people represented in the same way that tiny, tiny models are — who don’t represent the general population. That’s my motto now: Catch the hell up.
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