How do you shop when you’ve spent the last few decades pulling in the big bucks as the host of a late-night talk show? If you’re Katherine Newbury, the intimidating comedian at the center of Late Night, you buy Stella McCartney, Brandon Maxwell, Prada, and Armani. You wear art collector-quality jewelry that’s literally been shown at the Met.
Even with a dream budget, self-presentation is a complicated matter for a woman in entertainment — an equation that, in Newbury’s case, includes forging a path in the male-dominated late-night comedy world and reaching an age at which, as she puts it, Hollywood cues up the music to play you off the stage. These issues are front and center in Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, which stars Kaling as Molly Patel, a new writer hired on Newbury’s show after Newbury (Emma Thompson) realizes it’s a problem that her writing staff is very male, not to mention very white. Clearly, Newbury has done a poor job of bringing up other women with her. She’s also let her show become stodgy and expected, and after a network executive tells Newbury that she’s getting kicked off the air at the end of the season, she decides to reinvent her comedy in a bid to keep her job — with, of course, a lot of help from Molly.
Costume designer Mitchell Travers reflected Newbury’s career overhaul in her wardrobe, a clever mix of suiting and more traditionally “feminine” pieces (a pussy bow blouse knotted to look like a bow tie, for instance) that becomes increasingly daring as the movie progresses. (It’s little surprise that clothes play a pivotal role in a film written and produced by Kaling, a notorious fashion enthusiast who used to have a shopping blog called “Things I’ve Bought That I Love.”)
In outfitting a fictional female late-night host, Travers was confronted with the resounding dearth of real-life women on which to model Newbury’s style; on major networks, late night is a landscape dominated by straight white men named Jimmy, James, Stephen, and Seth. It’s telling that the Irish TV presenter Graham Norton, whose taste for color and pattern sets him apart from the navy- and charcoal-suited pack, was a leading reference point for Travers.
I called up Travers, who is currently working on Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights, to talk about those suits, the sartorial expectations heaped on women in Hollywood, and the real-life style of talk show hosts.
Katherine Newbury is constantly described as someone who demands excellence. Her clothes are excellent. How did you conceive of this character’s relationship to fashion?
I had a conversation with Mindy where I was like, “Jeez, way to hype up the costumes.” Katherine demands perfection from everyone around her. She has the highest of standards, so naturally this is someone who would hold herself to those standards. She has access to some of the best clothing in the world. It was a huge undertaking and a challenge to figure out what that looks like for someone who’s precise, exacting, specific, tailored in her clothing and personality.
That led me to a suited look where we got to play with silhouettes and build an exoskeleton first. She’s at an arm’s reach from people. There is a presentational aspect of suiting which I found really useful for this character. She could be really powerful immediately — she could be a little threatening, a little scary — and then we could break that up as the movie went on.
What kinds of conversations did you have with Emma Thompson about her costuming?
She’s extremely collaborative. I sent over my initial mood boards to her, we did a Skype conversation, and we went through the images that I had selected. She let me know which ones caught her eye, which she felt like she really responded to or wanted to go down the rabbit hole with.
But the best thing about Emma is that she’s not forceful with her opinions. She really lets the character find its footing in the fitting room with you, and so you get to be a part of that creation with her. Because you’re allowed that freedom, you’re allowed to get it wrong. There are certain fittings where you just want to get it right and you want to make sure you don’t take up somebody’s time, and it doesn’t feel like you’re exploring in the same way that you get with Emma. Or Mindy — they’re similar in that process.
I want to dig into Katherine Newbury’s suiting. Her style is this great, not-at-all-reductive mix of traditionally masculine and feminine clothing, which seems to be a nod to the fact that she’s the rare woman in a very male-dominated world. Can you talk me through how you approached that balance?
Obviously Emma Thompson is one of the greatest actors we have. It’s rare that you get to work with somebody who can transform a costume by performance. Oftentimes you are presenting one version of a character with a costume, and that will help the actor in a specific scene. But the amazing thing about Emma is that she’s able to have this duality in her performance. I was lucky enough that this was my second time working with her, so I know this about her and was able to meet her performance with a costume that could be malleable in the way that I know that she is.
We still have no real reference for a female late-night host on network television. So there is freedom in that you get to decide what that looks like, but it’s also a little frightening. In Late Night, this woman kind of has a chip on her shoulder, has a lot to prove, and is being made to jump through hoops that she only has to jump through because she is a woman. I think, in her comedic way, but also as a little bit of an f- you, she would turn menswear on its head and challenge the men. Like, “If you’re asking me to keep up with you, keep up with me.” That was sort of the basis for us in terms of the suiting.
We of course meet the character in a state in which she is a little over-rehearsed, a little practiced, a little comfortable, and so the suiting was a bit more traditional. It’s almost like she followed the “Preppy Handbook” for some of her early wardrobe. As time goes on and she opens herself up to new beliefs and challenges herself in terms of what she thinks, we wanted that to translate into the clothing. You get the sense that she’s blurring the lines, she’s pushing the boundaries, and she’s enjoying herself.
I want to get to a place where suits aren’t automatically coded as masculine.
I do, too. Maybe it’s because of this experience or just the way I see the world, but I hadn’t been thinking of suits as a thing that only men can wear. There are no rules in my fitting room. It doesn’t matter if something was purchased for a character or somebody else — if it catches my eye and if it feels right for the character, I’ll bring it into the room. I mean, suiting is meant to be cut towards a shape. If you have a bust or a hip, tailoring is perfect for you.
I’d love to hear about your thinking for the first outfit in the movie, a silver evening gown that she wears to an event where she’s receiving an award. The sleeves seem to be connected in the back, which gives it this restricted feeling.
It’s the only time we see a dress or a skirt on Emma. For me there was a bit of a presentational aspect to it — similar to what I was saying about the suiting — but very specifically about how a woman must present herself on a red carpet. We focus a ton of energy and time on dissecting women’s [fashion] choices while they’re being honored. It’s a really bizarre concept. Emma and I talked endlessly about that.
In terms of storytelling, I wanted to present a woman who feels a bit armored. It’s got a bit of a knight-in-armor feeling about it. You have to steel yourself before facing that much scrutiny.
Maybe this is just my personal taste, but her jewelry really stood out to me throughout the movie. How did that figure into your storytelling?
There are two waves of jewelry in the story. The first are these incredibly rare, art collector, museum-quality pieces. I worked with a lot of vintage dealers. She wears a few pieces that were actually shown at the Met during their Victorian mourning exhibit. She’s got this necklace and earrings that are legitimately Egyptian and have also been in museums. You know, this woman chose her career. She didn’t raise a family, she made an incredible amount of money, and I felt like she would invest in her jewelry. She would take it really seriously — almost because she loved to be complimented on it and loved to tell you how exquisite and rare it is, so that you feel tiny next to it.
Then as the silhouettes break up and she starts to experiment, I was buying jewelry at Topshop, at Aldo, at all of these low-market stores, but with the same sensibility. I felt like she wouldn’t care about the pretension of the jewelry, or its reputation or previous owners.
I was kind of inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship to jewelry, just because she was a real fan. She wore jewelry for jewelry’s sake. But then I wondered what would happen if you loosened that up a little bit and mixed in a $14 necklace with the exquisite jewelry from the past.
Are there particular outfits that you see as emblematic of Katherine’s shift toward a more experimental approach to fashion?
[The bright red jumpsuit] is our first signal that things are going to change. We kept her in the traditional prep colors: a really beautiful palette of navies and creams and oxblood — things that felt comfortable, familiar, and easy. Then we did this bold slash of red. That’s kind of the middle point where she’s surrendering to the unknown, she’s surrendering to risk, and admitting that she might get it wrong along the way.
It’s really sort of a deluge after that happens. I took references from Graham Norton and a million other people who have a sense of fun about their clothes. We experimented with sequins and beads. She wears a blazer with zebras on it at one point. It just became about flexibility and freedom.
I love the Graham Norton reference.
Yeah, I obsessively studied all of the late-night hosts to understand how they dress themselves and how they present themselves to the world. Graham became a bit of a reference for me because I felt like he’s having fun. He’s in on the joke. Or “Alan Carr: Chatty Man.”
They have fun with their clothes, and the guests loosen up around them because it doesn’t feel strict, it doesn’t feel like you have to be as perfect and polished. You can have a cocktail with them. You can let loose. You can have a laugh.
How would you describe late-night hosts’ clothing sensibilities generally?
I’m finding a way to be PC about this, but it’s a very neutral landscape. You know, there are a lot of expensive navy and charcoal suits on late-night television. It’s meant to appeal to the most people. I guess the important thing about the men is that it’s not about how they look, it’s do they make you laugh? But a woman isn’t given that same platform. A woman has to be pretty or well-dressed and funny. She can’t just be one.
As a counterpoint to Emma Thompson’s incredibly high-end wardrobe, how did you think about dressing Mindy Kaling, whose character, Molly, doesn’t have a lot of money and is just entering the comedy world? Obviously, we know Mindy Kaling to be someone who really loves fashion.
Yes. Mindy has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of fashion and designer clothing. She loves fittings, she loves to talk about clothes, she loves character. So a fitting room with Mindy is fun. It’s a place where she gets to really create visually.
We’ve gotten to know her as her character on The Mindy Project, who explored bold patterns and gorgeous colors. Mindy is able to wear the rainbow beautifully. For this character, she comes from really humble beginnings, and we wanted to get that wide-eyed sense when you first move to a major city, where you’re like, “People can wear that?” It’s not just about dressing yourself, it’s about showcasing yourself. For us it was more of an exploration of that — of realizing that image matters and that it is a tool that you can use to guide your career and your romantic life.
It became about this expansion and a bit of an explosion, where she went from having clothing be sort of utilitarian and expected, to a place where she could take a little risk and try different things. We wanted her to look up to Emma’s character so much that you started to feel a little bit of her influence on her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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