Intimate Apparel: A Conversation with Nancy Steiner

Intimate Apparel: A Conversation with Nancy Steiner

Over the last thirty years, costume designer Nancy Steiner has been behind some of the most iconic sartorial moments in the worlds of film, music, and fashion. Beginning her career in Los Angeles, during the heyday of MTV in the early nineties, Steiner cut her teeth as a designer by styling music videos: she was responsible for the striped midcentury suits worn by the members of Nirvana in their video for “In Bloom” and Gwen Stefani’s vintage polka-dot dress in the video for No Doubt’s breakout single, “Don’t Speak.” Steiner landed her first big break in the film industry when Todd Haynes hired her to design the costumes for his disquieting melodrama Safe (1995). Tasked with assembling a wardrobe for Julianne Moore’s Carol White, Steiner created looks that mirror the character’s downward spiral from well-groomed housewife to a woman ravaged by a mysterious illness. Then, Sofia Coppola brought Steiner on board for her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), a film whose costumes now feel integral to our understanding of the director’s visual aesthetic.

Set in 1970s suburban Michigan, The Virgin Suicides allowed Steiner to bring together her talents as a designer and her love for scouring through vintage stores. At the center of Coppola’s melancholic coming-of-age film are the Lisbon sisters, whom Steiner outfits in clothes inspired by fashion trends of the era and imbued with an air of ethereal femininity: crocheted halter tops, linen A-line skirts, flannel nightgowns, and modest prom dresses reminiscent of the vintage label Gunne Sax. Part of what makes Steiner’s work so remarkable is how lived-in and full of personality the girls’ clothing feels, enriching Coppola’s portrait of these young women and their unique inner lives.

Steiner has since left her mark on the projects of other distinctive writers and directors, designing the costumes for films by Wim Wenders, Cameron Crowe, and Yorgos Lanthimos. She also collaborated again with Coppola, on Lost in Translation. In addition, she has turned her efforts to the small screen, outfitting the eccentric characters of cult-favorite television series like Mike White’s Enlightened and, most recently, David Lynch’s eighteen-part sensation Twin Peaks: The Return.

To celebrate our new 4K edition of The Virgin Suicides, I spoke with Steiner about her early influences and her psychological approach to costume design.

I’m curious about what brought you into the fashion world.

I was very into art and fashion as a young girl and was always sketching from what I saw in fashion magazines. I loved drawing the folds and textures in fabric. I didn’t have the money to go to school for fashion, and back then there weren’t costume-design programs for film. I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I went to Los Angeles Trade Technical College for two years and learned the basics of making clothes: the construction, the draping, the patternmaking. While I was going to school, I worked and sometimes made clothes for this punk-rock store in Santa Monica called NaNa, which was the first U.S. distributor of Dr. Martens. I eventually began working as an intern or assistant for some of the stylists I had met through the store. They liked my style, which was influenced by Exene Cervenka from the LA punk band X. I had long, red hair and wore mostly 1940s-style dresses. The first film I worked on was I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), which was a satirical crack-up of Blaxploitation movies.

What influenced your taste as an artist?

I love film, but I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of it by any means. My biggest influences have always been music and art. Those are my loves. When I was growing up, they were always the most important to me. I took drawing classes, painted, and made sculptures. I was always going to a lot of concerts. That was my deal. I was this ’40s girl, but my friends were punks, so I’d go to all those kinds of shows.

I’d love to know more about the LA art scene in the nineties and how your experiences in fashion, music, and film began to intersect.

Music was a huge part of my life and how I met my LA tribe. I knew the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction from going to shows, and at one point I went out with a guy who lived with Perry Farrell. We all intermixed, and though everyone made different kinds of music and art, we all loved each other’s work. That’s how I started making the costumes for music videos by the Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Nirvana. It was exciting to be a part of the MTV generation while making music videos for MTV at the same time. One of the music video costume supervisors I had been working with brought me with her on a new project, which is how I ended up being a set costumer on Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey despite not having much film experience.

The Virgin Suicides
Nancy Steiner with actor Robert Schwartzman
on the set of The Virgin Suicides

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