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Artist Profile: Denise Wingate on Storytelling Through Costume Design

Denise Wingate in her office, surrounded by her research and fitting boards.
Denise Wingate in her office, surrounded by her research and fitting boards. By Courtesy of Sandra Collier
By Makenna J. Walko, Crimson Staff Writer

When Amazon Prime announced that a television adaptation of Taylor Jenkin Reed’s best-selling novel “Daisy Jones and the Six” was coming to the streaming platform, readers reacted with a mixture of excitement and wariness. Was the show fated, like so many before it, to be defined by the age-old maxim of literary fans: “the book was better?”

Ultimately, the limited series — produced by Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine — received rave reviews, including from the Crimson and is in the running for Emmy Awards in nine categories. Among the show’s defining strengths is the way it nails ’70s costuming in a manner both imaginative and faithful to the text. Who do viewers have to thank for this historically-rich, visually-stunning feat of costuming?

The answer is accomplished wardrobe designer Denise Wingate, who, like so many others, was drawn to the show after first reading the book.

“I just read the whole thing. I just sat down, I just nonstop read it and I really, really loved the book.” Wingate reflected. She recalls telling her agent, “Oh, you got to get me in the door on this one. I think I can completely nail this.”

Much of the storyline resonated with Wingate, whose adolescence in California and early experiences in the music scene are reflected in the book.

“I loved the period. I grew up in Los Angeles during that time, I knew all the clubs they were talking about. I had traveled on the road styling for the band The Bangles, so I had been on the road with a band. So I felt like I had a real inside track on what this could look like,” she said.

But to make the show a success, Wingate had to balance her creative vision with readers’ expectations.

“I really tried hard because I know that there were so many fans of the book that I really felt I would let them down if there weren’t certain things that were in the show.”

In order to achieve this careful balance, Wingate utilized fittings as an opportunity to work with the actors to explore the best ways to express each character.

“It’s a collaboration, and it’s a chance to discuss and peel off the layers of the onion, so to speak, and the more fittings you have, the more you can really dig deep. And that happened on ‘Daisy Jones’ because we had multiple fittings, and we had time. So we really got to uncover who the characters were. It was super exciting. That’s the most exciting part for me.”

Beyond fittings, Wingate’s creative process for “Daisy Jones and the Six” relied heavily on research to ensure her portrayals were realistically grounded in the history of the period.

“Luckily in the ’70s, there’s a lot of documentation. I watched a lot of documentaries, read a lot of books, had a lot of magazines from the ’70s, even magazines like ‘Time’ and ‘Life’ and really just made collages of that world and just immersed myself.

From literature to music, she described absorbing as much source material as she could.

“I feel like an anthropologist,” Wingate added. “I’m uncovering different eras.”

For Wingate, thinking about costuming from a multitude of lenses, above and beyond fashion itself, is essential to quality storytelling.

“The way I approach every script is, I really take it apart from a psychological standpoint, like: What would the characters wear? Where do they shop? How do they have their money? And I kind of get into, do they use clothing as armor? So often, you have to look at a character even before they speak and kind of get an idea of who they are, even in a comedy if they're sort of funny, or if they’re trendy, or the guy’s a jerk. And you can portray that by costumes.”

To keep track of the many costumes the show utilized over the 30-year period it spans, Wingate devised a system to allow herself to visualize different outfits in each scene.

“I made paper dolls, and I would velcro them together so I could see what people were wearing. And then if I didn’t like it, I could change it around.”

Visualizing costumes across far-reaching locales and time periods was not the only challenge Wingate encountered while working on the project.

“When we were shooting in Greece, I broke my ankle, so I had to finish the show on a wheelchair,” she said. “I had to ride a mule to set in Hydra and it took me, like — I didn’t walk for six months.”

In light of the blood, sweat, and tears Wingate put into the show, her Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Period Costumes” is especially gratifying.

“I feel really honored, and it was a lot of hard work, I'm not gonna lie. I worked really hard on this,” Wingate said.

“I’m super excited. I’ve been doing this a long time. I hope I win,” she added.

Although her work on “Daisy Jones and the Six” represents her first Emmy nomination, Wingate has been doing innovative and visionary work in the costuming space for decades, having designed the wardrobe for popular films ranging from “Wedding Crashers” to “Cruel Intentions.”

One of her most well-known projects is teen rom-com “She’s All That.” Decades later, she leveraged her expertise from the original film when she returned to its 2021 reboot, “He’s All That.” Wingate reflected on her experience as one of the only people to return to work on the reboot.

“I was like the elder statesman. I felt like I was the technical adviser. I would be like, ‘Well, in the original one…’ I was like all smarty pants, because I kept trying to, you know, throw in little easter eggs for people who saw the original. But yeah, it was fun. It was just different.”

“Not a lot of people can say that you get to do a reboot of a movie you did 25 years ago,” she added.

Such a long, wide-spanning history of work is impressive to say the least. But Wingate never saw herself here.

“I fell into [this line of work] by complete accident,” she said. “It wasn’t something that I was thinking about. I don’t even think it was a job I even knew was a possibility.”

But after a lucky chance encounter landed her in the New York design scene, she found a passion for costume design that has lasted nearly 40 years. At the heart of this incredible career is a simple but powerful drive.

“I really like research and just digging deep into characters,” Wingate said. “I like telling stories through costumes.”

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