I’ve been crushing on Jenn Rogien for years. As the costume designer for HBO’s Girls and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, it was love at first sight (of Lena Dunham in a mesh shirt, that is). And as a costume designer myself, I can’t help admiring someone who seems both effortlessly glamorous and hilariously down-to-earth—particularly since I know firsthand that the job is often more about waiting in line at dusty thrift stores than wearing designer shoes to red carpet events. So when I was presented with the opportunity to chat with her about the second season of OITNB (just released on Netflix), I jumped at it.
Spoiler alert: Jenn Rogien is awesome. About halfway through the interview, I started fangirling, garbling my words, and blurted, “I’m sorry, I’m just really nervous right now.” She made a joke about it, laughed, and then apologized for the periodic squawking noises from her phone—as she was standing in a Burlington Coat Factory mid-interview, shopping for season three, being interrupted by store loudspeaker announcements asking for additional cashiers to come to the register.
She has one of the coolest jobs on the planet and a terrific sense of humor about an awkward moment. Crush complete. Let’s meet Jenn Rogien.
Photo: Joe Tanis
MTV STYLE: So, can you tell me a little bit about your journey toward becoming a costume designer?
JENN ROGIEN: Oh, well, sure! So, I started playing dress-up in my mom’s closet, and I moved on to doing theater in high school and college, and I kind of fell in love with telling stories. It never occurred to me that costume design could be a career choice, so after college, I worked in the fashion and retail sector. But after a while, I started to realize that I was getting a little further away from what I really wanted to do—while still doing theater after-hours on the side. I finally realized that maybe I should transition into designing full-time, rather than just from 6 to 9 p.m. every day.
It’s a thing I think so many of us have gone through—that moment of realizing “Wait, this is an actual job?”
Right! And the thought, "Oh, someone will pay me for this?"
Let’s talk about the show! On OITNB, your toolkit might seem a bit limited given the restrictions of the prison uniforms, and yet I’m so impressed by the ways you communicate the uniqueness of each character.
I think that the uniforms are one of the unique challenges of the show. The uniforms are comprised of only six or seven pieces in addition to maybe a piece or two that the inmate characters are allowed to purchase at the commissary. So, I knew going into it that it would come down to some very subtle distinctions—rolled hems, rolled sleeves. A lot of it came about very organically in season one. In Flaca’s fitting, we were playing around with what size uniform she might select, and she asked “Can I tuck my pants into my boots?” It’s against the rules, but we explored it, and it ended up being a really specific part of her character—she’s a bit of a rebel, and a bit of a style-conscious inmate. She’s tucked her pants into her boots ever since. If you see an inmate on the screen in more of a ‘straightforward’ uniform, it tells us that the inmate follows the rules—well, except whatever big rules she broke that landed her in prison! If we alter their appearance, it tells us that this inmate might have a problem with authority or that they like to color outside the lines a bit.
And it’s such a different world from the flashbacks—when we span so many different decades and so many different places.
So, the flashbacks are indeed a very colorful world outside of our prison and that’s very intentional. There’s purposefully so little color inside the facility, so we use the flashbacks to highlight the contrast between the world inside and the world outside. The '60s have a very different color palate than the '80s or the '90s.
And from a technical perspective, it must be challenging to shop for those characters who come from lower-economic backgrounds, which so many of them do. It’s not like people keep the clothes from those eras that were meant to be cheap and disposable.
It really depends on the time period that we are portraying. If it’s a somewhat more contemporary time period—for instance, the early 2000s—we’re able to source some contemporary clothing even though it might not actually be realistically period. I’m actually at the Burlington Coat Factory right now shopping for one of those characters' flashbacks. The earlier time periods are a bit more of a challenge. We have some amazing rental warehouses in L.A. and New York. We do tons and tons of research. We’ll send those rental houses images—from the New York Public Library, from online, from vintage catalogs. We have a whole library of vintage JCPenney and Sears catalogs on hand. I’m at the Salvation Army a lot. And we’ve wound up building things as well—we built all of the nuns’ habits for Sister Ingalls’ flashbacks. They were simply pieces that didn’t exist anymore, so we created them specifically for the show.
Can you tell me a little bit about—I’m not sure how to describe these pieces, really—other than “Prison DIY Hacks?”
I love those items. It’s a real opportunity to put your creativity to the test. You don’t often have the chance to make duct tape flip-flops or maxi pad shower shoes. The entire Christmas pageant—how do you make a Christmas pageant when you only have access to blankets and a pile of trash? Norma’s tampon headpiece was a true collaboration with our set dec team—we had so much fun trying to imagine how these inmates might design their own play.
Kind of like the way that the inmates choose their own outfits in that season two Dress for Success storyline.
So, the real Dress for Success is this amazing organization that really does help women put themselves together in a professional and appropriate way, but we took a huge amount of creative liberty with that plotline. We started to imagine that the woman who arrives from the organization has a trunk filled with clothes that haven’t been updated in a while. We certainly took advantage of that with Leanne’s peach-colored dress, which was intentionally a terrible color on her—which plays right into the joke that she just wants to be a marine biologist! Nicky’s background is a little more high-end, so she would gravitate towards something a little newer on top of the pile, something with a bit more of a chic look to it. Taystee had done her homework. She knew what won last year, she was going to duplicate it this year, even if it didn’t fit her particularly well.
OK, final question, and then I’m going to let you get back to work on season three! This show might be different than others due to the—let’s call it a gender imbalance—of being set in a women’s prison. What’s that work environment like?
Personally, I think it’s awesome. I just think I’m really lucky in that I get to work with the coolest group of people who just happen to be great at their jobs—and who just happen to be women.