Time is precious for Ryan Murphy, who’s never not hard at work expanding the Murphyverse. But last year, he devoted more than a month to hunting down the precise shade of a single item of clothing in a single one of his productions. At least, he spent more than a month rejecting Ratched’s costume designers, Lou Eyrich and Rebecca Guzzi, before approving the color Sarah Paulson wears when her character, the Netflix series’s titular nurse, goes to work.
Ratched may be a prequel to the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the two look nothing alike. In fact, Murphy specifically instructed Eyrich and Guzzi to steer clear from the film’s bleached aesthetic, meaning not to dress patients and medical staff in white. The exception is Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), a hunky serial killer who’s either shirtless or in a snug white tee à la James Dean.
Paulson’s Nurse Ratched is just as monstrous as the original. But in the Murphyverse, she’s also chic—even years ahead in embracing Dior’s New Look. Here, Eyrich and Guzzi offer a few hints as to why, along with behind-the-scenes details of working with Paulson’s equally stylish costar: a monkey named Pablo.
You must be so happy that you’d finished up production on this pre-pandemic.
LE: We’re just excited. It was a year ago that we finished, and we Rebecca and I saw the trailer when everybody else did. We texted each other right away. We started working together back in 2016, on one of the American Horror Story seasons. Not on every single Ryan Murphy project, of course, because he has a lot of them.
Is he often as particular as he was with the nurse uniform?
LE: He’s always…Well, the word “particular” seems negative. He’s just always very tuned into what he wants visually. And in this case, Rebecca and I started all the research with old nurse yearbooks and doctor catalogs and things that showed what the uniforms looked like this period. And when we showed them to him, he was like, I don’t want that. I want to play against that. As you can see by the sets, he wanted it almost like a psychiatric spa, where you go to get different kinds of therapy for healing. So he wanted something just different than white of the institutions. So we played with blue, and we played with different shades of green, and he landed on green.
RG: A very specific shade of green.
LE: Yes. [Laughs.]
RG: And we picked different shades, too. We picked the nurse’s uniform’s fabric and color first, because Sarah and so many other of our female principals were going to be obviously heavily featured in that. And then we worked to fill in the other colors—the orderlies, the gowns worn by the surgeons and patients.
How much did you reference the time period otherwise?
RG: So we got all of those medical catalogs and yearbooks on eBay, and we did a lot of research at Western Costume Library. We basically looked at existing garments to make the surgeon’s gowns and orderlies’ uniforms. The training apron Dolly wears is very much from the research of that time period. We actually found one and were able to use it with some modifications.
What about Sarah’s outfits outside of the “mental spa”?
LE: Mildred has a very stylish exterior, and she wants to present herself as the perfect image of what a nurse should be. Even if nobody really knows that it hides the darkness within, or if she stole the clothes. We pretty much stuck to the silhouette of 1947, but we took a little bit of license with coloring to fit with the the tone of the set and the mood of the show. Some of the colors popped a little bit more, and there was maybe a heightened sense of the style, but Rebecca and I really did try to stay true to the silhouette of 1947.
That includes the New Look, right?
RG: Yes. Dior presented it in 1947, but it didn’t really take off then. That being two years after the war, a lot of people couldn’t necessarily afford it.
I was going to say, I wasn’t expecting Mildred to look so stylish and rich.
LE: As you watch, the episodes explain that her exterior is hiding what is within. We started with that façade and you sort of see her underneath, her real past, where she comes from. She’s very calculating.
Is it because Mildred is so dressed up in comparison, or is Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) supposed to look more toned down to seem more butch?
RG: I think it’s kind of a two-parter. Both things are at play. To Mildred, everybody has a purpose for her, so she dresses in part for that particular person or group of people to help her manipulate. Gwendolyn is already a down to earth, honest person, so she doesn’t have that goal. She has a secret, obviously—most of the characters do. But there’s really only the play between her private life and her work life as the governor’s press secretary. So she’s very much presentable in the tailored women’s suits of the time, with the gloves and hat women always had to wear when they stepped out in that era.
Watching the trailer, I was immediately struck by Sharon Stone’s character, Lenore.
RG: We’re all struck by Sharon. [Laughs.]
I mean, no matter what she wears, but she looks particularly incredible in this.
RG: Ryan wanted her to look like an heiress who has this amazing home, so the set and wardrobe needed to show the type of class she was in to be able to employ a private detective. Ryan just wanted her dripping in diamonds, even in the bathtub. You know, Sharon is tall and beautiful, and everything you put on her just drapes so beautifully. And she loves the costume fitting process, so Rebecca and I really enjoyed her fittings and collaborating with her. We had collected mostly samples from costume houses and vintage sources to then replicate, so a lot of her stuff was custom made. But it’s accessories that really sell her outfits, whether it’s a fur or jewelry or gloves.
LE: The brooches in the hair. It all comes together.
Where did you source the vintage accessories?
RG: We cast a wide net. We have lots of sources from working on lots of period shows. Depending on what we’re looking for, we go to storefronts in L.A. like The Way We Wore or Golyester, which is where we got one of Sharon’s gold stone belts. And then we call in people from across the United States, who get back to us if they have something that fits with our style sheets.
LE: So much of it is on Instagram now, too. And Rebecca and I are big fans of the Pickwick Vintage Show here in L.A.
As great as Sharon looks, I think the real star is her monkey.
LE: [Laughs.] Yes, the very first day that the monkeys came for a fitting, we were all just captivated. Everybody wanted to come and peek in fitting room. The handler brought two of them, so we made outfits for each, with matching pantaloons or little panties underneath their party dresses. But we actually only ended up really filming with one of the monkeys, whose name was Pablo.
Did either of you have any experience making that type of a garment?
RG: I don’t think Lou has worked with a monkey before, and I hadn’t either. Obviously we had the handlers, but luckily we got the name of a specialty costumer who manufactures and had a lot of experience making costumes for animals.
LE: She also made the costumes for the puppet later in the season. We lucked out.
Did you have to take the monkey’s measurements?
RG: She did. She was very cool, calm, and collected.
Did she seem used to that process?
RG: Very much so. Without even having to ask a lot of questions to the handlers, she already knew from past experience what kind of closures needed to be on the garments, how there needed to be more ease in the arms because of the way monkeys raise their arms. She knew all of those bits that I feel like would normally require a trial and error process. We were so grateful that she already had all that knowledge.
Did you have to make a hole for their tails?
LE: In the little panties I described? [Laughs.] Yes.
What inspired you for Pablo’s costumes?
LE: There was actually a line in the script that said the first time we see Ms. Petunia, which is her name, she’s in a pink party dress. And from there, we just kind of carried it through as if she’s basically a daughter to Lenore, with these Shirley Temple, 1930s-style little girl dresses and colors to match whatever mom, Lenore, was wearing in that scene. They like to pick at things like bows and rhinestones, so we had to sew all of those down. But they were very well behaved and clean.
Edmund (Finn Wittrock) does not, of course, look like your typical patient. He doesn’t always wear a shirt.
RG: We looked at a lot of Marlon Brando kind of characters for him, who have this kind of unbridled wildness as he’s obviously known to be a murderer. So we looked at T-shirts of the time, and how they fit more snugly, and the leather jacket for that bad boy look. Similar to the jeans, which are a bit James Dean.
LE: We found a really good pair of old high-waisted dungarees from a costume house that we modified. They fit so differently from a contemporary jean. We were really looking for that ‘40s silhouette.
I know Ryan wanted to do something different, but did you look back or make any reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
RG: Not really, no, because Ryan was very clear from the very first meeting that he wanted to completely play against how Cuckoo’s Nest is very bleached, very institutional. And this takes place in a different town, a couple of decades earlier in the storyline of Mildred’s character. And because of the idea that Lucia State Hospital is more like a rehabilitation center, in the beginning, we pitched Ryan this idea of having the patients wear their own clothes. It sort of feeds into that sense of treating them humanely, which Dr. Hanover says is his goal. So there was no patient uniform, except for obviously in the lobotomy scenes, they wore gowns. We built those, because of course they had to be in our specific color palette.