The Chic, ’60s Costumes of Masters of Sex

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime

The second season of Masters of Sex kicked off Sunday, bringing viewers into the slightly darker, emotionally complex — and still immaculately styled — world of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the late 1950s. The Cut caught up with the show’s costume designer Ane Crabtree, the mastermind behind its distinct style, about the series’ upcoming leap into the 1960s, working with show newcomers Sarah Silverman and Betsy Brandt, and sourcing accessories from, of all places, Etsy.

Season one of Masters of Sex began in 1957 in an academic setting in St. Louis. Can you tell me any shifts in style that we’ll see in season two as we head toward 1960?
I found myself waiting until the eleventh hour, deciding how we were going to visually show a small change from 1957 to 1960. We’re going to head toward 1960 and hover there. The biggest thing for me is the world is so specific and so real because it’s based on these real folks.

Last season, we were at a university hospital, a very conservative atmosphere. Even though it’s 1957 in St. Louis when we started, in that university hospital, they were a good five to eight years behind [in the fashion sense]. For the most part, the whole of the show was quite tailored in the way that the early Midwest was. It was very much the moment of Dior. The tailoring was his explosion; his moment was the Dior look. Even though that was the early ‘50s, that kind of tailoring existed in our show in the first season.

This season, because we are getting kicked out of many hospitals, we are no longer in a university setting. [Masters and Johnson] are kind of on a slippery slope, so there are fewer professors, fewer educated people who wear suits.

Masters didn’t change through the ‘80s. I think I saw one picture of him out in a bow tie right before he died in 2001. So, he is definitely someone who stuck to a plan, a visual, and an image that he created and perpetrated. So there’s that! He will remain the same in season two.

Photo: Showtime

Tell me more about his bow ties! You make each one yourself, right? Masters seems to have a new one in each episode.
I don’t even know how many we have. The short story is this: I started with vintage ones, because they’re so much more beautiful and exciting. You will take notice every time a man’s in a bow tie. I went to give Michael Sheen the vintage ties, and he was very polite in his elegant refusal of any of them. I suppose it’s his Welsh accent but his “no” is so gentle and beautiful-sounding that you don’t know that you’ve been spurned. [Laughs.] His reasoning, because he’s always right, was that Masters’s mother hand-made all of his ties ever since he was a boy. When [Masters] was redoing his image later, he adopted them again and wore them straight up to the ‘80s, until he died. [His mother would] take over the leftover fabric from the ties — which is kind of awesome, kind of creepy — and she’d make masks for people in his study to remain anonymous. She was very modern.

I wanted to do the same in the show, but I talked to [creator] Michelle Ashford, and she said nobody would believe it. It’s too absurd! So I made them all by hand. It’s really hard to find the right pattern. The tie is more important than his suit! It’s a tiny strip that you can’t be blasé about.

What changes can we expect in the costumes of the leading ladies — Virginia Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan) and Libby Masters (played by Caitlin FitzGerald)?
Lizzy Caplan will remain close to how she looked in season one, but you’re going to start to see in both her and Caitlin FitzGerald — who plays Libby Masters — this kind of freeing up of silhouette, a little loosening away from the extremely tailored suits or dresses from season one. It’s just going to breathe. The world will feel as though it’s softening and becoming more comfortable for women. We’ll see all the freedom and independence of a young woman in 1960. There’s a Jackie O. influence. There’s a Grace Kelly influence. Libby also reads movie magazines, which were as plentiful as fashion magazines, because she’s bored. She’s wanting to change. She’ll also have more children in season two.

So did you end up designing more maternitywear for Libby, too?
We don’t see her as a pregnant woman; we see her after. What we did is we relaxed the silhouette. When you would look at images of Grace Kelly, Jackie O., Audrey Hepburn at home, they were usually in a beautiful boat-neck, a fuller top with little capri pants. That was our way of giving a reality to just having had a baby, because she’s too busy to look like the perfect wife. But also, pants — Caitlin said that they became really important for her, especially early on in shooting.

That’ll be interesting to see, because in season one, she’s definitely always in tailored get-ups and very much playing the part of the housewife.
I will tell you that something happens to her to make her focus shift. She doesn’t become a revolutionary, but other things become important to her besides trying to take care of her husband. Now that they’re angry, there’s space between them and she’s trying to say, “Who am I?” So these other interests help formulate how she looks on the outside.

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime

Johnson has a simple, smart elegance to her — what’s your typical process like designing for her?
Johnson is probably the most visually like myself, in terms of what I love. The black-and-white is a dead giveaway and the tomboyishness or kind of mannish-tailored look that’s Hepburn-esque — both Audrey and Katharine. I tend to start with my heroines who remind me of Lizzy and Virginia Johnson. This season, it was really Audrey Hepburn, in her own clothing. Then I think on Johnson being the most saturated dark-rooted spot on the frame, as rooted and as weighty as a man’s suit.

For Lizzy, I tend to make 90 to 95 percent of her clothing. This year, I found her a few good pieces that were vintage, but it is easier to make stuff for her. Once in a while, I’ll find a beautiful vintage piece and then I’ll top it off with something Über-smart like an in-the-know Danish modern brooch. It’s usually a brooch on Lizzy, because she’s quite tiny, or a single bracelet or watch, so each item has to be very iconic or very intellectual or it doesn’t work.

Ane Crabtree Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images

There are also so many great accessories and an attention to detail in the show, from the Peter Pan collars to the brooches. What does a typical vintage-costume shopping trip look like for you?
Here’s the saddest answer of all. Are you ready? [Laughs.] I hate to even admit this, because it should be fun and I love vintage clothing. But for this show, the truth of the matter is I don’t have time. And often, we don’t have a very good budget to go to the best of the best vintage shops in New York or L.A.

Most of the accessories are from Etsy, because I want to have real pieces. I’ve never made any jewelry. On occasion, I’ll find a beautiful sweater or a beautiful dress on Etsy, but oftentimes, because there are so many alterations and so much tailoring to be done, I’d rather just make it from scratch. I have to be honest: It’s difficult to find a vintage piece that’s going to just slide into a scene.

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime

Sarah Silverman and Betsy Brandt are two new stars who’ll be on the show. Can you share any insight into the costume-design process for them?
They’re both so great in terms of characters. What I can say with Betsy is that she plays Barbara. From the first time that you see her, you think that she’s someone else. You get an inkling that she’s this haphazardly sexy secretary that happens to be having an affair with her boss. And she’s really horrible at her job. You get a summing up of character that makes you think you’re right from the start, so I designed her as someone who was very tailored in her clothing — beautiful glasses that were period but look right on for today’s fashionista girls. But what happens is this: We think she’s someone and she’s exactly like that someone and something happens midway — and because Betsy’s such an interesting woman, you feel the change. We are on the brink of 1960, and she goes through this emotional warfare for something that happened years ago. But man, that girl is great.

Sarah plays a girl called Helen. We’ve heard about Helen in season one — we heard the name come out of Betty’s mouth. But we never actually saw Helen. What’s interesting with Sarah is that she’s so gorgeous and contrasting — pale-white skin, raven-black hair — and has a body that fits completely in the 1950s. And Sarah — forever in jeans and baseball caps and baseball tees, and boots — to take all that off: Lord have mercy!  

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The Chic, ’60s Costumes of Masters of Sex