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Fargo fashions: How 1979 wardrobe makes the man, and woman, in Alberta-shot dark comedy

Fargo fashions: How 1979 wardrobe makes the man, and woman, in Alberta-shot dark comedy
 Courtesy, Rogers

It’s nearing the end of an April visit to the Alberta set of FX’s Fargo and actor Jeffrey Donovan is insisting journalists feel his pants.

In fact, he’s quite adamant about it. The American actor is, of course, much more jovial than his character Dodd,  the vicious and not particularly bright eldest son of the criminal Gerhardt family.

But when asked about the fashion sense of Dodd Gerhardt, and the American Midwest of 1979 in general, Donovan is keen to make a point about the wardrobe he was forced to endure during the Alberta shoot.

“It’s not fun at all,” he says. “Do you want to feel this? Come on, just feel it. It’s f –cking sandpaper polyester! I think the late-’70s and probably the ’80s are the worst fashion decade in the history of man, at least in America.”

Unlike the 2006 surroundings of Season 1, Season 2 of the darkly comic crime drama is a period piece that unfolds in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate snowy wastelands of Luverne, Minn. and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This offered a significant challenge for set designers , decorators and prop masters. They scoured Calgary and surrounding area for antiques. They put out a call to Calgary residents for appropriate background vehicles, paying $175 a day for “non-iconic, non-muscle kind of cars.”

And when it came to creating looks for specific actors, appreciation for the fashions varied and seemed to be at least partially dependent on gender. Actresses Kirsten Dunst, who plays fashion-savvy hairdresser Peggy Blomquist, and Cristin Milioti, who plays small-town housewife Betsy Solverson, seemed to have had fun with the outfits.

The guys? Not so much.

“It’s a strange period, isn’t it?” said Ted Danson, whose role as uniformed Sheriff Hank Larsson did not require him to dive too deeply into the fashion hazards of 1979. “A lot of moustaches and sideburns and big gas-guzzling cars. And not the best time for fashion.”

It was a time of crazy patterns and colours; of polyester, nylon and vinyl; of wide collars and high-waisted pants. But designing costumes is not an exact science. The action may take place in 1979, but it’s 1979 in fashion-lagging Luverne and Sioux Falls, not Paris and London.

“South Dakota, at that time,  wasn’t up to the minute,” says Carol Case, Fargo’s costume designer. “They didn’t have Internet so people weren’t as connected. So I would say a lot of the stuff was perhaps mid-1970s. The Vietnam War was just over and America was opening to that whole corporate world. So I think they were several years back in fashion.”

Which happens to fit nicely into one of the themes of Season 2. The plot, which begins with a massacre at a Waffle Hut, deals with “mom-and-pop” criminals the Gerhardts attempting to protect their turf from a Kansas City syndicate. So it was important to make a distinction between a gaudy and self-impressed but small-town hood like Dodd — with his sandpaper-polyester flare pants, fur lapels and steel-toed cowboy books — and big-city crime boss Joe Bulo, a hulking but elegantly dressed (at least by 1970s standards) gangster played by Brad Garrett.

But no matter how fashionable the clothing may or may not have been in 1979, it was all extremely hard to find in 2015. Case also designs costumes for the Alberta-shot western Hell on Wheels and said fitting actors in 1970s fashions is not all that different from fitting them in authentic cowboy gear of the 1860s. Most of the costumes, although not all, had to be made rather than found. After all, people who were around in the 1970s may have saved their prom dress, but were less likely to save snowsuits or shoes or other day-to-day wear, Case says.

She lucked out when she found two stores — one in Lethbridge and one in Hamilton, Ont. — that still had old 1970s suits in their dusty basements for some reason. In Toronto, she found a store that still had reams of old material from the period. This allowed the costume department to make its own creations, usually multiple versions.

“In something like Fargo, where there’s a lot of people getting killed or injured, we had to have multiples,” she says. “You can’t just pop down to the local vintage store and buy anything. So we did have to make a lot of things and procure a lot of things from all over the planet.”

Case said she particularly had fun with Dunst, who was game to try just about anything when it came to fashion-forward Peggy’s costumes: ear muffs, pant suits, berets, flora-print blouses and high-waisted pants.

“When I see shows that go back in time, I always get sucked into it immediately,” said Dunst, who was sporting a fur-trimmed corduroy jacket at the time of this interview. ” It’s so helpful, so fun. Everyone looks great. The music. It adds so much to a story, I think.”

Milioti also found the fashions helpful to her performance, even if she can’t exactly explain why.

“It’s pretty great, I rock this pretty solid bowl cut for the whole show,” she said. “And it’s really informative too. I don’t know why, I don’t know how to explain this, but wearing this costume has informed how I move my arms in a certain way and it’s just become a part of her.”

Donovan agrees. Dodd’s fashion choices may be suspect, but it did tell the actor a lot about the character. Throw in that distinctive accent — which the actor describes as not-so-much Minnesota nice as “chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out Fargo” — and Dodd slowly began to come into focus.

“Wardrobe informed me a lot,” Donovan says. “I actually had a harder time picturing Dodd until I was in my wardrobe … I was talking to the wardrobe designer when we were figuring out Dodd’s outfit and I was honest with her, I said ‘I don’t know who Dodd is yet. I don’t know.’ It took about two or three days to get his wardrobe. Then I was like ‘Oh, there he is. He’s that guy. He’s Disco Thug.'”

Fargo airs Mondays on FX Canada.

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