Costume designer for Netflix’s “Beef” on that hat and more
Costume designer Helen Huang explains why Ali Wong’s hat and Steven Yeun’s Nautica jacket make these characters more real.
The “beef” unfolds as a series of bad decisions after “plant entrepreneur” Amy (Ali Wong) and handyman Danny (Steven Yeun) get into a road rage incident. The Netflix series, initially based on acute reality, gradually becomes a wild finale, which was initially too much even for A24. The show’s progression allowed costume designer Helen Huang to do richer, more nuanced work than the contemporary setting would suggest. The main characters’ sense of style gives a vivid picture of the people they want to be – but hints at the emotions they try (and fail) to keep beneath the surface.
“Amy and Danny have to look like they’re really from separate worlds. A large part of the script consists of how they are mistaken about each other when they get together. So I wanted Amy and Danny’s wardrobe to be extremely unique,” Huang told IndieWire. “It’s this idea that all the characters in the show are aware on some level, but then completely unaware of their bubble.”
To get a feel for Amy’s bubble, Huang researched various boutique florists and was drawn to the minimalist and controlled stores. “You know those Instagrams where it’s this beautiful beige, and there’s an object, and then there’s a shadow, and maybe there’s a plant? This is Amy,” Huang said. “It’s kind of her identity, (unlike) Naomi (Ashley Park). His Instagram is like being on a yacht. It’s all kinds of vacation Instagram. So even two people wearing a similar color palette can show very different projections. Where I landed (with Amy) was an artistic foundation, but restrained in color. Interesting flowers, but very delicately arranged.”
The undercurrent of rage and fear that drives Amy can’t help but peek out in certain ways, so Huang leans toward dressing her in minimalist white and beige, octagonal Dita glasses, and boutique fashions that don’t always work. Huang and Wong wanted Amy’s fashion sense to be read as a woman furiously trying to control her life, rather than a uniform that exudes “fashionable small business owner.”
“I’m always looking for places in costume where you can stretch and make it a little unusual and weird and bring that undercurrent and tension to the screen,” Huang said. “To me, he does all these horrible things, and he has a depth of discontent and rage, but his public persona is very calm, very groomed, very collected. So dressing it mostly in beige and white, I think that really drives home the point and keeps it in this house.”
But before we enter Amy’s house, our first impression is of her behind the wheel of a car from the shoulders up. Is Huang’s inspired decision to convey Amy’s need for a calm, elevated persona that still hints at her restlessness? White knitted bucket hat. “When I hired him, I really felt like it was the right thing to do,” Huang said. “The hat is organic because it is knitted; he flips over so he looks surprised. And when I put it on, I said, “I should really go with this.” And (creator Lee Sung Jin) agreed, much to my relief. And I think it really worked because that little punctuation mark around her dress. Almost the same, but not quite.”
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If our sense of Amy comes from a subtle collision of almost colorless fashion choices, our sense of Danny comes from a calcified style. “He hit 25 and then he just didn’t get (new) stuff. If you (buy clothes), it’s the same iteration of something as before,” Huang said. “(Wong’s clothes) came from every online boutique under the sun, and then poor Steven had to wear basically every costume house and Goodwill stuff. But that’s how we managed to make it as authentic as possible, because there are certain shapes and colors that don’t exist anymore, and we really wanted to bring that into it.”
This authenticity visually helps place Danny in another economic bubble, creating a distance from which he and Amy can assume the worst about each other. But he was also given a real-life experience, which makes the financial and personal pressures on him all the more urgent. – Danny is from El Segundo, Torrance. I also grew up in a valley in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, and he just reminds me of all my dads (there) growing up, my brothers, my friends. So I felt a huge responsibility in dressing up,” Huang said. “Sympathy is not the right word, but I know this man.”
With an intimate knowledge of a character’s cultural context, Huang was able to make small, subtle choices that showed how Danny carried himself and the bravado he was trying to effect. “Danny’s pants are very, very old Dickies, and he has very old Pumas.” And as soon as Steven picked them up, he said, ‘I know who this person is,'” Huang said. “My older brothers were all skaters when they were young, so I really wanted Danny to have some kind of interest in another subculture. For many Asian men, in order to navigate the Americanness of their identity and the otherness of their ethnic identity, they must engage in a subculture. So I really wanted that to be subtly there.”
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The detail on Danny’s clothes is as intricate as any ball gown of the period; it anchors him just as firmly in a particular time and place. “It comes down to very small details,” Huang said. “We talked about how he always wears V-neck undershirts. He has a Nautica jacket from 1998 that we saved. When she goes to the club, she wears a thrifted DKNY shirt and DKNY or Calvin Klein bottoms. Then (Lee) lent us his from Structure, the name of the (defunct) store before it became Express. He lent us this belt because (the part required) that kind of attention to detail.”
That attention to detail extends to all menswear, from George (Joseph Lee)—whom Huang believed balances a laid-back international taste with excitement for the latest Crocs—to Isaac (David Choe) and Paul (Young Mazino), for whom Huang found the tightest jeans possible.
“One of the joys of the show is that sometimes men don’t get a lot of attention, and I always think that’s kind of reverse sexism, you know? Huang said. “Women must be certain things, but men cannot be certain things. They can’t dress creatively or don’t want to dress because they’re men. And I always like to push back against that idea. (In the case of “Beef”) there are so many different types of men and I just wanted to show how their obsession with dressing says something about who they are and what socio-economic society they belong to.
But some of the fashion choices on “Beef” were born out of the necessity of the plot. The slightly layered, more defined Western-style shirt that Amy wears before she and Danny head out on the field had to do more than one thing. “We had to give it something that happens in episode 10 that almost lasts through the elements. It had to be okay for night photography and a garment that could be unbuttoned and taken apart when they were on film. wilderness,” Huang said.
“I needed different parts to serve this purpose, and then I also thought the top stitching of the blouse was very interesting. You could see it when he was talking to Jordan (Maria Bello), so it puts him in this very modest space. But then she can pull it off and she can look really broken and vulnerable when she’s with Danny. I always like to think about the tone of a scene and whether you want the clothes to play with it or play against it.”
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