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'Magic City' lights up Starz: A Q&A with designer Carol Ramsey

April 3, 2012 |  8:00 am

"Magic City"
When it comes to television costumes as fashion inspiration, “Magic City,” Mitch Glazer’s new show set in Miami Beach in 1959 that premieres Friday on Starz, has the potential to be the next “Mad Men” or “Boardwalk Empire.”

The show centers around the glamorous Miramar Playa Hotel, where even the call girls dress to the nines. By day, it’s cha-cha lessons and mahjong by the pool. By night, the Kennedys, the mob, the CIA and Frank Sinatra all hold court. Hotel owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is the man with the dream. His wife Vera Evans, a former showgirl (Olga Kurylenko), and his three children think he’s honorable, but he sells his soul to mob boss Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (Danny Huston) to finance the operation.

I chatted with costume designer Carol Ramsey (“Meet the Fockers,” “Horrible Bosses”) about what she says was “a dream job” designing looks for beauty queens, sharp-dressed ladies' men and the seedier side that comes out at night.

"Magic City"
How is style important to this show?

We dressed over 600 people head-to-toe every nine days, including period undergarments, belts to match the shoes and handbags. It was the costume Olympics. But I had a great crew to help.  Everything in costume design is driven by the script and the characters. And in this show, a lot of the characters are driven by fashion. It takes place in a grand hotel, the Miramar Playa, so everything is inspired by the look of that. We took direction from Morris Lapidus’ architecture [he designed Miami Beach's iconic Fontainebleau Hotel], which came through like a freight train in the 1960s.

What were some of your source materials?

My inspiration came from old Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. A couture approach was important. These people had the money to have things custom made. I got a chance to look at some original Dior pieces from the mid-'50s from the vintage store C. Madeleine’s in Miami, including a magenta cocktail dress that was all hand-sewn.

"Magic City"
For the suits, I looked at Men’s Apparel magazine from the mid-1950s. I organized everything into notebooks, with sections broken down by type of garment. So every time we needed guidance, or to see how  high a heel was, we had it. And it wasn’t just an academic exercise. It’s important in shows like this to stay in the period. And once you’re grounded, you can take liberties.

It was surprising how risqué some of the pieces are for 1959, that skimpy white bikini for example.

We had a lot of discussion about that bikini. In my reference books, I had sections on the good girls and the bad girls in reference to bathing suits and lingerie. Bikinis did exist then on the Riviera, and they were worn by pinups and Bettie Paige types. You could buy them in Europe. I have source material, a photo of a Playboy Bunny in a string bikini on the beach at the Fontainebleau. A certain girl would wear that and it would be Lily Diamond (Jessica Marais).

"Magic City"
As the face of the hotel, Vera (Kurylenko) would never do that. Every time she leaves her apartment, she has to be fully dressed, and made up. As the wife of Ike, she has to make an impression. One of my favorite looks is a yellow play-suit she’s wearing out by the pool playing mahjong with the ladies. She gets a phone call and has to go inside so she puts on this wonderful chevron striped cover-up (top photo). A lot of these costume choices were character things.

Did you make all of the costumes?

When you are working on such a great volume of costumes, it’s important to use some real vintage stuff to convey the period realistically, especially since it's so hard to replicate period fabrics. We rented a lot from Western Costume, Palace Costume and Motion Picture Costume Corp.  Some of the bags and shoes we could buy. There was a basic black pump from Nine West, we must have bought out all the stock from the entire southeastern part of the U.S. We also made quite a few of the costumes, and I had my own tailor shop on set with three cutters.

We made all of the uniforms for the hotel, which are cream and gold and black to coordinate with the lobby. We made bathing suits and gowns. In Episode 2, there is a Miss Galaxy beauty pageant, so we made 30 identical bathing suits out of tissue lamé.

The green gown Vera (Kurylenko) wears at the end of the first episode (pictured above), is my piece de resistance. I also like the pink-and-black squiggle dress, with matching black gloves, belt and shoe worn by Lily (Marais).

Another favorite is this outrageous, low-cut sheath made out of silver metallic discs (pictured below) worn by Judi Silver (Elena Satine), who is a call girl. (In those days, there were call girls who paid the hotels to rent stools at the bar.) It was challenging to figure out what the hookers should look like. They weren’t so overtly sexy back then, and to the modern eye they wouldn’t look like hookers. So we made most of her clothes lower-cut and tighter. And there is evidence from photos of Claudia Cardinale and Anita Eckberg during the 1950s and '60s of this kind of look.

"Magic City"
In Season 2, I want to experiment more with making lingerie and swimwear, which is a whole other world. The modern stuff doesn’t quite fit the show; and the vintage stuff, all of the bra cups are cracked and crumbling or the elastic is giving out.

How did you get the men’s suits right?

I  would get a whole rack of suits from the period, and we tried them on the actors. We had the tailor Dennis Kim from Los Angeles, who makes most of the high-end men’s suits for movies, working with us. We would look at various aspects of each suit that we liked, such as the width of the shoulder from this one, the sleeve or lapel of that one. We discovered in our experimentation how big the collars needed to be, and how to deal with French cuffs on the slim sleeved shirts of the time. We made most of the suits and shirts, except for the guayaberas, which we got in Miami.

"Magic City"
The 1950s are having a moment in fashion for spring, as seen on the runways at Prada and elsewhere. Was that an inspiration at all?

Not so much. I’m a designer and it was more fun for me to do it myself. But hopefully, some of the costumes will resonate in the real world. I would love to do something like the “Mad Men” collection Janie Bryant did for Banana Republic.

“Magic City” premieres Friday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.

Photos, from top: Vera Evans (Olga Kurylenko) in "Magic City"; Lily Diamond (Jessica Marais); Vera (Kurylenko); Lily Diamond (Jessica Marais); Judi Silver (Elena Satine); Danny Evans, from left, (Christian Cooke), Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stevie Evans (Steven Strait). Credit: Starz.

-- Booth Moore

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