Stranger Things - Costume Designing 1980s Nostalgia

By Joe Kucharski - November 15, 2016

Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix Original Series hooked audiences with its compelling storytelling and intriguing mystery, but it is the series’ impeccable recreation of the nostalgic 1980s sci-fi film genre that has made it such a monumental hit. And a critical part of that conjuring of nostalgia is the stellar costume design by Kimberly Adams (first four episodes). We recently had the opportunity to ask her about her work on the show, and gain a window into her process.

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Tyranny of Style: Congratulations on this incredible series! The show has hit such a nostalgia chord with viewers. Did you all on the team have a sense of how important the idea of nostalgia would be to viewers and to telling this particular story? How much did that impact your work as the costume designer?

Kimberly Adams: “Thank you! We knew it felt like something pretty special, but the reactions are beyond what anyone could have imagined!  For the Duffers [brothers Matt and Ross] it was so important to make the characters real and not feel like caricatures of the 80’s. I really scoured images to put together the mood boards to figure out how to distinguish each character’s look. The research I culled ranged from film characters of the period to catalogs, magazines, family photo albums and especially year books from midwestern states 1983.”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

T/S: What struck me over and over watching the show, was just how EVERY detail felt right. They all felt like real people from the period. Can you talk to us big picture about how you and your team accomplished this?

KA: “I appreciate that you notice the details! I came up in features, and work the same way in TV to bring the level of detail. Every detail makes a difference to each character, even if it never gets seen on screen. The clothing helps tell the story and the right closet enables an actor to feel true to the character they are playing. Because the story took place over a week-ish, I knew we would need to create closets for the kids that would need multiples for not only photo doubles and stunts, but growth of the kids over five months of shooting.  So of course, with multiples, it was important to make all the clothing look like it was not brand new, so we aged things according to how long we felt they had had it. So Will’s clothes being more ‘hand me down’ clothes were aged more than Mike’s who’s clothing would have been something Mom got him new for the school year.

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

You see pretty much all the characters looks laid out in the mood boards as well as the background characters. We built up a stock of period clothing to cover all the categories we had to dress: High School, Middle School, town folk, agents/government workers, scientists. Everyone, speaking or background was dressed in period clothing. The background talent was dressed with the same care as a speaking part. They are all actors, playing a part, and we dress them according to character. They are all part of the sets that create the world being filmed.”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: Can you talk to us about how you approached costuming the four boys at the center of the story? How did you make them a cohesive group, but also differentiate specific characters?

KA: “Yes, that was number one challenge!  It’s always a challenge with a group of characters that are often together to find the nuances to make them unique yet keep them real.  As I laid out the boards I created I kept that in mind.  You can see it if you look at those boards how each of the boys had their own look, and I used that as my springboard to gather clothing to fit on each of them. 1980’s clothing fit can be challenging!  

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

As each of the kids came in for initial fittings, I explained to them how we would discover their character in the fittings and I encouraged input from them and they loved that!  Finding each of those characters was so fun in the fittings!  I have great memories of each of the kids and their reactions in the mirror when they saw their character coming to life!  As the actors merged with the characters, the closets evolved and became unique to each.  They were all cast so perfectly, the evolution was natural!”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: There are so many incredible costume (and wig!) moments with Eleven. Can you talk to us about the process of designing for her? 

KA: “I loved working with Millie [Bobby Brown]! Not your typical 11 year old, an old soul!  She brought so much to that character! I sketched out her looks to make sure we captured what the Duffers envisioned. The hospital gown had to be a clue where a piece of it is found later.  Benny’s t-shirt he puts her in had to be specific.  When she had to get clothes from Mike’s house, we tried her in his clothes and of course she was adorable!  The dress that the boys find in the attic had to be special and something that would have been Nancy’s that would have been saved. I tried various period girls dressed from the 70’s to find the right shape, and we built multiples so it could carry over to being aged as the episodes progressed.  Millie brought so much emotion to the character with virtually no words, like a silent star!”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: Barb! Did you have any idea Barb was going to be the breakout style star of the show? Everyone loves her. Can you talk to us about your inspiration for her, and all of her wonderful historic details?

KA: “We had a blast finding her character, but I did not see that one coming! I’m so happy for Shannon [Purser] and so happy that she resonated with the audience!  We had fun discovering her character in the fitting. I had laid out her look in a board and gathered real period pieces but she evolved with the casting of Shannon. I believe it was Shannon’s first role, so fittings were new to her, but she enjoyed the process of discovering the character.  We tried lots of clothing, but when she put on that first ruffled plaid blouse, we both looked at each other and knew we had found her!  Again, when you see the actor become the character in the mirror it’s really rewarding!”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

T/S: Can you talk to us about designing the popular kids- Nancy and Steve?

KA: “Everyone has experienced the high school classes and it was important to capture those variations in characters. Nancy was such fun to fit!  Natalia [Dyer] enjoyed trying on period clothing and discovering her character. I took some inspiration from my high school years but in the context of a Midwest girl as opposed to West Coast girl that I was. Her family is upper middle class, she is smart and sweet and feminine and her closet needed to reflect that. Steve comes from a wealthy family and was what we called a ‘prep’ in high school, preppy and cool. Polo shirts, Levi’s, khakis, and Brooks Brothers basics worn with attitude!”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

  

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: What was your process designing for Joyce and working with Winona Ryder?

KA: “Wynona was great working with to find Joyce. I sent her the Joyce board I did and we discussed the character in depth. Then I gathered period clothing and we discovered what felt right for Joyce. She is a divorced mother of two boys trying to make ends meet. Her closet reflected that reality and it was important that she be real, like all of the characters.”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: Hopper is such a badass, with a heart. Can you talk about your inspiration for this character and the process behind the design? 

KA: “David [Harbour] also was so great to work with and discover the truth in Hopper!  His character, like Joyce, is behind in fashion. He’s owned his clothes awhile and his inspiration as you see from the boards was Brody in Jaws, in that Brody was in uniform, but not dressed like his guys with his own version of a uniform. I love working with actors like David who dive into the character and keep it real. He needed to be warm and textured and we needed to see some of his life story reflected in his closet.”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

 

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

T/S: Can you talk about setting the tone for the entire medical and science world that’s so shrouded in mystery?

KA: “Again, it needed to be real to that world and you can see in my boards the research of the period the range of looks.  The challenge was making it practical to work for the story with those contamination suits.  Props helmets had to coordinate with the costumes, and that was a process!”

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

Stranger Things - Costume Design by Kimberly Adams

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A huge thanks to Kimberly Adams for sharing her insights and imagery with us all!

If you haven’t already, make sure to check out Stranger Things on Netflix!