Talking TV Underwear: ‘Masters of Sex,’ ‘The Americans,’ and ‘You’re the Worst’ Costume Designers on Working From the Inside Out

Underwear as outerwear was a style staple in the ’90s, a decade that’s still having its moment in the fashion-revival sun. Nostalgia can impact trends, and TV tends to both drive and reflect these changes. A stray bra strap isn’t going to be met with the same judgment as it would once have faced; Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana have shown that your bra can be as much of an accessory as a pair of earrings. As costume designers including Masters of Sex‘s Ane Crabtree, The Americans‘ Jenny Gering, and Wendy Benbrook of You’re the Worst explain, underwear plays a vital role in creating the look of a character — and the styles we see on TV can influence what winds up in stores. 

Undergarments perform very different functions across these three shows, and the situations where we might see them varies greatly from series to series. But there are a number of similarities, too, which reflect how the fashion industry looks back to the past to influence the present.

Sex scenes are the most obvious situations where a character might appear in their underwear — and it’s no coincidence that one of these shows happens to have “sex” in the title, or that it airs on Showtime, upping the likelihood of intimate encounters. What makes Masters of Sex fascinating from a fashion standpoint is its time period, covering both the restrictive 1950s and the increasingly free ’60s.

There’s a reason why certain types of shapewear are called “foundation garments”: the shape of a girdle or bra can alter a silhouette dramatically, and these subtle fashion changes often reflect how society is evolving. Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for Seasons 1 and 2 of Masters of Sex (as well as the first episode of Season 3, airing on Sunday), explains how this has manifested over the course of the show:

The biggest visual clue for the audience might be [that] the high, pointy, exaggerated bustling of the ’50s has relaxed and made way for the ’60s. For clothing’s sake, I prefer the extreme architecture of ’50s underwear, though it ends there (having tried it myself). Overall, the politics and revolutionary movements of the ’60s appeals in a larger way for me. There is a freedom of movement; clothing and costumes come away from the body, and so the undergarments become less constricting and more natural in terms of shape.

Time period isn’t the only factor that goes into designing a show’s intimate accessories, though; individual characters’ personalities are also vital. As Crabtree suggests, “It’s essential to think of any character, in any time period, as being built from the inside out.” Virginia Johnson, for example, played an enormous role in how sex was discussed during a time of great social change, but that doesn’t mean her character is necessarily making the boldest underwear selections. “She doesn’t make a huge jumps in terms of her underwear,” says Crabtree. “She is a no-nonsense, black-or-white kind of dame, but it happens to look magically sexy because Lizzy Caplan is built that way!”

Though we’re not all sporting girdles this summer, there are plenty of current trends which reflect the styles Caplan wears on on Masters. Crabtree cites, in particular, “these kind of sexy, high-waisted panties. They are a cross between a panty and a girdle, in silhouette and structure, but aren’t as confining as a girdle.” She notes that this look “makes a lot of sense for 2015, where cropped tops have been a thing. The line is perfect for the body — for most people’s bodies, I might add — and very sexy. The ’60s had some luscious sheer moments in lingerie that are being mirrored in fashion now.”

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As society loosened up, so did the clothing. Moving into the ’70s and ’80s — and entering The Americans era — bra styles grew even more relaxed. The bullet shapes disappeared, replaced by a desire for a more natural silhouette, with some women opting to go completely braless.

The Americans 2.06Elizabeth Jennings’ (Keri Russell) costumes are a fascinating snapshot of the era’s different trends, because her style changes dramatically based on whether she is performing spy duties — and, from job to job, the kind of cover she is adopting during those mission — or at home in her everyday cover. Her underwear can range from the non-matching ensembles that she wears as Elizabeth when undressing in front of her husband (a conscious choice by costume designer Gering, who thinks coordinated sets feel “so contrived” in moments like these) to the elaborate, purposely “sexy” garb she wears when in full seduction mode.

The triangle-shape bra Elizabeth often favors in vogue once again, something that’s reflected in Gering’s recent collaboration with underwear brand Cosabella. Gering curated a line earlier this year featuring pieces Elizabeth would wear (and did wear in the case of the hotel seduction scene). Cosabella is a company Gering has used to wardrobe Elizabeth from the start of The Americans, explaining that “it was one of the brands I could always go to because it was always so classic.”

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But The Americans also uses vintage underwear  — some shops on the Lower East Side still have stock — and 90 percent of the costuming on the series does come from this period. But, Gering explains, “They always say you start with the undergarments, [but] that’s a luxury we don’t have because our turnaround is so quick that we get scripts and seven days later we’re shooting that script.” Still, she’s careful to ensure that the silhouette of a costume doesn’t get altered in a way which would look anachronistic — pushup bras aren’t appearing on The Americans just yet — an important detail that is taken into consideration even when a character’s underwear is not going to be seen by the audience.

The Americans is a bridge between period and contemporary fashion — the ’80s don’t feel so long ago — and it helps that The Americans‘ costuming isn’t what you might typically expect from this decade (lurid neons, shoulder pads). The show keeps a toe in the ’70s, and that’s reflected in Elizabeth’s everyday underwear choices.

You're the Worst 1.03While a visible bra strap might have been an extremely telling costuming choice even in The Americans‘ era, shows set in the present day are likely to use this detail far more casually. For sitcoms featuring young women —  Youre the Worst, Broad City, New Girl, Girls — warmer weather means, “What kind of bra can I wear with this?” dilemmas.

That’s what feels so realistic about Gretchen’s (Aya Cash) fashion choices on Youre the Worst.  “She’s badass on top and underneath,” says costume designer Wendy Benbrook on Gretchen’s style. “She’s not ashamed of anything, including her bra straps, nor does she care too much about what people think, unless of course, you are her parents.”

Gretchen possesses body confidence, and it’s evident in how she dresses. “She doesn’t have to try hard to look amazing,” says Benbook. “Gretchen will wear Jimmy’s T-shirt and her underwear, and sometimes she’ll grab a pair of his just to put something on. But she always has outer style, and her bras are always an extension of her. You wouldn’t catch Gretchen in granny panties, but you also wouldn’t catch her wearing lace ones.”

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While the ’90s remains the decade pop culture is currently embracing with nostalgic glee, it’s the “me decade” of the ’70s which has been stamped all over the runway this year — meaning, this underwear-style renaissance is keeping in line with the sartorial tastemakers. Gering observes that this is “almost a backlash to the built-up Wonderbra padded underwire shape. And it was a nice change and it still is.” She notes the bralette, another undergarment that works with the current crop-top trend, “can be seen, and it’s a beautiful way to allow [its wearers] to show some cleavage without feeling bare. It gives them more leeway.”

Instead of being restricted by the limited availability of materials or conservative norms around what is considered “decent,” we now have the pleasure of picking and choosing from so many undergarment styles. And these fashionable TV series, which pay extra attention to details as seemingly small as a character’s bra, are helping to popularize looks from a whole range of different periods. Underwear is more diverse than ever, thanks in part to the way television — and nostalgia — influences fashion trends.