When telling an authentic story about a specific location, you’ve got to get the look just right. Nashville locals are adamant: not everyone wears cowboy boots and hats and Music City’s fashion is quickly evolving.
Susie DeSanto, a Los Angeles transplant working in Nashville as a costume designer, adds an essential ingredient to the success of Nashville: the clothes. Susie is determined to give each character an individual look. Now in its fifth season and doing extremely well on CMT, the show is in good hands with Susie, a passionate, thoughtful storyteller who brings the characters and story to life through sequins, black crotchet, research, and hard work.
When talking to people about Nashville style and what makes it unique, the adjectives often used were: “personal, eclectic, and carefree”—not fussy or overly formal. How would you characterize it?
Susie DeSanto:I think all of those things are true. Nashville, like any city, has a lot of different facets to it. One of the things—especially being here over the last four years and seeing the city grow and change so much—is there’s been an influx of creative minds and a lot of artists and musicians. Those types of people really want to have a unique look. But there definitely is a Nashville hipster kind of vibe thing. There is a look.
Especially for the guys, it seems.
SD: Especially for the guys. Yes! With the facial hair and the jeans rolled up. And the hats and the beards.
Cult denim brand Imogene + Willie is a fixture on the Nashville retail scene.
“There’s been an influx of creative minds and a lot of artists and musicians. Those types of people really want to have a unique look.”
“Nashville is in the South and tends to be more relaxed. I don’t believe that the people are as interested in trying to be flashy.”
“There definitely is a Nashville hipster kind of vibe thing. There is a look.”
So, what separates a “Nashville hipster” from a NY or an LA hipster?
SD: First of all, Nashville is in the South and tends to be more relaxed. I don’t believe that the people are as interested in trying to be flashy. But the country stars, when they dress up, they can go full wattage. If you look in the past—I’ve done so much research for this show and looked at so many past country stars—they always tend to be a little more gaudy. If you go to the Country Music Hall of Fame and see all of the clothes, it’s awesome.
Country music’s most legendary looks on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I’ve done so much research for this show and looked at so many past country stars.”
SD: One thing that I really endeavored to do when we were coming up with the style of our show is not to make fun of what is here, because it really is a whole lot more sophisticated than you might believe. There are really a lot of people with great style, but you know it’s that Southern, relaxed, “Oh, you finally got to the South you can chill out” kind of style. But they do dress up!
Especially Hayden Panettiere’s character, Juliette—she is always in something fabulous with sequins. Is that one of her fashion trademarks that you keep returning to?
Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, in one of her signature sequined dresses
SD: When I was studying country music stars, I noticed they always tie their look to their brand. They all have a look and they do different versions of that look for their performances. When Carrie Underwood did “Blown Away” and she had all of those skirts blowing in the wind, her stylist was like, “Oh my God, if I do another one of those blowing in the wind dresses.” But it’s her signature and the fans want to see it. It is the brand. And that’s very much what creating a star, look, and musical sound is all about—it all goes together.
How much do you think about the music when you are coming up with the actors’ looks?
SD: We move so fast. Sometimes we’re doing a performance number and are literally out shopping and looking around online and I still haven’t heard the song yet. Then I’ll hear the song and be like, “Whoops, we have to turn this around.” The costumes on this show have to tell the story. So the style of the performance outfits have to go hand-in-hand with what they’re singing.
Rayna James, played by Connie Britton, is a fan favorite.
For the actors, how much does getting into costume allow them to turn the character on?
SD: My favorite part of my job is when someone comes into the room and they put on the clothes and I get to see them start to realize who they are. It’s been really fun taking this journey with them. One of the concepts we came up with when we were designing the pilot was which star was shining the brightest—we always put them in light colors. I always try and figure out which star is shining the brightest right now. I think that Connie’s character Rayna has such a signature look.
SD: I know, I love me some Rayna James, too! And Juliette as well. But all of them—Scarlett (Clare), is a favorite of everybody’s. You know, all of those floaty prints, very ethereal and feminine. She’s been one of the characters that I feel has really evolved.
Scarlett, played by Clare Bowen, has had a style evolution on the show from dreamer to performer.
Everyone we spoke to who lives here says that the Nashville style is reflected on the show and is really authentic.
SD: The town has been incredible—the community has been so supportive. I have been in stores before and someone was like, “She does the costumes for Nashville! Can you make me look like Rayna James?” And I’m like… No. Only God can give people like Connie Britton those legs and that hair. The rest of you are on your own (laughing).
What was your process for getting to know Nashville’s style and making it feel like your own?
SD: When I first got the pilot script, I had been dying to do something about country music stars. I like country music and the whole thing of it and I was like, this is going to be a great project. And we didn’t even know who the cast was going to be and I started researching, researching, researching. I just always go look at the real people. The people who are in the age group. For Rayna, I looked at a lot of Faith Hill. For Juliette—this is kind of crazy, but when we first started, before Hayden was cast—that was when Taylor Swiftwas super hot in the country world before she made her transition to pop. Everyone wanted it to be like Taylor Swift, but then Hayden was cast and I was like, scrap that idea because she is a whole lot more.
Not the girl next door at all.
SD: Yes, that is not who Juliette Barnes turned out to be. She is a little bit more Miranda Lambert. I always like to look at the real people and then I’ll add a layer of fashion to it. Just to heighten it and make it more fun to watch.
How important is costume design to storytelling?
SD: I’ve been really lucky on this show because I have actors who are really respectful of the process and there is a lot of trust between them and me and my department. If you make them believable characters, the audience attaches to them that much more. They want to like them.
It’s my job to support the story and tell the story through the costumes. That is always where I go first. Otherwise, I would just be a stylist. You are just putting together one great look after another. I’d rather think, “Why is this person wearing this today?” “What is the purpose of this?” “Why do they own this?” It really is creating a character, creating their world and telling a story.
Hear more from Susie and get a behind-the-scenes look on the set of Nashville in the video below.