From Shaft to Smash: An Exclusive Interview with Costume Designer, Joseph G. Aulisi

Mary Rose, Guest Curator of the exhibition and President of the Costume Designers Guild and Joseph G. Aulisi, featured Costume Designer for Smash

The largest collection in the 7th Annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design is from the television show SMASH, with costumes designed by the legendary Joseph G. Aulisi. We caught up with him after the opening of the exhibition to look at his costumes and to discuss them and his magnificent career.

How did you manage the design process for the contemporary pieces along with the costumes for the two Broadway musicals within SMASH?

Everything for the musical numbers in the Bombshell and Liaison sequences was made to order, mostly within one or two weeks, from the point that I go into the shop and sketch, start selecting fabrics, make the muslin versions and do the fittings, then the regular fittings, and finally delivering them the night before the next morning’s shoot. Often there were 12 to 16 dancers to clothe, along with the principals’ costumes.

Were you able to rent any costumes?

No, and that was part of the challenge. Having the ideas and doing the sketches comes quite easily. Getting the costume houses to produce them in the time required was not so easy. Two or three houses worked at the same time on just one number.

On the Broadway schedule there are maybe 6 to 8 weeks of manufacturing. You know what you are doing six months ahead of time.

When did you do your fittings?

We had to work around the shooting schedule, because we were always shooting one episode as we were prepping another one. Dancers had rehearsals and many of the principals had singing rehearsals. It was a bit of a logistical trick because we shot we shot and rehearsed mostly in Queens NY, while all the costumes houses are in Manhattan.

No Season 3?

It’s a shame that it wasn’t picked up, but you know, that’s show business.

Did you do a lot of research for SMASH?

I have done 35 Broadway shows, including lots of musicals. In the process of working with Jerome Robbins, Tommy Tune, Michael Bennett, and many more, I have done the research.

The strange thing about this is that the Marilyn musical that SMASH refers to was produced in 1983 and it closed after 17 performances. The actual Broadway show, Marilyn: An American Fable, is referred to in SMASH as a big bomb. Naturally, the Marilyn musical in SMASH is called Bombshell. I knew the Marilyn territory quite well, because I designed the costumes for the 1980’s flop.

Besides Bombshell, there is another Broadway play within SmashLiaisons.

Liaisons was a lot of fun to do. I kept to the 1770’s silhouette, then added decorations and a palette that was very bold. I was inspired to dress the nine showgirls like French macaroons. It was great fun and pretty silly and whimsical.

The hats are fabulous!

I used wonderful Broadway milliners that I’ve worked with before. But now I had to tell them that I need a hat in three days, and they were not used to that. We still needed to do hat fittings, and they were danced in, so they really need to fit. It was just another complication.

Sean Hayes’ shoes were custom made for him, and they were delivered moments before he needed to wear them. They were excruciatingly tight, but being a true trooper, he wore these extremely pointed-toe shoes. He would not wear the looser back up pair with a rounded toe, because he said the pointed toes were funnier.

How many people did you have on your team?

I had three wonderful assistants, a couple costume supervisors, and several people that we added on days when we had 12 to 16 dancers and 10 principals. Most of the manufacturing was done in costume houses that do Broadway musicals or films, and the trick was to get them to turn out high quality work so quickly. For the contemporary costumes, the show wanted new clothes every week. We did an enormous amount of shopping.

Was this a new experience for you?

Many years ago I had done an episodic show Beacon Hill, but things have changed since then.

I’ve been nominated for a couple of Emmys in the past, but those were more like a movie and they were much more contained. (Bernard and Doris in 2006 and Lincoln in 1988)

SMASH was this monster that I was on for 9 months, week after week. It never stopped. The scripts were continually being revised. The show had 12 producers. We’d have a new director each week. Even with all my experience, and all the juggling, it was sort of new and not new.

How did you handle two Marilyns?

Funny story about that. I saw this vintage red and white floral fabric and it was perfect for the seduction scene with JFK. But to add a little life to it, I had a fabric painter add pinks, yellows and green. We had only four yards and we barely squeaked out one costume for the fantasy sequence in episode 3, when Katharine McPhee was Marilyn.

Cut to episode 8 or 9 and they rewrote it, but Megan Hilty is now on stage, in the Broadway musical, as Marilyn. Since the two actors are different sizes, I had to have the fabric reproduced. I changed the dress design a little, but it is basically the same dress done twice.

We are so happy that the red dress worn by Jennifer Hudson is in the exhibition.

Jennifer Hudson arrived on Wednesday at noon for a fitting. Thursday morning she was in the dress to do her scene. The dress was made and ready for her, but we had to adjust the waist seam and redo some of the hand embroidery. We try to find fabric that does most of the work, but for Jennifer we wanted to add the extra embroidery and beading.

But everyone was under the gun. Actors would come for a fitting. A ½ hour later they would be picked up and taken to the recording studio to record a number that they had just learned the day before. The cast was really incredible and professional.

You did the Original Shaft!

That was one of my early ones. Strangely enough, that comes back with kids that are 20 years old and are just discovering the whole thing. Shaft was just the right time and the right people. It was just very special, and it was my second or third film.

How did you get started in costume design?

I have always been interested in the theater, in art, and in science, and majored in biology/ premed, with an art minor. After graduating, I came to New York to be an actor.

I auditioned for a Broadway show, The Devils, starring Jason Robards and Ann Bancroft, and was directed by Michael Cacoyannis, the director of Zorba the Greek. I got a part! I played a shellfish salesman and a monk. I loved going to my fittings and talking to the wonderful design team, one of whom was Elizabeth Montgomery. It dawned on me that I wasn’t a very good actor, but I could combine art with theater and that equaled being a designer.

I took a class with the incredible Ann Roth. She gave me an enormous push; I was her assistant on Midnight Cowboy. That was my first film assisting, and it was just Ann and me. Now it would take 20 people. Ann was generous with her time, and she really opened my eyes. Then I assisted other designers, mostly on Broadway.

At the same time that I was meeting my idols, Irene Sharaff, Miles White, and Raoul Pene Du Bois, I was being drafted. When came back, I assisted Irene a couple of times and we became great friends.

My first Broadway play was Man in a Glass Booth, directed by Harold Pinter. I was in my 20s, and it was a wonderful way to start out.

Are there a couple of challenges from your long career that you could share?

Let’s see—I did the costumes for the first Charlie’s Angel film in three weeks, and when I did Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, I was in charge of creating 600 costumes in six months.

And as much as you want everything to work out and be number one at the box office, I have also worked on Broadway shows for a year, only to see them close in one week. Or I work on a great pilot, and it does not get picked up. Or do a $100 million picture and it fizzles at the box office. So you have to go with those disappointments, which is really just part of the game.

Do you have any advice for young people that want to get into costume design?

Learn as you much as you can—be a sponge—go to museums, and to exhibits like this. Read as much as you can. At museums, look at paintings, see the way that color is used. The really successful people are those that have absorbed a huge amount of knowledge and know-how, and they trust their instincts. We all have our own way, and there is no right way to create something that is original and pleasing, or flattering, or whatever criteria you are trying to achieve. Things like aging and dying fabric, embroidery patterns, knowledge of the theatre, you cannot know too much. Even working with a local theatre company is so enlightening. There is just so much to learn.

You will have to keep us posted on what you do next.

If it is television, it won’t be anything like SMASH. That was a very special television show.

The 65th Primetime Emmy Awards broadcast will be on September 22, 2013.

Tours of the exhibition are available.

Exhibition photographs by Brandon Clark/ABImages


FIDM Museum Shop

Designer Profile: Erica Clum

The FIDM Museum Shop is delighted to feature Earthling Jewelry created by Erica Clum. Her castings of bones, teeth, talons, shells, and crystals are artfully arranged to form talismanic pieces, which conjure up images from Game of Thrones.

Clum has spent nearly 10 years in costume design, but since childhood she has always loved to wander and gather interesting pieces found in the woods in upstate New York, flea markets, and abandoned houses. Her cast off treasures includes buttons, rosaries, silver spoons, bones, pretty rocks, twisted bits of rusty metal, and even a tiny cracked robin’s egg.

“Things left behind have always held for me bittersweet feelings of melancholy and mysterious wonder. When I was very young, I loved sifting through my finds, making up stories of where they came from, to whom they belonged, where they are now, and why the object was ever left behind…”

When Clum signed up for a metal smith course with jeweler Sue Ann Dorman, she discovered a way to turn her collections into something wearable that she could carry with her.

“As long as I can remember, I have been called by the mysteries of the natural world. Rabbit prints in the snow, an empty locust’s shell hanging from the bark of a tree, a snake’s skin shed and left behind, the sacred geometry of a crystal, by rocks, rust and treasures buried deep in the ground. In attempt to answer this ancient call, I began exploring ways to craft metals around these specimens to create talismans.

My metal work follows this call, casting found objects in homage to nature’s divine order and perfection. I enjoy making things that look as though they may have been unearthed in an anthropological dig or ferried up from a wreck at the bottom of the ocean. I want the people who wear my jewelry to have the opportunity to create their own magical stories and meanings around each piece.”

For these items and more, visit the FIDM Museum Shop for a fabulous selection of one-of-a-kind jewelry, amazing treasures, and exclusive gifts. See why we have won Downtown LA’s Best Unique Store for three consecutive years.


A Taste of Downton Abbey

Meet Emily Ansara Baines, author of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, who will be signing her new book.

  • Enjoy a tasty afternoon with Downton treats prepared by LA chefs.
  • Enter the raffle to win wonderful prizes.
  • See the spectacular Downton Abbey costumes, including the bridal gowns worn by Lady Mary and Lady Edith.

  • FIDM Museum Shop
  • Saturday, September 7, 2013
  • 12:00 pm–2:00 pm

Please RSVP here or email

The 2nd Annual FABULOUS! Soirée

A benefit for the FIDM Museum & Galleries and the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection Acquisition Campaign

Presented by the FIDM Museum Fashion Council


  • The Debut Fashion Show—with designs created by FIDM Graduates in Fashion Design
  • Cadillac Couture—Innovative evening wear designed with 2014 Cadillac car parts by Advanced FIDM Fashion Design Students
  • FABULOUS! After Party—hosted by Cadillac, featuring exquisite food & musical entertainment

  • October 5, 2013
  • 6:30–9:30pm
  • Neiman Marcus-Bloomindale’s Courtyard
  • Fashion Island, Newport Beach, CA
  • Cocktail Attire
Purchase tickets here


Curator-Led Tours

  • Monday–Friday, 10am–4pm, on the hour; by appointment only.
  • $20 per person for groups of 10–25
  • ($200 minimum for groups of less than 10)
  • Special arrangements needed for groups larger than 25.

Contact: Kevin Jones, 213.623.5821 x3367 or

Quick Tours

  • Saturdays at 10am
  • $5.00 per person

To schedule a “Quick Tour” please email:


  • FIDM Larson Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Through October 19, 2013
  • 10am–5pm
  • Tuesday through Saturday

  • FIDM Gallery Orange County
  • 17590 Gillette Avenue
  • Irvine, CA 92614-5610
  • Through November 9, 2013
  • 10am–5pm
  • Monday through Friday
  • For Orange County, schedule an appointment by calling Jim Nemmert at 949.851.6200.

Admission to all exhibitions:

Free to the public

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