“He always surprises me. Always,” award-winning costume designer Lou Eyrich said of her frequent collaborator and AHS provocateur. “He’s a visionary. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out Mr. Murphy.”
A true auteur, Murphy begins every installment of the horror franchise with a certain look in mind. Each season starts with a theme, and each theme comes with a particular design aesthetic crafted by Murphy, then executed by Eyrich.
Asylum was a gritty time capsule, with tattered and soiled hospital gowns from the ’60s, while Coven was mostly contemporary with elements of the past. Freak Show was all surreal, colorful ’40s and ’50s fashions, and then there was Hotel, the opulent fifth installment, starring Lady Gaga, which proved to be Eyrich’s most exciting and exhausting challenge to date. (Until Roanoke, that is — but we’ll get to that.)
“It was completely different from other seasons because it was such a crazy mix,” Eyrich told MTV News while promoting the DVD and Blu-ray release of American Horror Story: Hotel (out now). “It was contemporary and opulent, but then there were characters like Hypodermic Sally and Liz Taylor. [Hotel] had so many great, weird characters that were so much fun and rich for me to do.”
Creating a unique world for each of American Horror Story’s stand-alone seasons takes a lot of prep work, and the characters’ costumes are a major part of that process. “Ryan [Murphy] pretty much has a vision before I even have my first meeting with him,” she said. “Sometimes he sends me an email with a few outlines of ideas, he tells me the premise of it, and his vision and overall tone. I read the script and come up with a couple of dream boards, and we meet. Then we go through each character, and we’ll talk about the color palette and the sets.”
For example, it was important for Eyrich that Denis O’Hare’s character, Liz Taylor, didn’t merely come across as a “man in women’s clothes.” Liz was glamorous. “So there were a lot of beaded dresses and caftans and chiffon and turbans,” the designer told me.
Then there was The Countess. For Lady Gaga's look in Hotel, Murphy instructed Eyrich to draw inspiration from old Hollywood icons with a modern twist. It was all about balance — balancing vintage dresses with clunky contemporary accessories and modern fashion with vintage jewelry. In addition to items loaned to the show from fashion houses like Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Yohji Yamamoto, and Vivienne Westwood, Eyrich also sourced pieces from local vintage couture stores in the Los Angeles area. (What the costume designer calls her "favorite kind of shopping.") Ultimately, Eyrich and her team amassed a huge collection of looks and accessories for The Countess’s wardrobe.
“In the beginning, we had no access to Lady Gaga,” Eyrich said. “She was on tour with Tony Bennett. She arrived on a Friday, we fit her [that day], and she was on camera on Monday. So we had very little time to make it happen. She had so many changes that we had to clear out a conference room and line the walls with racks for her clothes. I’ve never experienced that before, in television or film.”
Even Gaga herself contributed to The Countess's closet. “We also used a couple of Lady Gaga’s personal pieces from the archives,” Eyrich added. “There was an Alexander McQueen and a Versace.”
There was so much fashun in Hotel that Eyrich’s favorite Countess look didn’t even make the final cut. “I love the Yohji Yamamoto red wool suit she wears to the cemetery, but my favorite is a white Vivienne Westwood dress that we used in the gallery shoot,” she said. “It looked incredible on her. It was like vanilla meringue on her body. But it didn’t end up on the show.”
And though time-consuming, The Countess’s look was relatively easy to put together — unlike Kathy Bates’s character, Iris. For Eyrich, the challenge was making Iris distinctive from Bates’s previous AHS characters, Ethel Darling and Madame Delphine LaLaurie. She admittedly struggled with Iris, who had “this ’90s feel but was living in a contemporary world.
“She was supposed to be current, working at this hotel, yet she entered the hotel in the ’90s when her son entered the hotel,” Eyrich continued. It all came together once Eyrich’s key costumer found a pair of glasses in a random bin at the Fox wardrobe department. “He pulled them out, and it ended up being a winner.”
Of course, Eyrich and Bates didn’t have the same problem this season. In American Horror Story: Roanoke, Bates plays an angry spirit who goes by the name The Butcher, and her period-piece wardrobe was all custom-made. “There were a ton of custom looks for the period stuff, and that got hard because we needed massive amounts,” she said. “We had to custom-make everything and then age it to within an inch of its life. That ate up a lot of my time.”
Beyond Bates, Roanoke presented the designer with yet another unique challenge: styling characters who were normal, everyday people. This installment of Murphy’s series is set on a farm in rural North Carolina; it feels desolate. He’s stripped away the opulence and the shine for something more primal. So owners Shelby (Sarah Paulson) and Matt (Cuba Gooding Jr.) dress the part; she likes yoga pants, while he prefers a basic button-up and vest. Even the angry Roanoke spirits who haunt the land are all cloth and dirt.
There’s no couture or thrifting in Roanoke; Matt and Shelby’s looks come from the racks of J.Crew, Urban Outfitters, and Macy’s. “I had to keep dialing it back,” Eyrich said. “Ryan kept saying, ‘It’s too stylish!’”
As for this season’s overall look? Well, that’s simple: It’s “Roanoke chic.” Eyrich concluded with a lesson gleaned from Murphy: “Whatever season, whatever theme, just add ‘chic’ behind it — and that’s what we’re going for.”