The unbreakable bond between Tully Hart (Katherine Heigl) and Kate Mularky (Sarah Chalke) has carried these besties through thick and thin from their teens to their forties in the Netflix series Firefly Lane. They live by the motto “Firefly Lane Girls Forever,” which was originally conceived in the novel by Kristin Hannah, carrying them through first loves, marriages and breakups, career highs and lows, and ultimately dealing with a life-threatening disease.
The two-season series saga (2021–2023) is told through the present-day and through flashbacks by their young counterparts (Roan Curtis and Alissa Skovbye), who are carefree teens of the ’70s generation. We follow them through the 80s, where 20-somethings Tully and Kate work together in the KPOC newsroom and where Kate falls in love with her soulmate Johnny (Ben Lawson); and onto the 2000s, when they are full-fledged adults in their forties dealing with whatever curve balls life throws at them.
Taking on the challenge of dressing these characters, which span four decades from ’70s bohemia, the big and chunky ’80s, the tight-fitting nylon of the ’90s, and the global mash-up of the 2000s, is award-winning Costume Designer Allisa Swanson (So Help Me Todd, Once Upon A Time, The Snow Walker).
A film industry veteran for 25 years, Swanson has designed, created, and consulted for film, television, and theater, as well as the 2010 Winter Olympics. A native of Canada, she has won the Leo Award for best costume design for The Snow Walker. Her other accolades include nominations for a CAFTCAD Award (Canadian Alliance of Film and Television Costume Arts and Design) for her work on Firefly Lane and Once Upon a Time (ABC).
Below The Line spoke with Allisa Swanson via Zoom video from her home in Vancouver, where the series was also shot. Surrounded by Star Wars memorabilia in her husband’s office, she spoke about how the sci-fi film initially piqued her interest in character clothing designs. She was in very high spirits and eager to discuss what went into designing the character’s clothes for Firefly Lane, which began with local vintage shopping sprees at her favorite haunts for ’70s inspiration and built looks from scratch for the challenging designs of the aughts that would flatter the 40-something character of Tully’s anchor woman from 2003.
Below The Line: So take me back to the beginning of Firefly Lane. How did you get the gig? What was your first direction to know what kind of costuming they wanted?
Allisa Swanson: It was so fun to do. I was really sad that it was limited, had a finite ending, and that we didn’t get to go back. because I really loved working on it. It started back in 2019. I was working on Coffee & Kareem, which is a feature on Netflix, and I got the call from (producer) Shawn Williamson at Brightlight Pictures, who I’ve worked with before, who’s like, “This really great show is coming up. It’s a variety of eras.”
I read the script, and I really liked it. I went out and immediately bought the book, put some mood boards together, and had my first interview with [Creator] Maggie Friedman. This was pre-Zoom, so we weren’t all experts at it, but we still managed to have a decent interview. I presented my boards, and we talked about the characters. And then I heard nothing back.
In film, it tends to be very fast, where you have a job interview on Tuesday, and by Thursday they’ve called you and told you you have the job, and by Monday you’re starting. So anything longer than a week seems like an extremely long, excruciating time. [laughs] It was more like three weeks, maybe a month, and then they called me back and said, yes, they wanted me on the project.
BTL: How did the novel by Kristin Hannah inspire you?
Swanson: I had already started reading the book, but I combed through it like I was back in university English lit, highlighting everything that had to do with costumes and writing notes. Obviously, the scripts deviate quite a bit from the book, which is okay. That’s what makes it interesting and unique for the audience. So a lot of things that, when I was originally thinking about it, I wanted to bring in from the book Along the way, I got Margie (Kate’s mom) and her red velour zip-up old-school, 1970s robe that she wore, which was really prominent in the book. We just didn’t see her that often in nightwear in the series, but I did manage to get her in it. There were a few other references that I was able to pull up.
BTL: How challenging was the first season?
Swanson: It was super challenging because we had nothing. You start with a blank slate. My assistant and I went on this massive shopping trip to a whole bunch of thrift stores here in British Columbia, which are my favorite places to go. We just raided them all, which is great. They loved us. We love them. We spend about a week shopping—just driving, shopping, and buying. It didn’t all fit in my minivan like we thought it would. So we rented a one-ton truck, and she drove it back, and I drove my car back, like stuffed to the gills (with clothes). It was great. That was sort of where we jumped off.
BTL: Tell me some of those prize pieces that you picked up from thrift shops.
Swanson: The dress that Cloud wears when she gets drunk and starts singing in the restaurant, which is a fan favorite across the board, came from one of those thrift stores. Some of the sweaters and that lovely brown sweater that young Kate wears. In fact, I think that vest also came from there. So we got stuff from every period. We managed to find some seventies, some eighties, and definitely lots of 2003.
BTL: What was the style like in 2003? That’s very specific.
Swanson: It’s funny, we say, 20 years ago, but people don’t think that fashion was different in the early aughts until you really start to think about it. That’s when everybody had their jeans so low that you could see their buttocks crack and the G-string poking out of the jeans, and you couldn’t bend over. (laughs) All the shoes were pointy, all the jeans were super long, and the bra straps were showing. I don’t know what we were thinking—big, huge belts and bubblegum colors and then lots of skin like the athletic thin body was in and you covered your boobs and then you covered above the pubic bone, especially for the younger generation—that was all. When I was doing my research and trying to find clothes that were suitable for 44-year-olds, which would’ve been both Kate and Tully’s characters at that time, it wasn’t that easy to find lots of pictures. The jeans were still super low-cut.
I think Sela Ward [from Brothers & Sisters] was one of the ones that I used a lot because she had been on a show at the time and I could get pictures of her. I know Katherine Heigel kept wanting to reference Susan Sarandon, but trying to find pictures of Susan Sarandon that weren’t just red carpet gowns at that time was really challenging. Tully becomes like Oprah in the early 2000s. But Oprah had her own very distinctive look that wasn’t necessarily the same as Tully’s.
So, it was quite a challenge to really figure out what 40-somethings were wearing because all the pictures you see are of Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears, and that was what was splashed everywhere. It was like they’d forgotten about 40-somethings in that time period, like you’re too old. We’re going to put you in a closet. That’s kind of what it was like when I started doing the research. I’m like, What happened to women over 35?!
BTL: So what did you sort of settle in on for the looks from the aughts?
Swanson: I was actually looking at TV shows that starred women. Grey’s Anatomy (which starred Heigl) was definitely one. A lot of us aren’t comfortable wearing super low-cut jeans anymore in our forties, so it was working with Katie and Sarah and finding what their comfortability factor was and cheating here and there where we could. Sometimes we put them in higher-cut jeans, but we put a big belt around them so you couldn’t really tell where the cut was, and it made them comfortable to be on set and sit down. I remember sitting down in some of those pants, and they could not have been very pretty. [laughs]
BTL: What about their clothes in the newsroom scenes?
Swanson: I think their clothes did look more Oprah-esque. Uh, you know, she wore big fat belts and that sort of accent jewelry and all that. With jewelry, every period is huge and really helps speak to every period. We can’t do everything from thrift stores, and we certainly can’t do everything from rental houses either, so at some point in time, you’re buying modern clothes and adapting them. We also made a lot of stuff for them, especially in the second season, when we had a much bigger workroom.
Especially for the nineties stuff, when we see Tully in her studio in the nineties, we pretty much made all of that for her because, in order to get it right, it was best if we built it. Just altering things so that you can get the line that you need because our body types change. The body type that was acceptable in the seventies and was the norm in the seventies is not the same as now.
Even if we take 1970s pieces, we still have to tweak the cutting process and the fitting process to make them work on modern bodies. Number one, we’re all taller, and we all have bigger feet, so trying to get shoes that were period appropriate but fit the size of feet for today’s men and women was a big thing too.
BTL: What were some of the designer clothes that you actually had to tailor for Katie?
Swanson: There was that fantastic chartreuse suit that we made for her in the nineties and second season because chartreuse was such a huge color in the late nineties. She can pull it off. There was a gorgeous blue dress that had sort of a swag neckline and a beautiful ivory color in it. We made that for her. We made the burgundy suit that she wore. The gray suit that she wore pretty much everything that she wore in the newsroom in the nineties was made for her.
BTL: Where did you find the wedding dresses?
Swanson: We made all the bridesmaid dresses for both weddings—Kate’s brother’s wedding, and then, of course, Kate’s actual wedding in the eighties—from one of those thrift stores. The first season, for Julia’s dress, it was a size 12 or 14, and we altered it down to fit Julia. It was perfect for her character.
For Sarah’s (Kate’s) dress that she wore in the second season for her wedding, we actually kept up a rapport with one of the stores up in the Okanagan (in British Columbia), so we would have Zoom meetings regularly when they’d get new stock in, and they would hold stuff up and I’d say, “Yes, no, maybe,” and they’d put them in the different piles, and then when we’d settled on all the yeses, they’d ship them to us. That dress came from one of those shopping sprees, and it fit her like a glove. We actually didn’t even need to alter it.
BTL: That’s fabulous. What about the Burger Planet USA outfits? Where did you get those from?
Swanson: We made those. I did three different illustrations in three different styles that were very reminiscent of seventies burger joints. Originally in the script, they had a burger hat, and so we ordered a bunch online that would work. Then we made these uniforms. Maggie loved that one, so we made them, and then we decided to scrap the hats because there’s a lot of serious stuff that happens in the burger joint, and the hats just would’ve taken it into this weird, comical place.
We had to find enough brown polyester fabric to do those uniforms because we needed enough for background players to come in and work with it. With Lisa-Karen (Kyra Leroux), we didn’t know how much we were going to see, so we needed to be prepared to do malts, and then somebody gets a shake on them. That was the biggest challenge: scouring the lower mainland for enough brown polyester, which is the weirdest thing to be looking for in 2023!
BTL: One of my favorite outfits was the young Tully. She’s wearing like a suede skirt and suede boots. That is so seventies.
Swanson: We made a lot of the skirts in the seventies. Then there were a couple of local costume rental houses like Brass Buttons, owned by costume designer Derek Baskerville, and he had a ton of stuff from the seventies and a ton of stuff from the eighties. So we did pull a lot from there.
I believe that was one that we got from a thrift store. There were a pair of pants that young Kate wore. They probably don’t look that good on camera. They were just brown cords; they were wide-lagged, but they had the most unique dart on the side of them.
One piece of the leg was one piece of fabric from the front to the back, except for a dart that hit right on the hip and curved to the back. It gave her the whole curvature, like her hips and bottom, and so we put her in those, and we loved them so much. We actually knocked off the pattern because they were vintage and were starting to get really worn. We were afraid one day she was going to sit down and they were just going to come apart!
BTL: I don’t know how to say this without being politically incorrect, but Katie’s body is wonderfully curvy, and of course, she’s very buxom, so talk about the process of fitting her.
Swanson: It’s wonderful to be buxom; however, the camera tends to stop about mid-boob, so you have to be really careful when you are dressing somebody who’s buxom because where the camera generally stops, it automatically makes somebody look bigger and wider than they are. I am also buxom, so I understand that. Because I am also large-chested, it did help me understand how that works. Her shoulders are not super broad, so that helps. So if we worked with the shoulder line and then brought it right in at the waist, then pretty much all problems are solved. But it does help a lot when you are building for someone.
The other thing is that nothing really comes off the rack, goes on an actor, and goes on camera. Everything that comes off the rack is then manipulated and greatly altered. It would be nice to be able to tell all teenagers and all young 20-somethings who are trying to aspire to look like people that they see on film that none of that came off the rack and then just looked perfect, and then they walked out. It is just manipulated down to the nth degree, no matter where it came from. It’s also understanding how that works and making sure that you build it in the time from the fitting to when it needs to go on camera so that you can do all of those things to them and alter them.
BTL: So when you look back at the experience, what was the most fun about costume designing this series?
Swanson: I love to build. I very much like to sketch. I like fabric. I come from sewing. That’s how I got involved in the first place—pattern making. I understand how they work. I like to spend time in my workroom and discuss where the zipper’s going to go and, if we need to move the seam, how we’re going to do it. That gets me really excited. Costume history is also part of why I’m here; a combination of Star Wars, Dangerous Liaisons, and Amadeus Mozart is what really got me excited about the idea of storytelling through costumes.
Anything that’s a build show, anything that’s period, and the fact that we were in different periods in the same episode Some of the fittings that I would have with Katie and Sarah would be three hours long because we had 10 changes in one era, five changes in the nineties, and then another two changes in the eighties. We would block and shoot two episodes together, so fittings were intense and long, and trying to get ahead was almost impossible. So it was super challenging in that aspect, but it was so much fun because each day was different—today we’re thinking about the seventies, and then we’re thinking about the eighties, and they’re all fun costume periods. Even the nineties, which had their own oddities, were super fun.
BTL: Where does your love of sewing come from?
Swanson: Interestingly enough, I was in eighth grade, and we had to take our electives, which were Home Ec and either half a year of cooking or half a year of sewing. I thought to myself, “Oh God, I don’t want to sew, but I want to cook.” I took that first semester of cooking, which I barely made it through. I burned everything! I had lumps in my muffins and hated every minute of it. [laughs] Then I got into sewing, and I was just like, “Why haven’t I been doing this all my life?”
Oddly enough, it runs in the family. My great-nana would go to the opera and watch things like The King and I, and then she would come back home and reproduce the outfits that she saw on stage for my mom’s dolls. I remember putting those dresses on my teddy bears, and they were beautiful and intricate and gorgeous, and I just don’t know where they are right now. It’s so sad that they’ve been lost somewhere. I don’t actually sew for myself anymore, except during COVID, when I made a whole bunch of clothes to go back to work so I could look pretty after having worn sweatpants [laughs].
Firefly Lane is available to stream via Netflix.