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Costumes from The Office


A visit to the costume department of the television show The Office is a lesson in fashion faux pas. Costume designer Carey Bennett makes this painfully clear when she holds up a crocheted cardigan worn by actress Kate Flannery.

“Look at this,” she says. “It’s so gross. Isn’t it awesome?”

Flannery plays Meredith Palmer, the perpetually under-the-influence soccer mom and supplier relations representative. Bennett achieves the character’s schoolmarmish look with clothes from Coldwater Creek and Liz Claiborne, both of which she hastens to say are fine labels on their own.

But when paired with a closet full of egregious finds from department store scavenger hunts, the look of the character really comes to life in all its frumpy glory.

Meredith is just one of the colorful peripheral characters on The Office. She is also one of Bennett’s favorite characters to dress. “In my opinion, she doesn’t get enough air time,” she says.

Costume designers are trained to create perfectly matching outfits, Bennett says. As it turns out, she’s found very little use for the skill while working on The Office.

She felt some anxiety going into the original research for the show. Part of it was her own lack of exposure to office culture. “I’ve been lucky enough to have never worked in an office,” said Bennett.
To make up for it, Bennett went to an actual paper company, Economy Papers, located in Glendale, for reference. In fact, the show’s look, not only in costuming but also in set design, owes quite a bit to this real-life office.

When the producers saw the office, they couldn’t get enough of it, Bennett says. “They were like, ‘What is this place?’” she says. For one thing, it was definitely not straight out of Hollywood.

How closely did Bennett study the original British version of The Office to get ideas for the clothing?

“I and three others really studied it at first,” she says. “But then I saw a few episodes and stopped. I didn’t want to be too much more influenced.”

Since the initial research, Bennett has continued to take careful note of everyday people on the street, and she finds herself continually fascinated by the multitude of unexpected and personal ways clothes are worn.

“People on the street don’t wear outfits,” she says. It seems this is the key to dressing for a show like The Office.

Bennett also does costuming for the NBC show Scrubs, where she tailors hospital uniforms to be flattering to their stars. In fact, these scrubs have become so popular with the public, you can buy your own at her website,

But The Office is a different story altogether. As a show that is modeled after reality programming, the characters act and look natural, though they are far from it. It is widely known that the lines delivered are carefully scripted even as the end product makes them seem off the cuff, or improvised. The same goes for the clothing. Though carefully engineered, they can never be jokes, she says.

Nevertheless, some of the clothing does border on hilarity. Bennett displays a sweater vest worn by Angela Kinsey, who plays head accountant Angela Martin. The vest is finished with detailed, life-like cat-face buttons. And yet, it seems like something that any self-respecting cat fancier would feel pride in wearing.

What’s more, the process of creating a natural look is more circuitous than it would seem. To create Angela’s tightly-wound, prudish look, Bennett and her staff raid the fashionable racks of stores like Bebe, Juicy Couture and J. Crew. Clothes from these unlikely sources arrive at the desired dowdiness through a process of putting the right clothes in all the wrong combinations.

Bennett also had to go out of her way to create John Krasinski‘s costumes for his character, Jim Halpert. His clothes reflect the character’s apathy toward the corporate world. The story behind the look is that he probably dug his clothes out of his father’s closet, Bennett says.

Jim’s clothes are shapeless and don’t fit him very well, and the wool ties date back to the 1970s. Since dad’s clothes are no longer the rage, Bennett had to look everywhere to maintain a steady supply of wool ties. She says she sometimes kicks herself for setting up her characters with costumes that are so hard to keep in stock.

Cheap suits have been the way to go for the men. This is especially true for branch manager Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, Bennett says. So it is even more striking when one of the characters shows up in ironic fashion wearing significantly more expensive threads than his former boss.
That character is none other than Ryan Howard, the intern turned corporate manager played by B.J. Novak. This season, Ryan matches his improved paycheck by upgrading from off-the-rack Macy’s suits to higher quality, custom-made suits by designers like Jimmy Au‘s.

“The suits fit him perfectly,” Bennett says. Not only are the suits some of the more expensive threads that the show has shelled out for, they provide the costume designers with a rare chance to exercise their badly neglected fashion sense and expertise.

The members of the costume department may complain occasionally that they’re not allowed to “do their job” on this show, but it is clear that Bennett has developed a strong connection with the characters and an appreciation for the complex art of dressing “real” people.

“When I shop, I know what they’ll like,” she says of the many characters embodied by her trailer filled with suits of modest origin and one too many cat motifs.

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