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Creating Show Pieces

As the costume designer for 'Seinfeld' and 'The Single Guy,' Charmaine Simmons-- whose approach was shaped by her teen years in Orange County--doesn't worry about the latest styles when hunting clothes to match a character.

April 18, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the wardrobe department for the NBC's "Seinfeld," it's easy to imagine that the show's characters are real.

In a cluttered back room tucked inside a cavernous sound stage in Studio City, there's Jerry Seinfeld's closet. The shelves are loaded with stacks of solid-colored T-shirts, the kind Seinfeld's character often wears, and they're all meticulously folded as if the fastidious, fictional Jerry arranged them himself.

It's easy to identify the owner of an adjoining closet: The rack of vintage shirts festooned with odd geometric prints can only belong to Kramer. There's a closet filled with George's nerdy plaid shirts and Dockers, and another with Elaine's flowing floral skirts and vintage-style blazers and blouses.

A couple of Elaine's bras dangle from hangers, and George's Nikes sit on a shelf, adding to the uncanny feeling that these closets belong to real people, not TV characters.

Then along comes Charmaine Simmons to spoil the illusion. Simmons, the costume designer for "Seinfeld" and "The Single Guy," is the very real person in charge of creating believable wardrobes for the shows' characters.

"My goal is that the characters look like they should be wearing what they're wearing," says Simmons, who grew up in Garden Grove before heading for the Hollywood Hills, where she lives now.

Unlike many costume designers, Simmons is less concerned with dressing actors in the latest styles than with finding clothes that match their characters, even if that means putting someone in "the lousiest, silliest shirt."

"I've tried to give the characters a real closet," she says. "You'll see these clothes again. You might see George wear the same shirt he wore four years ago."

Her teenage years in Orange County influenced her unorthodox approach to costume design.

"In the area I grew up, there was a trend toward wearing thrift store clothing and beach styles that was prevalent in the '70s. A lot of my skills were honed shopping in thrift stores."

She often traveled south, visiting thrift shops from Laguna Beach to San Clemente.

Simmons has been collecting clothes and jewelry since the '70s. While attending Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, she sewed many of her own clothes and modeled for Bullock's in Santa Ana.

On a recent day on the "Seinfeld" set, Simmons hurriedly dresses extras for an upcoming episode in which George winds up in an insane asylum.

"We're used to doing stuff on the fly," says Simmons, digging up sweaters, slippers and bathrobes for a steady flow of actors playing patients. Simmons is dressed a little like, well, Jerry Seinfeld. She sports jeans and a corduroy shirt.

She holds up a white orderly's uniform and looks with skepticism at the extra--a twentysomething male--who's supposed to wear it.

"I need a 48 chest, otherwise we're out of luck," says Simmons, a note of we-might-need-to-find-another-extra creeping into her voice. The extra promises the uniform will fit, but he looks nervous diving behind a partition to change. He comes back with the shirt on his back and a look of relief on his face.

"Oh, I'm pleasantly surprised," Simmons says coolly.

The extra hurries off to the set.

Although she may have to dress an extra in minutes, Simmons takes the time to get to know the regular characters well. Often it's hard to tell whom she's talking about--the character or the actor.

"Jerry's a pretty conservative kind of guy, and that's who he is as a person," she says. "He goes for classics. In real life, he may wear Armani, but he also wears jeans."

The TV Jerry might be a little more dressed down than the real Seinfeld, but he's no slob. The jeans (no less than five pairs hang in his wardrobe) aren't faded or torn. He has enviable outerwear, including expensive suede and leather bomber jackets.

Dressing a character does not necessarily mean dressing him to look good. Simmons describes George (played by Jason Alexander) as "a perennial kind of guy who dresses badly on accident. He wears plaid shirts paired with Dockers. The guy couldn't be more pathetic."

By putting Kramer (Michael Richards) in vintage shirts, Simmons unwittingly helped foster a retro revival in fashion. She and her staff hunt down drapey rayon shirts at vintage- and used-clothing stores or have shirts made from old fabrics. They avoid the retro shirts mass-produced by manufacturers.

"Michael likes the real thing," Simmons says. "His shirts tend to be shorter and ill-fitting to make them look sillier."

Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) wears a "real eclectic blend" of clothing.

"It's a mix of vintage and sportswear looks, with some business attire," Simmons says. Her closet has lots of body suits, DKNY tops, floral skirts and vintage jackets mixed with some new pieces by Calvin Klein and other designers.

"She's your basic girl who hangs out with guys all the time, so we don't always want her in pants."

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