Arts & Culture

From Tennessee to 1923: The South Meets Hollywood in Janie Bryant’s Designs

The Emmy-winning costume designer on the Yellowstone prequel and her new line for the outdoors clothier Tom Beckbe

photo: William Hereford

Costume designer Janie Bryant.

Janie Bryant is somewhere in Montana, but can’t divulge her exact location. “Right now, I’m staring at the snow-capped mountains,” the costume designer says while taking a break on the set of 1923, the upcoming sequel to the hit Yellowstone spin-off 1883, for which she also served in that role.

Bryant, an Emmy winner who’s been working in Hollywood for more than two decades, has created some of TV’s most legendary looks: She conjured the dresses of Betty Draper, the power suits of Joan Harris, and every skinny tie and cufflink for Don Draper and his coworkers on Mad Men. She rustled up the fringe wear and vests and hats and all the stained rags of the braggarts and gunslingers on Deadwood. Her work extends to the big screen, too, including overseeing the casualwear for both the adults and kids stalked by Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT.

For the past few months, she has been dressing Helen Mirren, Harrison Ford, and Timothy Dalton for 1923. She has also recently been named the designer-in-residence of the Southern outdoor clothing brand Tom Beckbe, for which she has dreamed up a line of women’s and men’s clothing and goods inspired by the Wild West. Here, the Cleveland, Tennessee, native tells us more about the show, the fashion line, and how she brings inspiration from back home into everything she does.  

You’ve most recently created costumes for screen legends such as Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren and Sam Elliott. What is it like to have this as a job?

I love it, first of all. It brings me great joy. I really enjoy working with actors. They are just kooky and fun. I love the transformation of actor into character through their clothing. It’s like a magical thing.

How do you bring characters to life in how they dress?

A lot of times I’ll go see the actor in his or her dressing room, just to say, “Good morning, I just want to help you get dressed.” I always like to help them get dressed; that’s our time together. I like to make sure that they’re set exactly as they should be, as I want them to be. So, I’ll tell my set team, “This tie needs to be tied this way,” or, “His collar bar needs to be set like this,” or, “Her slip needs to be showing” if it’s a sloppy character. There are all these different nuances a costume can tell about a character, in how it’s fitting and how it looks on the body. If maybe the stockings are wrinkled at the ankle. Maybe their costume is sweaty. Details are really helpful for my set team so they can keep the continuity of how I want to the costume to look.

How long do you have to create the costumes?

I usually have eight weeks to prepare. Especially for a period show. It goes by so fast. And even for 1923, my prep time was actually about five weeks. I was designing The Mayfair Witches for AMC before I came onto 1923. So at first I really wasn’t available, and I finally said, “Yes, okay, I’ll design the show.” I wanted to, and it all worked out, but our prep time was cut short three weeks. I guess we’re turbo speed for 1923

photo: William Hereford
Janie Bryant’s frock coat for Tom Beckbe.

You’ve said that as a kid, you were influenced by and obsessed with the clothing in old movies.

My mom loves old movies. And so the first movie that she took us to at the Tivoli Theatre [in Chattanooga] was Wuthering Heights, with Lawrence Olivier. It’s so beautiful. She took us to see On the Town, with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. It was family tradition that we had to watch The Wizard of Oz every year, and The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind. My dad would always make us watch Elvis movies. They could not really get me out of the house because I would be sitting inside watching musicals, like Guys and Dolls and Grease—I’m obsessed with musicals. The costume design is the best.

Did your family know this was what you wanted to do? Did you explain to them what you were doing on the set of Mad Men? What about The Hills Have Eyes 2

When I was designing The Hills Have Eyes 2, I was in Morocco. I think they just thought like, “There goes Janie again, doing her thing.” They think I’m a free spirit, which I am. I was always into the arts as a child. I was a ballerina; I always painted, I always drew. I made my first dress when I was eight years old. When I was nineteen, I knew I was going to move to New York City, and then I decided to move to Paris after college. From the time I was really little, I always knew that I was going to leave Tennessee. I was always looking, seeking, striving for the next thing and the next and the next. I always knew that I was a designer. When I got into film, it made even more sense than fashion design, because I’ve always had such a passion for movies. I’m sure my family just thought, “That’s Janie, she’s artsy, she’s going to do something eccentric or creative.”

Do you go back to Tennessee?

Of course I do. I am a proud Southern belle. My dad was from Georgia. All of my siblings are down South still. I have two sisters and one brother. I have five precious nieces and nephews, and my mother is still in Tennessee. My aunt and my cousins are in Tennessee. My mother has a house on the lake and a pontoon boat and a ski boat—we do both all weekend long. There’s an amazing barbecue place close to her house. A lot of times on the river, there are a lot of classic rock bands playing. We drink beer and we have a lot of fun.

You share Southern roots with Tom Beckbe; is there anything about being from the South that lends itself to designing with the West in mind?

There really is. Gosh, one of my favorite outfits I wore as a little girl was a green cowgirl hat, a mint green hat and boots. Being from Tennessee, there is a lot of the Western style influence. Who doesn’t love fringe? My mom would hand-make me moccasins. She made a lot of outfits with fringe, suede fringe. I was always trying to dress up like that. I love cowboy boot culture; the workmanship and the craft and artistry that goes into making Western garments. Beckbe is really known for outdoors and hunting. I love all of the waxed canvas coats and garments and vests. When they asked me [to be designer-in-residence], at the time I was designing 1883, and so I was totally immersed in just Western wear and felt it’s really timeless. I feel like Western wear is always in style.

photo: Courtesy of Tom Beckbe
Janie Bryant’s bison-leather duffle for Tom Beckbe.

When a show premieres or a movie comes out that you’ve worked on, what’s it like to see your creations on the screen?

Oh my gosh, it’s brand new. It’s like the first time every time. New show, new actors, new characters. Every single time. 

I don’t think I owned a skinny tie until Mad Men came out. Then I got several.

Good for you!