Emmy-nominated costume designer Hala Bahmet on what the gowns, over multiple generations and timelines, mean to her and the series.
Warning: Spoilers for six seasons of 'This Is Us' below.
Over six seasons of "This Is Us," the ever-growing Pearson family has taken us through the ups-and-downs of marriage, the thrill (and heartache) of romance and the poignancy of parent-child dynamics. They've articulated experiences in eloquent, evocative and relatable ways; they've made us laugh, cry (a lot) and yell at our screens, while always surprising us with new twists — especially with its signature time-jumps, as supported by Hala Bahmet's period-spanning costumes.
Back in 2016, the premiere episode set the stage, Rebecca (Mandy Moore)'s comfy leisurewear and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia)'s double-denim tricking us into thinking they're millennials residing in Silver Lake. ("It's the '80s?!" we all exclaimed.) As the Dan Fogelman-created series extended the Pearson family and introduced characters into new decades, Bahmet continuously broadened the scope of the costumes parallel to the bombshell-filled storylines. "It was surprising — and challenging," she says. (Bahmet earned one of her two Emmy nominations for the show. Her first was for "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," also starring Sterling K. Brown.)
A vintage expert, Bahmet enjoyed playing fashion forecaster for those shocker moments, like when we slowly realize, "Wait, it's little Jack (Blake Stadnik) as an adult ... in the future?" (His hi-tech watch, accessorizing those evergreen and always misleading Levi's, did offer a teeny clue.) It required her doing a bit of sartorial math, to predict what styles would cycle back, say, twenty years from now —"how the '70s was doing '40s and the '90s doing '70s," she says.
Bahmet also incorporated unique, retro pieces as little clues: "For some of my characters, it makes sense that they would have a vintage or special item, so it feels like you're out of time. Like, if Kate (Chrissy Metz) is carrying a purse from the '70s ... but it's in the future."
Of course, after six network-size 18-episode seasons, Bahmet knows the quirks of the entire Pearson clan through-and-through. While other opportunities may have come calling over the years, she could never bring herself to leave The Big Three, et al. "It was just like my baby," says Bahmet, who's as invested in the stories as the fans. "I wanted to see where we're gonna end up."
With the series coming to a close, Bahmet suggested her heartfelt way of fondly looking back at her expansive work and commemorating the beloved characters and their journeys: wedding dresses.
Reflecting real life, Pearson weddings are landmark events bringing the family together, warts and all: Long-simmering resentments come to the surface, contentious relationships are reconciled, lost love finally materializes and, of course, much-needed laughs provide relief and comfort. True to "This Is Us" fashion, these moments also offer parallels to circumstances past, revealing intentions behind current day dynamics — and offering peeks into new generations.
"Those were marking the really important events, the stories about this family — this extended family — and their history and their future," says Bahmet.
Ahead, she looks back (in linear fashion) at these pivotal costume moments on "This Is Us."
Rebecca's and Jack's City Hall Nuptials
"That was the first wedding that we did," says Bahmet. "That was really, really exciting for me."
Episode 14 of the first season explores juggling life crises within a marriage, and fittingly opens with the Pittsburgh City Hall ceremony of Jack and Rebecca circa-1970, with close friend and Pearson family rock Miguel (Jon Huertas) there for support. Bahmet completely reworked a vintage '70s guipure lace gown into Rebecca's dream of a long-sleeved wedding dress, accented with a bohemian flower crown.
"We just basically we took it into the shop and a seamstress just took the whole thing apart, and she mended all the little spots where it had little tears and little things because it's a real 50-year-old dress," says Bahmet. "Then we recut it to fit Mandy."
Beth's and Randall's Outdoor Ceremony
In one of the most distressing yet relatable storylines in season three, the partnership of Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi-Watson) is put to the test — thus compelling viewers play their own versions of the "worst-case scenario game." The dedicated episode chronicles the relationship history and patterns of everyone's favorite TV couple. And through a montage, we see "close-ups and snippets" of their picturesque outdoor nuptials.
Bahmet found a floral-embroidered gown at BHLDN that sounds like a perfect fit for Beth. "It's like a no-nonsense, beautiful shape and beautiful lace fabric, with a bit of a fishtail and a small train," she says. She then worked her magic by adding a bead-encrusted belt and adjusting the hem to allow for the walking needed in the scene.
"I was sad to see that we didn't get to see much of the bridal party," Bahmet says, "because her bridesmaids just all had gorgeous beautiful hair and beautiful jewelry and gorgeous dresses [by Jenny Yoo]."
Kate's Big Day at the Pearson Family Cabin
Jack's life and death looms large over Kate's wedding to Toby (Chris Sullivan) at the family weekend home in the woods. But Kate, supported by her brothers, learns to let go, and her gown took just as much thought and emotional investment behind-the-scenes.
"That dress took us two weeks and some change to build it," says Bahmet, who custom-designs the majority of Kate's costumes. "We made it all by hand, of course."
The process involved sketching out 10 different looks and building mockups to test the concept and silhouettes. The costume team ultimately custom-built a dreamy v-neck, flutter sleeve, high-low overlay silhouette out of silk organza and "expensive French lace fabric." But the flora and fauna motif, representing the cabin — where Jack wants to build the family's dream home (and Kevin ultimately does) — needed a little more sparkle. "So we hand-stitched and encrusted it with more beading in the bodice," says Bahmet.
Madison's Best Decision Ever
After enjoying a dress shopping montage — featuring a fun, feather-y, but not quite Madison (Caitlin Thompson) confection by Jaime Elyse — Kate's best friend prepares to marry Kevin in a sweetly exquisite Chantilly lace gown, which was another Hala Bahmet original. ("That was one of my favorite dresses I've ever made," she says.)
Madison's big day turns into a life-affirming moment when she decides to not marry Kevin, who can't bring himself to profess his love for the mother of his children. Madison realizes she deserves more than settling for "The Manny" star's misguided sense of duty, and calls off the marriage two hours before the ceremony.
"It was an important costume not just because it was an opportunity to design a beautiful gown, but everything connects in it," says Bahmet. "That was a turning point for Madison. She was really coming into her own with that [decision] and moving in the right direction for her."
Involving three fittings over three weeks, Madison's intricate gown is made of three layers of silk charmeuse and Chantilly lace, which has an intriguing origin of its own: Bahmet found swaths of leftover lace fabric at a Los Angeles vendor frequented by celebrity-favored designers. "It was made specifically for this very fancy European wedding," she says, cryptically.
Bahmet then found a sheer textile, in a "dusty rose and green" hue, covered in ethereal florals and leaf patterns — "so we cut out all the embroidered motifs on that fabric and hand-placed them at various spots of the gown. I wanted it to look like there was an English garden growing on the train of her dress, and vines and flowers just growing ever so slightly up over her shoulder."
The flourishing theme also represents paths moving forward for the Pearsons, who've come to resolutions of their own this episode — especially with the flash-forward reveal of Kate's second wedding to her crusty British boss Philip (Chris Geere).
"It was really a turning point," says Bahmet, asking: "Who's going to be together? How is the family going to handle this new information and where are we going to go from there?"
Kate's Winery Wedding
Kate finding peace and recognition in her often-fraught relationship with Rebecca, coming into her own professionally and finding a true partnership with Philip comes through in her second wedding dress.
Excited for another custom-Kate creation, Bahmet emphasized a completely different silhouette and embellishments from her wedding to Toby, starting with the romantic bateau neckline and three-quarter-length lace sleeves. Keeping in tradition for a second wedding, the gown boasts an ivory tone with a "really beautiful beaded mesh" overlay with a vining motif.
"We hand-placed more rhinestones and beading around the neckline," says Bahmet. "I also wanted to have elements of rebirth and spring, with vines growing up the front and all around the skirt. For me, there's a lot of symbolism in it."
The Dynamic Duo and Comedic Relief
Why did it take so long for the Beth and Madison — #Badison — team-up that I absolutely, 100% needed? Per usual, the two offer boundless support to the Big Three, but they also entertain themselves (and us) by investigating Kevin's romantic escapades the night before Kate's wedding, all while quaffing bottomless mimosas. "I love their chemistry together," says Bahmet.
Knowing the two weren't necessarily traditional bridesmaids but were essential figures in the wedding and family overall, she wanted to pay tribute through distinctive dresses. "I chose the silhouette that's typical of that character," says Bahmet, who bought multiple silk looks in a regal floral print by Australian brand Camilla and then altered them into original looks (above and top).
For Beth, Bahmet turned a caftan into an asymmetrical, off-the-shoulder dress: "She just shines in all of these unique, more architectural shapes. I made a belt and put tassels and beads on it, and we tied it around her waist and it became a fitted, flowing, beautiful goddess dress on her. And then the yellow Fendi shoes... to die for."
For Madison, she modified existing spaghetti straps on a tie-front, A-line dress. "We built these little tiny, fluttery, sweet sleeves," she says. "I just wanted a little more as we get into close-ups because there's so much important dialogue."
Rebecca and Miguel's Beach Wedding Photo
In the much-deserved Miguel-focused episode — which brought many a viewer to ugly-cry tears — his wedding to Rebecca is only seen in a black-and-white photo on the wall of the home where both will spend their final days. (Hand me a tissue, please.) Somewhat like Rebecca's and Miguel's relationship in the '90s, filming the couple's wedding was also full of will-they-or-won't-they stops and starts.
Since their "beach wedding" had been mentioned as an aside in an earlier episode, Bahmet had anticipated having the time to custom-build a destination gown for Rebecca. ("That's one of my favorite things to do.") But in the lead-up to telling Miguel's heartfelt backstory, another element came into play.
"Because we're exploring and honoring his Puerto Rican heritage, they added the Puerto Rican wedding doll," she says.
As an Easter Egg of sorts, the doll appears four episodes earlier, at Miguel's and Rebecca's anniversary party at Kate's house, with the marriage-imploding leaking roof. True to Puerto Rican tradition, the doll needed to be clad in a dress similar to the bride's. "I can't reverse engineer that," says Bahmet of making a doll dress first and then coping a life-size version for Moore. Plus, actually shooting the scene remained up in the air, so Bahmet did work backwards, first finding a BHLDN leaf-embroidered gown for 60-something Rebecca, who found love again with Miguel.
"I was like, 'Mandy, we're gonna do the doll, so you have to come and try this wedding dress on, in case you ever wear it,'" recalls Bahmet. "She came running in one day when she was already shooting and in makeup. We tried on these dresses and settled on that one."
Bahmet again customized the dress, adjusting the long puff-sleeves, adding a belt and shortening the hemline that we never see. She then gave the prop department multiples of the original BHLDN look to copy in miniature. "We cut up a perfectly good dress to make the doll costume," she says.
Miguel's wedding ensemble also pays homage to his heritage, as well as celebrating his union with his "favorite person." (Seriously, tissue!) "Miguel is in a beautiful, embroidered guayabera, linen pants and beautiful sandals similar to the ones that his father is wearing when we go back to his childhood in Puerto Rico," says Bahmet.
As the scripts progressed and timing became limited, the wedding scene was abbreviated to a photo shoot, plus with a voiceover of Miguel's vows to Rebecca. Huertas told Entertainment Weekly: "It was sad. I mean, it would've been really nice. We had our wedding clothes. [Moore] had a dress. I had a great shirt that I was going to wear. It was cool."
Even so, the commitment was worth it. "It was a scramble," says Bahmet. "But we loved it."