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Interview with 'Murder in the First' costume designer Jill Lucas

Costume Designer Jill Lucas talks in the exclusive in-depth interview about the life of a costume designer for television, how she helps actors make that first transition into the characters they play and how the psychology of the human spirit impacts her choices as a costume designer. Her work can be seen in the new television series starring Taye Diggs, titled "Murder in the First," which will air on TNT, starting Monday, June 9.

Jill Lucas, costume designer for TNT's 'Murder in the First.'
Photograph courtesy of Dattner Dispoto and Associates

Jill Lucas grew up in the country in a small town in Pennsylvania. Drawn to fashion at an early age, Jill was making costumes for her Barbies at the age of seven, and in the spirit of Scarlet O'Hara she would often use old drapery material - years before she had ever seen "Gone With the Wind."

"My family and I would always watch movies together. I remember seeing 'Gone With the Wind' and seeing the grandeur of all those dresses, just wishing I lived in that time period and wanting to be surrounded by that aesthetic." And when Jill saw Scarlet make due and fashion a dress out of drapery material, she knew she was on to something.

Jill says, "I learned to sew when I was eight-years-old. It's when I got my first sewing machine. I loved making my one-of-a-kind dresses and I would wear them to school and nobody else would have them. So, that was the lure to me."

As a teenager Jill didn't know that she could make a career out of her love for fashion, but her father did give her smart advice, "Whatever you want to do, make sure you pick something that you really love, because you are going to be doing it the rest of your life."

After completing High School, Jill attended West Virginia University and majored in fine arts, "They had a fashion program, a theater program and I went there for painting. It wasn't brought to my attention that I could make a career in fashion."

"I wanted to go to the Fashion Institute and Technology in New York, but my parents weren't totally behind that. So, I started taking fashion classes in West Virginia and it wasn't long before Jill realized she knew more than most of her teachers.

Her family had a friend that was starting a business in California and Jill, at the age of 19 went off to the sunshine state to help out at the new business, "I met a woman who had her own fashion line and it was a lightning bolt to me and I didn't go back to West Virginia."

Lucas finished her education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Technology in Los Angeles. "I did the whole fashion program and loved it, but worried if I would be successful at that stage of my life. They had an advanced costume program where they only took ten applicants out of three thousand. I got into the program and that was my second lightning bolt. I knew right then that I wanted to be a costume designer. It's just a different way of creating art."

Luckily for Jill, a couple of her teachers were working in the industry and she starting working for them. One of the teachers was a costume designer for movies and commercials. Right after graduation she went right to work and she hasn't stopped.

Jill has an unique look at costume design "If I wasn't a costume designer, I would be a psychologist. I find that with TV you get wrapped up into the psychology of who these people are. When you get a script every week, it's like this is your patient. What are these characters going through? How am I going to figure out what they are going to wear? There's always a little bit more challenge for me to it, because there is always that guessing game of not knowing what is going to happen. In film there is a beginning and an end. I like the unknown that comes with the TV format."

Jill has been the costume designer on several hit television series. From 2007 - 2008, Jill worked on the reality show "Survivor."

"That was probably the most fun at a job I have ever had in my life," Jill said. "The costume designer on 'Survivor' is responsible for maintaining the costume wardrobe made for the host of the show Jeff Probst."

Sometimes the set of "Survivor" could be quite frantic as Jill describes her very own challenge, "I remember that there was an reward in China in an one thousand year old city and I needed to have all these Chinese waitresses dressed in traditional Chinese dresses with the Mandarin collars. I had gotten the notice the day before. So, literally I was running around with a translator trying to find fabric and found these 80-year-old women with really old sewing machines. It's amazing that it all turned out."

The base camp for "Survivor" was usually built 30 to 60 miles away from the island than the contests were living at during filming of the show, and Jill has a lot of respect for those contestants, "After working on that show, it is the hardest thing they'll ever do. Any person who's on it, in my eyes, is a form of a hero."

Jill remembers one reward challenge especially, "During a reward challenge a contest won a reward to get her clothes washed. I will never forget that smell. I washed her outfit like ten times and I thought it would never get clean."

A few years later, Jill was the costume designer for the second season of "Glee," "Glee was probably the most creative job I have ever had," said Jill. "To put that show on is a huge thing and co-creator Ryan Murphy is a perfectionist. He's brilliant, he falls into the category of a creative genius. He will re-work things until he feels it's perfect."

"Glee" has a long running schedule and shoots every eight days. Jill describes the creative process, "You have eight days to create a whole theatrical masterpiece. You have to prepare their costumes for their everyday school scenes and there are typically one to two dance numbers. For the dance sequences the actors have to be dressed in the same dress, same shoes, and so on. Sometimes, Ryan could get stuck on wanting a particular item of clothing or accessory. And when it came to the "slushy" moments, you need like six of that particular costume."

Jill moved from "Glee" to another successful FOX show "Bones." She describes how a crime show differs from other forms of television, "In a crime show you have to be aware of all the elements, and the limitations of those elements. You have to be realistic, you can't let fashion over take it. And with some shows that are not completely based on reality you get to cross a bit into the science fiction world."

After "Bones," Jill went to work on the successful talent show "The Voice." Jill describes the insider workings of a contest reality show, "I dressed the contestants and Blake Shelton, which was not a hard job - he is a charming man. The contestants come in and they are very similar to that of "American Idol," and all these shows. They are all are undiscovered talent from around America."

She continues to describe her job on the show, "Hollywood and stage presence isn't necessarily their thing. I really wanted to give them a personality that the audience would grab on to and also keep an essence of who they were. They would bring their stuff, and I would look at it and get a feel of who they are. I listened to their music and much like with a television show I began to create a character. I helped them create their stage presence."

"I remember Beverly McClellan. She was a lesbian with a really tough style, which was great. I really emphasized it, using lots of studs and leather, it was awesome. And she totally went for it. The process also helps build their confidence, almost like they have something to hide from, they can protect who they are, but they can also start to build their stage presence."

"The Voice," became very personal for Jill, "You get your own favorites and you get to really know them too. Reality contestants in the Mark Brunett world are the nicest, genuine people. You're there under the stage while they're performing, cheering them on, and you help them change for the next performance. It's like being their mom. When they got voted off, I definitely shed some tears with them. You get attached, especially for the passion that they have. It's not really hard to fall for them. "

Jill's newest venture is the new TNT series "Murder in the First," which starts Monday, June 9. Jill describes the show, "We just finished filming our first season and it consists of ten episodes. We have 13 amazing actors that make up our ensemble. It's such an amazing diverse, well rounded, group of really talented actors. We have James Cromwell, Tom Felton, Kathleen Robertson, Taye Diggs, Currie Graham, Richard Schiff, Nicole Ari Parker and Raphael Sbarge. All of them individually and on their own are great actors. Co-creator Steven Bochco has the ability to pull together great talent. It's a wonderful starting point to work with such talented actors."

Again she see her job through the eye of a psychologist, "I look at this show as if I were a mom and I have 13 kids, and each one of them have their own particular needs: some are low maintenance, some are high maintenance and some have their good and bad days. You have to learn who they are. You can't treat them all the same. You have to pay attention to their individual needs, insecurities and what they are really trying to get across on camera."

She continues with more specifics, "With ten men to dress, you want to make sure they don't look all the same. I use colors and textures to set them apart. With Taye Diggs' character, I wanted him to really be just middle of the road, a step above blue collar. He didn't want to look like any of the other characters that he has played before. I like to dress him in patterns with soft tones. He's a detective and I didn't want anything too flashy. Being a muscular guy all his shirts have to be altered or I have them custom made."

She describes the transformation an actor makes after donning on his or her costume for the day, "For actors, putting on their costume is getting dressed for work. When they put on their costume, their whole body image and even how they carry themselves changes. I give them a moment in the mirror. Step away, I let them figure it out and they settle into the character. This is one of those secret gifts of the job that really makes me feel like I am contributing to a show. We create a specific character and if you knew this person in real life, you would see that it's a huge transformation."

Although Jill is an accomplished costume designer, she doesn't mind watching young people in fashion get their start on the reality show "Project Runway." Her favorite challenges of the show are the unconventional challenges, when constants are expected to create fashion out of items from a store that doesn't sell sewing items. For this, Jill remarks "I am a mixed media artist. I am the MacGyver of designers. I could win that challenge!"

Jill has recently branched out to local theater and she continues to take psychology classes on the side. "I started making costumes for my Barbie as a hobby and now I want to bring back the hobby side of costumes and maybe someday they will merge together in the future. I want to keep this fun. It makes me super happy doing both."

Jill Lucas has an infection spirit to her, "I am so lucky, from my first time assisting on set, I've been there ever since. I love everybody I work with and I know where I am is where I am suppose to be."