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Flirty & Thriving: Loose's Interview with Susie Desanto, Costume Designer of '13 Going on 30'

It's been almost twenty years since the release of 13 Going on 30, the rom-com starring Jennifer Gardner and Mark Ruffolo, about a thirteen-year-old girl waking up in the body of her thirty-year-old self. Kooky, fashionable, and light-hearted, it's easy to tell why this film is still flirty and thriving in the zeitgeist. Loose had the opportunity to speak to the film's costume designer, Susie Desanto, to learn more about the iconic costumes.

Jennifer Gardner as Jenna Rink in '13 Going on 30' (2004)

On costume designing

LOOSE: Did you know you always wanted to be a costume designer?

DESANTO: No, not really. When I was younger, I always wanted to do ballet, drama, and musical theater. Those kinds of things.

L: And this [costume design] was a good middle ground?

D: Yeah. I first got interested because when I first got out of college, I was working on commercials and photo shoots and whatever else. I was living in Texas at the time, and somebody asked me if I wanted to be a costume assistant on a low-budget movie he was shooting there. I kind of fell in love with working on films, and then moved to L.A to work on movies and kept working my way up.

L: Was there a specific movie that really influenced that?

D: When I saw Annie Hall, Diane Keaton’s character had such a specific style that was such an expression of who she was. I think that really sparked my interest and I was kind of like, ‘Oh that's so cool. Why did they dress her like that?’

And also when I was in school, I really loved the study of anthropology and cultures. I loved pop culture and why people chose the things they do, and trends. And I love storytelling — that was coming from drama and plays and things like that. So, it all kind of came together.

'13 Going on 30' (2004)

On 13 Going on 30

L: In the movie, I was so obsessed with every little thing and the significance of everything — even if it didn't have any specific significance.

D: I have so many actors who are like ‘Oh this works because…’This would be like…her thinking…’ or ‘This stripe represents her rigid personality’ or ‘This colour is just like sunshine’ or whatever it is. This one actor that I worked with for a long time she’s like, ‘I swear you can make up a story about every shoe I put on’ I was like, ‘Well, of course, I can’... I love that.

Why you chose something or why someone chooses something has to do with their thought process; the practicality in it, what they do for a living, or how they want to present themselves… So much of how you dress and present yourself in the world is how people pick up who you are and what you’re gonna be like. Are you a welcoming person or do you dress really intensely to put people off?

At my age, I notice that when I’m working, we all kind-of start dressing like the way the lead actor is being dressed in the movie. If you are doing a period movie, all of a sudden you want to dress in the period. I just did this 70s thing and I was so taken by the clothes. ‘These are the coolest clothes ever!’ ‘Why aren’t we wearing 70’s clothes all the time? ’

L: What was your first opinion of Jenna Rink?

D: Well, I think the thing that struck me the most about that character was how she was trying to be somebody who she wasn't. When Jenna was a younger girl, she wanted to be so much like the Six Chicks that she was not being true to who she was — so when we meet Jenna Rink at 30 years old, she’s dressed in all these really intense clothes with this intense job, and people react to her in a way that she doesn’t understand, because of her 13-year-old mind in her 30-year-old body. So the whole journey is about her learning what’s important and becoming true to herself.

So, the fun thing with the fashion is that when we were shopping for the show we’d be in all the fancy department stores — Bergdorf’s, SAKS, and whatever — so if I was 13 years old in these super expensive stores, what would I choose? And the access to fashion because of [Jenna’s] job is really broad. She can have, wear, do, and get whatever she wants.

And that was right at the time, in the early 2000s when statement handbags were becoming a thing. Always having the Birkin bag, the Chanel bag, and the Gucci bag, and the Prada — all the labels becoming very, very important. I think it’s diminished — I know it’s diminished somewhat. I mean, there are always gonna be people who are into labels and designers and expensive stuff, but that time was post Sex and the City, and wearing a designer label was a real status thing. People were spending money, and trying to buy things that they couldn’t afford because they just had to have that Gucci handbag. Handbags went from you could get a nice handbag for $300 and all of a sudden now you had to spend $1200 on a handbag. It all got kind of crazy.

Part of what is fun about the film is that it embraces all of that but in a really whimsical way. And we were lucky because designers at the time were using really feminine pastel colours and pretty floral prints, which felt like they were from a 13-year-old’s point of view. Like, ‘Of course I'm gonna wear this flower thing because it’s pretty’. It felt like a more naive or innocent way of looking at fashion, and all the designers were there for us. So it was all meant to be.

Also, that was the first movie I did with Jennifer, and she has such a youthful presence to her and she played into it so well. And I think that’s why the movie has longevity — because you can believe her in the role. I also feel like you take the journey with her and you feel it. You feel what she felt and you realise that she's learned what and who are important to her. That's what the movie is about, being a good person and being kind.

L: Was it easy to tell Jenna's story? What difficulties did you come across?

D: Once we got a concept, it all kind of came together really easily. I had such a good relationship with Jennifer, that as a costume designer, having that trust and that relationship with your actor — it's just the most fun. She was a great person to collaborate with, and we had a lot of fun together doing it, and so it all just seemed to click.

L: Was it easier to portray her innocence or her longing for it?

D: Once Jenna’s reconnected with Matt and [decided] that the way forward is by being herself, she makes that shift in how she dresses, and then she starts to soften. And then that's when all the clothes just kind of flowed, into those pretty little flower dresses and the sweetness of it all.

And it was really for Jen — she had such a close relationship with our director, and he had such a good handle on the material. That’s why I think the movie has had such a long-lasting appeal. I mean, it’s the perfect role for [Jen], just because she is such a sweetheart herself.

L: Yeah, I've definitely noticed that the more time she spends with Matt the more frilly and floral her clothing gets.

D: Cause she's falling in love, right?

L: And you can tell through her clothes. Is there significance in her butterfly necklace?

D: I didn't think about that at the time, but somebody else has brought that up to me and I thought, ‘Well, now that you think about it…!’ The butterfly necklace and her blossoming — metamorphasising into herself — like a chrysalis. So at the time it wasn't preconceived or anything, but it kind of does work.

L: A perfect coincidence.

D: Exactly, exactly!

L: What was the hardest character for you to research and design for on this film?

D: I think probably the most challenging character was Matt [played by Mark Ruffalo]; The director really wanted Mark to look like a fish out of water in the fashion world. He wanted [Matt] to be a real New Yorker who doesn't have very much money. And so making Mark not too overdressed or too hip, it was kind of hard, actually — especially because Mark is really cool. So I'd be like, ‘Okay, well here's your Adidas tennis shoes and your jacket that I got at the thrift store.’ And he was like, ‘Everybody else is all dressed to the nines in all these designer clothes!’

So I think just getting the tone of him right. But still, you had to fall in love with him too, so it was a challenge.

L: What was your thought process with designing for the Six Chicks?

D: My favourite! So I decided that they had rules, and then dressed them within that. Like, they would wear stripes and polka dots together, and only certain colours, and that they coordinated because of their fashion rules, even if they weren’t wearing the same thing. There’s one scene where they come to the door and they all have different coloured acid wash jackets on.

We really struck the 80s colours — the hot pinks, the turquoise, that sort of grapey purple. And I kept the palette really close for them so that everybody would notice them walking down the hall. And at Jenna’s birthday party, you can tell she’s trying to dress like a Six Chick, but she's clumsy with it.

'13 Going on 30' (2004)

On the Versace dress

L: I know a lot of people have brought up the Versace dress to you. I’ve read about how difficult is was for you to attain that dress, so how do you feel about the company Cider recreating it for $15, aside from the ethical and environmental issues?

D: Well, that's how I feel about it. It’s mainly the ethical thing, but also I don't really care ‘cause I'm not Donatella Versace. So to me that's her thing, what do I care? I'm not losing money.

The environmental part of fashion is something that just drives me crazy. I’m really anti-fast fashion. But I thought that [Versace] dress was great for the scene, and that it worked for what we were doing. To me, it felt like a costume.

I was talking about [the dress] with a woman from The New York Times, and she asked if I had any idea that this was going to happen. And I was like, ‘Absolutely not.’ We had a clothing rack, but then somebody picked this out of a fashion magazine and we decided this is the dress [Jenna] should wear. Then we had to track it down, which was not easy. To me, it was about what was going to move the story forward, and how to make Jenna visually exciting, doing that dance number in a sea of people. You can't miss her in that dress.

The ones I love the most of people recreating that dress are people who do it themselves, and they make it their own. Like, that is so much more interesting to me than [a fast fashion company] recreating the dress. Like that to me is just completely uninteresting. But somebody sent me a picture of them and their boyfriend — I don't even know who these people are — where her boyfriend went as the Hulk and she went as Jenna Rink, and they made the costumes out of stuff from the thrift store. And they were fantastic! And like that to me is creative — the other stuff is not really that creative, you know what I mean?

L: I feel like that dress is Jenna's, and when people recreate it, it just loses its touch. At first, I honestly got angry, because some people didn't even know where it came from.

D: Oh, you're funny now. I was talking about that to the fashion editor at the Times. She was like, ‘I mean, what do you, do you think the dress has a life of its own? Like, people like wearing it like to a club or to dinner or something?’ And I'm like, who in the world would do that? I would never imagine somebody nowadays just going, ‘Oh, I think I'm just gonna wear this dress to dinner tonight.’ It's such a costume to me.

Ariana Grande wearing a recreation of the original Versace dress

L: You must've been shocked right?

D: I'm pretty entertained by it. I would love to know what Donatella thinks about it. I loved Ariana Grande wearing it — I thought that was really cute. And I love that Versace redid the dress for her. All this kinda stuff is just — it's really interesting.

L: Why do you think people chose this dress [to wear] as opposed to anything else in this movie?

D: I think I think cuz it's so flashy and I mean, it's a real standout sort of thing. That’s a really good question. But probably because it’s kind of iconic, with the dance number and the whole scene. At first, I was like, ‘Oh God, this could be so bad.’ But again, Jennifer made it work — she pulled you into it, like this is a true story. Mark Ruffalo almost didn’t do the movie because of that scene. He did not wanna dance!

'13 Going on 30' (2004)

On sourcing the costumes

L: How long did it take you to go around and find all these outfits for Jenna?

D: Well, I had two or three shoppers on that movie, and we were doing it as we worked through the schedule. I'm a really fast shopper, and I can edit a rack really quickly.

L: What's your thought process when editing a rack?

D: Well, it has to do with being able to look at something, see what the fiber content is, and if it can be manipulated, like dyed. And really it’s like anything, you just learn it, and then it’s a skill. It’s part of the job. And with shopping, especially if you’re doing a contemporary movie, department stores are constructed to confuse people so that they buy things they don’t need, so there’s that, too. And in high-end stores, it’s all jumbled up, so you have to get in there. It’s almost like going through a maze. It’s part of the process.

If you’re shopping for a certain character, you have to think about who they are. Like, this woman is a lawyer, so I need to find a nice suit. But she isn’t intimidated by men, so I’m gonna have her wear pants and a dress. It’s kind of like the way Kamala Harris dresses — she always has these really beautiful pantsuits, and she is actually dressing in a men's uniform but in a feminine way. So then you start to look for those kinds of things. And then if you make up a color scheme, like what is this person's aesthetic? What are their colours? Those kinds of things.

L: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring costume designers?

D: Well, read everything. Watch everything. Figure out what you love and why you love it. Figure out what you can say. Figure out your point of view and then practice, tell stories, make small films, do all the things — and get your education. Learn about color, learn about art history, go to all the movies, watch all the TV shows, and then think critically about them. Like, why did this work? Why were you attracted to this character? What made that work? What was it about the costume of that character that you were attracted to? What did that say to you about that person? How they dressed and how they were presented, and all that stuff.

Desanto with Connie Britton, star of 'Nashville'

On her other projects

L: And what has been your favourite film or show to work on apart, from 13 Going on 30?

D: Well, I did Nashville for a bunch of years, and I really loved it. I just did this thing about Watergate with Julia Roberts playing Martha Mitchell, and that was just fantastic, working with 70s clothes and with Julia. She played this bigger-than-life character who was a real person. And that was really fun.

The job is a great one. It’s really hard and you have to work on your work-life balance, which is difficult, but I’m getting there. I always find something [within the project] to fall in love with, or else it's really hard for me to stay interested.

L: Is there a film or show you're most proud of, and you would like to recommend to our readers?

D: I love White Oleander. I loved working on that movie. That was a really good book; it was a big responsibility, taking a popular book and turning it into a movie. So I really loved that.

L: Was it difficult adapting a book into real life?

D: I was so inspired by that book, and I was so thrilled that I got that job, so it came together really easily for me. I just felt like I had a lot to say and I came up with an idea that each one of those characters would be sort of set in a different interpretation, a contemporary interpretation of a different period… I think the more inspired you are and the more excited you are to work on something, the easier it is.

L: What's your favourite part about costume design?

D: I think just that it's creative. I mean, you have to be willing to work really long hours and deal with a lot of difficult personalities, and you have to learn patience and diplomacy and all those kinds of things. But I really like that I have a creative job, where I can express myself through telling these stories. I'm really attracted to women's stories and any story that has a female protagonist in it.

Interview by Kulsum Zaidi

(@kulsu.m on IG)

Edited by Lucy Eaton

(@llucyeaton on IG)

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