“Boardwalk Empire” Costume Designer Talks Dressing Celebrities and Sexism in the Entertainment Industry

The Kingston resident and award-winning designer boasts shows like “Gotham” and “Boardwalk Empire” on her resume.

If you notice Lisa Padovani staring at you, don’t take it personally. The award-winning costume designer, whose credits include the TV shows “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” and the films “Far From Heaven” and “The Notorious Bettie Page,” derives costume inspiration from the people she encounters.

“I stare at people,” said Padovani. “I’m sure rudely sometimes, not even really realizing I’m doing it, because I’m looking at them, thinking about who they are, and why they’re wearing that.”

Padovani, who calls both Kingston and New York City home, did not plan to be a costume designer. After film school, she worked with a director producing commercials and what she describes as “low budget stuff,” before deciding she wanted to be more creative. She wound up in costume design, working as an assistant designer.

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“I was always into clothing, used to do a lot of handwork when I was a kid and I was good at it,” said Padovani.

Boardwalk Empire

She assisted designers on various films, including “I’m Not There,” Factory Girl” and the 50s-era film “Quiz Show,” before becoming a co-designer for “Boardwalk Empire,” and is not averse to taking risks.

“I always have doubts,” said Padovani.” But I’m never afraid to dive in.”

From the first moments of research to the final fittings, designing costumes has been a gratifying experience.

“One of the most gratifying things is having an actor try on a costume and tell me, ‘Oh, now I know who my character is,’ and for the actor to be really happy with their costume, which  enhances both your jobs. At the same time I love seeing it all together on set, especially if it’s a period piece and there’s a bunch of people there. It’s very exciting to see all the separate things you’re doing come together. I get many different kinds of happiness from the process.”

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Boardwalk Empire,” which is set in Atlantic City at the dawn of prohibition, has been her favorite design experience. During the show’s five-year run, Padovani dressed the cast by renting vintage clothes, when possible, and creating new clothes from vintage fabric or retro material, even scouting shiny seamed 1920s-style stockings from a company that makes costumes for Broadway productions. Most of the period clothing had to be recreated, since people are larger now and most vintage material is in poor shape or does not stretch.

Design projects begin with intensive research. Once ideas are approved, Padovani and her staff assemble — or make — and finally alter what’s needed, whether that involves tailoring t-shirts or recreating an authentic 1920s slip. A designer might have months to prepare an authentic wardrobe or just a few weeks notice. There was little time to prep “Don’t Look Back,” for example, even though the wardrobe reflected various incarnations of Bob Dylan, played by several actors, throughout a few decades. With “Boardwalk Empire” there was ample budget and enough time to excel.

“The 1920s was such a beautiful time period to work on, so different from what went on before,” said Padovani. “It was women’s first freedom from corsets, really a very sexy time for women. I also just liked dressing the gangsters. We had a good budget so we got to make a lot of things. It’s really fun to manufacture things. It was a once-in-a-lifetime job.”

Not all the skills required to be a successful costume designer have to do with crafting clothes. Film sets can be a tense environment, making diplomacy and a sense of humor essential in an intimate fitting room setting. Despite her skill at defusing difficult situations, Padovani says she must, on occasion, pause for a deep breath, what she jokingly refers to as “a mental bong hit.”

“You have to know when to keep your mouth shut. That’s a tough one to learn. You want to be supportive but you also don’t want to say too much or say the wrong thing. I like to joke with my actors, since I like to have a very upbeat fitting room.” 

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As a designer, Padovani has encountered difficult personalities, although she says that 95 percent of the actors she worked with were wonderful. So far, her favorite has been Jada Pinkett Smith, who played Fish Mooney on “Gotham.” Sometimes actors don’t understand or trust a designer’s vision, but Pinkett Smith was fun to dress.

“She’s terrific, so trusting. It’s wonderful when they trust you. We were cementing her character and I was making crazy outfits for her. I enjoyed it a lot. She’s got a great body and she can wear anything. Also, the outfits were skimpy and she would run around in sub zero weather with practically nothing on and she was fine with that. She’s a real trooper.”

Stars Padovani has worked with include Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Debra Messing (Dirty Dancing remake), Elizabeth Moss, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jon Hamm. While Padovani has encountered many fine actors and professionals during her career, she’s witnessed some sexism and harassment. She worked with former producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein, now alleged to have sexually harassed a long list of women. Aware of his reputation, she purposely avoided looking him in the eye.

Dirty Dancing remake (TV film 2017)

“He was more famous for being a terrible human being than anything else,” said Padovani. “Sexually harassing people just goes with that and he’s not the only one. There’s a lot of those guys who scream all the time and call people names and bully crew members. I worked with one producer and thought, well, he hasn’t yelled at me yet, so I guess I’m doing alright.”

During her career Padovani has seen more women empowered in the industry, but progress moves slowly.

“There are a lot more women producers than there used to be but it’s still a drop in the bucket and men still get paid more. Because I’m in a union there’s a certain pay scale and they have to negotiate that. Some jobs pay more, some less, sometimes you get perks here and there, but it’s always a struggle. Sexism is alive and well.”

Padovani’s work earned her Primetime Emmy Award nominations for “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Gotham,” as well as winning her two Costume Designers Guild Awards for “Boardwalk Empire.”

Currently wrapping her work on the series “Sneaky Pete,” she’s not sure what’s next. As a member of Upstate Women in Film and Television, she hopes for more film work in the Hudson Valley. She wants to write and direct, and recently curated an art exhibit.

“All experience is good experience,” she said.

Whatever Padovani decides to do next, it will hopefully provide an opportunity to look at strangers and wonder why they dress the way they do.

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