In 1975 Esquire magazine asked, "Will Halston take over the world?" For a period of time, the answer was a definitive yes. In the 1970s and early '80s, the Halston brand was synonymous with chic minimalism and the Studio 54 party aesthetic. Other than Frédéric Tcheng's 2019 docudrama bearing the designer's name, the new Netflix limited series from executive producer Ryan Murphy is the first to take on the sharp rise and fall of Roy Halston Frowick. Adapted from Steven Gaine's 1991 biography Simply Halston, the five-part series with Ewan McGregor in the title role portrays the bold and volatile designer's unforgettable impact on fashion. Long before the term "influencers" entered the lexicon, designer Halston and his celebrity clientele were synonymous with effortless elegance.
Costume designer Jeriana San Juan is well versed in period attire, having worked on The Get Down and The Plot Against America, but the challenge of creating pieces steeped in fashion history is interpreting without directly copying the original. San Juan captures the fluidity of these pieces worn by celebrities and models including Liza Minnelli, Elsa Peretti, and Bethann Hardison. A picture of modern sophistication himself, the impeccably dressed Halston rarely strayed outside of a black and white palette — and neither does McGregor. Here are ten costumes that reflect the visionary figure and the history of American fashion in the stylish new Netflix limited series.
Italian jewelry designer Elsa Peretti not only conceived the iconic curvy perfume bottle of the bestselling perfume, but she was also one of his Halston's models when he made the move from millinery to ready-to-wear clothing. Here, Elsa (Rebecca Dayan) sports an eye-catching tie-dye chiffon caftan that helps cement Halston's reputation for being able to craft a fabulous garment from one piece of fabric. The height of comfort and luxury, the flowing caftan was a contemporary twist on a classic that helped announce Halston's arrival. This also offers a glimpse of Joel Schumacher's (Rory Culkin) penchant for patterns and how the film director got his career start working for Halston — the pair met on Fire Island in the 1960s. He studied at Parsons School of Design and found his path to Hollywood as a costume designer on the adaptation of Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays, in which he used Halston pieces to reflect the character's affluence.
Halston developed his signature design aesthetic early on, which includes the bold back revealing halterneck dress. Peretti is a vision in red and this would become a go-to silhouette for the decade that turned away from flower power imagery. Elegance was integral to Halston's vision and during his time designing hats at the luxury New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, he racked up a list of impressive clients. He is the man behind the pillbox hat worn by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1961 inauguration, but as the decade wore on, hats fell out of fashion. His next step shook up fashion, but he didn't do it alone. Illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu) was a prominent figure in this company as the creative director, capturing the beauty of these garments in his sketches. He was a close confidante and also the first person to introduce Halston to Studio 54.
In November 1973, American designers were invited to take part in the fashion showdown of the century against their established French counterparts. The event was organized to raise money to help restore the Palace of Versailles to its former glory, and Halston was one of the designers selected to showcase his work against the likes of Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As shown in the image above, the glamorous squad arrives at Paris-Orly airport looking runway ready. Halston cuts a refined figure dressed all in black, and oversized shade are a must. Other figures in his commanding entourage include Pat Ast (Shawna Hamic), Bethann Hardison (Megan Danielle Gerald), and BFF Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez).
Designer San Juan dials it up for the Versailles arrival to highlight that this team has come to play. For a palace that's seen the height of haute couture, the American ready-to-wear offerings help usher in a new sartorial sensibility. Halston typically favors classic textures for his own closet, but this entrance requires a glossy spin on the trench coat staple. Surrounded once again by his beautiful team, the oversized shades and fur-trimmed coats are a visually unifying statement. This isn't a case of everyone wearing the same thing, but the color story and choice of garments reflect a cohesive image. Liza in a cream ensemble paired with a large horseshoe belt (designed by Peretti) can't help but pull focus.
Halston and Liza were so tight that Minnelli has refused to criticize the temperamental designer. He had a big hand in crafting her fashion persona and dressed her for important events such as the Cabaret afterparty and the night she won an Oscar for playing Sally Bowles. She was often in head-to-toe Halston when off duty, but at this moment in the series she is representing the brand. This white fedora is a staple, and this image of the singer rehearsing is quintessential Liza. Her role in the Battle at Versailles was to charm the audience with "Bonjour Paris," but she also plays mediator and morale booster when Halston threatens to walk due to limited rehearsal time.
The black bowler and sequin halter is pure Sally Bowles energy. This is a very different look to what Liza actually wore at Versailles to perform (the real outfit looks closer to the rehearsal image) but these are the kind of leaps a costume designer makes.
One of the elements that makes the American contingent stand out at Versailles is the diversity of the models in their line-up — the French roster only has one Black model, whereas the Americans have ten. Halston's squad of muses was referred to as the Halstonettes (a name coined by André Leon Talley) and the above image is indicative of the designer's runway shows. Body-hugging gowns are the height of 1970s glam and synonymous with the party scene back in New York City. By showing them to the A-list crowd (including Princess Grace of Monaco) in attendance at Versailles, Halston was announcing his vision to the world.
The architect of the event was American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert who shaped tastes for decades — in contemporary terms, she has been likened to Anna Wintour. Casting Gilmore Girls matriarch Kelly Bishop as Lambert instantly gives this character gravitas. Here she looks more like the women who bought hats from Halston when he worked at Bergdorf Goodman than his current clients, but her pussy-bow blouse and heritage print emphasize her old-school authority that led to this triumphant evening.
Nothing says Halston quite like a plunging neckline — costume designer Michael Wilkinson used vintage Halston for Amy Adams' most daring American Hustle looks — and Liza's beautiful beaded jumpsuit fits this mold. Based on a glitzy ensemble that Liza wore to her birthday bash in 1979, San Juan has captured the sexy playful vibe. Liza looks far happier than her companion; although he was always debonair, by now his drug use is becoming a problem. Halston was perhaps the first celebrity designer, and this shot sees him heading into the exclusive Manhattan discotheque Studio 54.
His empire's days may be numbered, but you'd never know it from looking at Halston taking in another night at Studio 54. Whether it was designing uniforms for the Girl Scouts, flight attendants, or the 1976 Olympic team, the designer happily said yes to every offer. But it was the line with JCPenney that was truly the beginning of the end for his company. Today it's more common for high-end designers to do a limited run with a fast-fashion outlet like H&M, but in the early '80s, it was unheard of, and he paid the price.
Halston is now streaming on Netflix.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.