[This story contains mild spoilers from the third episode of Lessons in Chemistry, “Living Dead Things.”]
In the opening scene of Lessons in Chemistry, lead character Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) steps out of the backseat of a 1950s Pontiac onto the set of her hit cooking show Supper at Six wearing a pair of patterned green trousers. It’s an unusual choice for a woman of that time, as will be demonstrated in a later episode when the owner of the network on which her show airs asks, “Are those pants? Why is she wearing pants?” when she walks from behind the kitchen island where he’d prefer she stay, both literally and figuratively, to interact with her audience.
Though viewers don’t yet know Zott’s backstory or the chain of events that led her to go from cooking up lab experiments as a chemist to becoming housewives’ favorite TV star — unless they’ve read Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel from which the Apple TV+ series was adapted — her image immediately signals her strong-willed and unorthodox nature.
“We really wanted everything to be grounded in reality, especially for Brie and her character and her world,” costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier tells The Music news. “But we also wanted a stylistic twist to it so that it was aesthetically pleasing.”
It’s for that reason, during her research for the project, Gordon-Crozier focused less on the wardrobes of movie stars in films of the 1950s and ‘60s and more on what those Hollywood actresses wore in their private time.
“In movies during that time, women were shown as being quite glamorous. Audrey Hepburn was one of the first characters we would see more casually in a movie like Breakfast at Tiffany‘s or even Funny Face where she’s dressed down wearing cigarette pants and a frumpy sweater,” explains Gordon-Crozier. “So, the research I did was more off-duty actresses behind the scenes at home, and also focusing in on working women who did have families and women who had a different persona as well. So, Lauren Bacall, for instance, and the clothes that she would wear at home, and Grace Kelly — very simple and chic looks where she was usually wearing pants and a men’s button-down shirt.”
Lessons in Chemistry marks Gordon-Crozier’s fourth time working with Larson. Having designed the costumes for her previous films, Short Term 12, The Glass Castle and Unicorn Store, the pair has developed a sense of mutual trust on set.
“We have a very open dialogue, so she doesn’t have to beat around the bush if she doesn’t want to wear something,” says the costumer. “But I’m really into character development and understanding what a character’s mental state is in a scene so she allowed me to really explore it on my own, and then when we had our long fittings, I think we were both able to help each other as well.”
Such was the case when it came to conceptualizing the all-pink, baby blue-accentuated Supper at Six set with production designer Cat Smith, which is revealed in the show by a male producer who, in a bout of ignorant pride, exclaims, “We put our heads together and came up with every woman’s dream kitchen.”
“One of my favorite kitchens from the ‘50s is this colonial style kitchen that has oak cabinets and strapped black wrought iron hinges,” says Smith. “I’ve always thought of it as a sort of weirdly cozy, but at the same time kind of impractical kitchen, but the problem was that it looked too cool and interesting,” she recalls of her first concept for the cooking show set. “When Brie saw it, she’s like, ‘You know, I almost want this kitchen. And really, I should be feeling the opposite.’”
To conjure up that sentiment, Smith says she “leaned heavily into the things that I would dislike the most— like the pink.” She also dramatized the structure of the elements in the kitchen to mimic a special effects trick that was used at the time. “There’s a Hollywood Regency style that they used to do where everything is a little bit exaggerated on set so that it would appear crisper on TV. For instance, a molding would be larger, or it would have bigger swoops so that the shadow lines would fall in the right place. I leaned really heavily into that as well.”
Having a scientist for a husband aided Smith in designing the sets for the laboratory scenes at the fictional Hastings Research Institute where Zott meets Dr. Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), a chemist who unexpectedly changes the course of her personal and professional life. Smith also picked up a bit of an insider tip while working on the 2022 Hulu miniseries The Dropout.
“A chemistry consultant that we had said, ‘You know, chemistry people just laugh all the time at what they set up for chemistry experiments on TV sets, because it’s all these different color liquids and thing and it’s really not like that,” Smith recalls. “He said, ‘But don’t stop doing it because we kind of love it.’ But we didn’t do a lot of that.”
In fact, Smith and her team went to great lengths to source beakers, centrifuges and other equipment from the period with the help of chemistry professor Dr. Jess Parr and a lab historian who would educate the crew on the proper equipment needed to make a particular experiment work and then help them match those elements to the resources that would’ve been available to researchers during the time period.
Finding locations in Los Angeles with architecture that matched the ‘50s and ‘60s was another large hurdle for Smith. The suburb of South Pasadena, which is often used to replicate small midwestern towns in movies, is where the exterior homes of Zott and her neighbor Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King) were filmed due to the uniformity of the properties. The courtyard at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre stands in for UCLA where Zott attended school in 1950, and the 1930s structures of Loyola Marymount University make up the exterior of the Hastings institute.
One of the more challenging scenes was a sit-in staged on an underpass to protest the creation of a new highway through the predominately Black neighborhood of Sugar Hill. The plot was inspired by the true story of the building of Interstate 10 in Los Angeles which wiped out the West Adams community in the early 1960s.
“They wanted to shut down a freeway and film on the freeway, but the problem, of course, is this would have been a brand new freeway, and most of the ones you can shut down, they’re just not new,” Smith explains. “Back then, when they were building a freeway, especially through a neighborhood, they were bulldozing. The trees and stuff would have been brand new. Most freeways now have giant hedges on the side, so that was a problem.”
The solution came in the form of a maintenance yard for freeways that was discovered by a location scout. “Above you are two freeways going into each other so there’s just so many bridges, and I’ve always wanted to shoot under a freeway because it reminds me in a weird way of Roman ruins,” says Smith. “When LA eventually becomes a ruin, the only columns that will be left are going to be these freeway structures.”
The sit-in is led by Sloane, a middle-class Black woman whose character is a blend of those included in Garmus’ book. The wife and mother of two befriends Dr. Evans and later Zott, becoming a confidant through some of her most difficult life transitions. While race and class differences are often magnified in relationships such as this when represented on-screen, Gordon-Crozier chose to emphasize the alikeness of the women through their wardrobe.
“There’s a lot of similarities in the way that Harriet and Elizabeth dress, just in their color palette and their textures and patterns and things like that,” she explains. “Subconsciously, I wanted there to be a unity between the two of them.”
Unity is a theme that underlies the experiences of women throughout the series as they fight back against patriarchy in small ways, like refusing to wear an apron in the kitchen and donning a custom laboratory-inspired chef’s coat instead. And big ways, like Zott refusing to be a second author on her own research paper which costs her a job, but ultimately serves as a catalyst for a new career. It’s both examples that bring a sense of universality to Zott’s experiences for audiences, even though they’re so distinctly tied to a particular place in time.
“I can completely relate to Elizabeth in the sense of being a working mother. There’s always a push and pull between being a mom and providing for your family and also being passionate and good at what you want to do,” says Gordon-Crozier. “I think she’s quite an inspiration. Elizabeth never really gives up even though the world tries to bring her down.”