The Freedom of Fire Island: An Interview with Costume Designer David Tabbert
June 3, 2022

written by Fawnia Soo Hoo, Fashionista

"In our community, money isn't the only form of currency," says "Fire Island" protagonist Noah (Joel Kim Booster) in a Millennial Elizabeth Bennet-esque narration voiceover. "Race, masculinity, abs... just a few of the metrics we use to separate ourselves into upper and lower classes." 

The Bushwick Brooklynite and his chosen family fall in the latter half of that hierarchy. As they excitedly embark on their annual "sacred" pilgrimage to the gay summer mecca, Noah's narration continues: "Of course, I don't care about all that shit, but..." He pauses, he and his friends approvingly watch five very fit men on the ferry ceremoniously remove their shirts. "What can I say? I'm a class traitor."

Inspired by Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," writer-star Booster takes the story and its study on classism, romance and societal biases from the quaint but cutthroat 19th century English countryside to the jubilant, raucous and also-cutthroat Fire Island. "What happens when gay men are put together on an island and there are no straight people to oppress us? How do we oppress each other?" asked Booster in a Vanity Fair interview.

In a tale as old as time, wardrobe plays an integral role in displaying — and emphasizing — social stratifications. 

On Fire Island, what you wear (or don't wear) also proudly demonstrates an important message. It's a spirit that the movie's costume designer David Tabbert, being a Fire Island regular for decades, knows first-hand.

"As soon as they get there, they can completely be themselves, and there's a sense of freedom that comes along with being almost solely amongst people who are like you — your community," he says. "It just holds special place in my heart." 

Along with recalling personal experience and "refreshing Instagram by the hour," Tabbert researched the history of sartorial self-expression on Fire Island. Although, he admits there was one specific challenge for using costume design to take the characters through their journeys: "The trick is how to convey that when we're going to a place where so little clothing is worn."

"We wanted things to just show a lot of skin. I mean, Fire Island is all about just throwing something on to go out of the house and what you can pack to repurpose in different ways — swimsuits that double as shorts, incorporating swimwear in every in every outfit," Tabbert says. "Because you might just jump into the pool or go to go to the beach at any time."

Case in point: Noah packs lots of crop-tops and low-side tanks for the trip. (On the ferry, bookish undercover-partier Max — played by Torian Miller — accuses him of "conforming to toxic body standards.")

"We really wanted to show a sense of confidence and sexiness, as someone who's really come into their own," says Tabbert. "He's self-assured." 

Noah's abs- and bicep-baring logo shirts also reflect his budget and personality, like a throwback Adidas tank in his signature aqua blue ("we wanted to put him in colors that just really complemented him"), a sleeveless and cropped vintage "Badlands" tee (two above) and two muscle shirts reading: Pasadena Leisure Club and Y,IWO (Yeah, I Work Out.) His go-to shoes are a pair of limited-edition Converse Chuck Taylors. 

Tabbert notes how it was also important for "queer voices to be to be to be heard and seen in the clothing." He looked to Raf Swiader's "gender optional" line, R.Swiader, for example, for Noah's "chopped" and sleeveless black T-shirt (above) and tiny beach briefs.

Noah's best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) flies in for the week from his "cush job in San Francisco," as mentioned in the opening narration. He's the restrained, romantic Jane Bennet: in his 30s, never been in a relationship, very bashful about hooking up. The two are the closest confidantes for, as Noah says, "complex spiritual reasons, but all the obvious ones, too." Flashback to their days as the only Asians dealing with micro (and macro) aggressions while waiting tables at a douche-filled Williamsburg brunch spot. ("No fats, no femmes, no Asians," as Keegan, played by Tomas Matos, reminds them of the biases permeating the hookup apps.)

For Howie, Tabbert emphasized a "normcore practicality" fitting for a young professional in the most expensive city in the U.S. "He was really guarded, so we wanted to convey that with the clothes," he says. So, he veered toward higher-neck silhouettes, as opposed to Noah-style slashed tanks.  Howie's layering, like a blue textured Bonobos short-sleeve button-down over a custom pink high-neck tank (above) by queer-owned bespoke poppers line, Double Scorpio, "[gives] him a sense of protection," according to Tabbert.

Still, there are small, meaningful touches that reflect his friendships: "Howie and Noah wore matching chains — Howie's silver, Noah's gold — as a symbol of their bond," says Tabbert.

Howie tentatively sets out on his own romantic arc with his Mr. Bingley, a sweet puppy dog of a doctor named Charlie (James Scully, a.k.a. Forty from season two of "You"). Tabbert depicted Howie's growing confidence through progressing his (relatively) conservative outfits. At a turning point, Howie wears a black and navy watercolor short-sleeve button-up by Saturdays NYC over a dark Calvin Klein tank and crisp shorts by Parke & Ronen (above) for a karaoke rendition of Britney Spears's "Sometimes," backed by besties Luke (Matt Rogers) and Keegan.

"He's more at peace with himself and all the circumstances that have unfolded, and intentionally looks good and sexy," says Tabbert. By the exhilarated finale on the pier, Howie's self-assured in a brown Carhartt Work in Progress T-shirt under a Bonobos dark blue collared shirt for his "Last Dance" with Charlie, who always looks like he jetted onto Fire Island straight from Martha's Vineyard.

Delineating the income level, professional status and aforementioned physique distinctions, Charlie's crew — dubbed "The Ocean Walk Boys" for their sprawling beachfront rental — dress the part, too.

Tabbert looked to his own experiences growing up in Connecticut for Charlie's "old East Coast money" aesthetic, like the outfit he wears for dinner with Howie and co. in their more humble abode: a white Fred Perry polo with navy detail, matching Vineyard Vines shorts and Sperry topsiders, sans socks. This country club-ready outfit especially contrasts with Howie's friends during a spirited game of Heads Up during which Keegan wears a very cropped vintage Florida vacation T-shirt accessorized with Edgar Mosa pearls and R. Swieder "sissy" necklace and Luke a "Beat Street" vintage distressed tee and his trademark Kapital bandana "consciously-styled," as always, around his neck (above).

"With Luke, we described him as the one who's doing the most and saying the least," laughs Tabbert. "Really trying just a little too hard." 

Fellow theater school drop-out Keegan's eclectic style features wrestling shorts by Aquaria, an Andrew Christian harness singlet, a cropped T-shirt by artist Thomas Knight of Tom Tom Fashions (featuring a drawing of "two guys sharing a hot dog") and a Telfar durag that Tabbert imagines they saved up to buy. "[Keegan's look celebrates] a new generation of 'Paris is Burning,'" he says, referring to Jenny Livingston's 1990s documentary on ball culture. "Like kids who hang out by the Christopher Street Pier vogueing." 

But Cooper (Nick Adams) — Ocean Walk's resident Caroline Bingley — exhibits his snarky, vicious snobbery through all his expensive matched sets and loud prints. 

Upon their first meeting at the tea party, Cooper sneers at the Noah et al in bold paisley Gucci (above) — showcasing his always oiled-up pecs and abs — and follows up in "head-to-toe" Versace. Not to mention, he never takes off his obnoxious, chunky chain choker (which is Dior, obviously).

"Cooper's outfits were always coordinated designer," says Tabbert. "Very conscious. Very irritating. To really get under your skin."

Well, Noah's, definitely, as he stews about his own Mr. Darcy: Ocean Walk's hot, aloof lawyer Will (Conrad Ricamora), who also wears his dashing standoffishness. Of course Will would host a pool party in a Giorgio Armani polo and Burberry swim trunks. But despite his luxury wardrobe and seemingly arrogant veneer, Will isn't quite as assured as he seems — like when he wears actual khaki shorts to the hedonistic Underwear Party, where guests are barely even wearing that.

"We wanted to show this awkward, self-consciousness with him," says Tabbert. 

He also confirms that Noah and Will's sexual tension-filled stomp through the "Meat Rack" in a sexy rainstorm is, indeed, an homage to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging from a lake in a wet, clinging white shirt — only, in this case, he's shirtless.

The Andrew Ahn-directed movie is also delightful nesting doll of Jane Austen references, like Howie's perfect "way harsh, Tai," in response to Noah accusing Will of being "just a token Asian in a sea of white friends." But, like Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, Noah and Will find each other, as they team up to save the good name (and Internet presence) of Luke (definitely the Lydia) from malicious Dex (Zane Phillips), a.k.a. the Mr. Wickham of Grindr.

As the duo finally falls into a blissful summer romance, their costume signatures swap and merge: Will relaxes in more T-shirts, including a Zegna graphic-print one (above) and a worn-in aqua at the finale, as Noah lowers his defensive walls and shows a "maturity" through more streamlined pieces. 

"We really wanted to give them a romanticism and create a real sense of harmony and unity," says Tabbert. "And togetherness."

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