Hacks Season 3: Costume Designer Kathleen Felix-Hager on How Fashion and Comedy Go Hand-In-Hand
May 29, 2024

Written by Hannah Jackson, Vogue

After a whirlwind nine episodes, Hacks wraps up its third season tomorrow night. The fan-favorite Max show stars Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, a washed-up comedian with a middling Vegas casino residency, who gets another chance at her career thanks to Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), a young, arrogant, and lightly canceled comedy writer. This season of the odd-couple comedy—arguably the best yet—centered on Deborah’s uphill battle to host a late night talkshow, after she lost the opportunity decades earlier.

The show has always used fashion as a tool to emphasize the comedy. Wardrobe was one of the many ways Hacks wordlessly communicates the stark contrast between Deborah (whose style codes include animal print and sparkles) and Ava (whose dream shopping spree takes place in a thrift store’s men’s department). It was also always ammunition. “I was just wondering why you were dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic,” Deborah tells Ava in the second episode of season one. This season, however, the fashion was far more inextricable from the plot.

After our protagonists part ways at the end of season two, it’s a dress that helps bring them back together (and the famous Tom Cruise coconut cake, but that’s neither here nor there). When Ava spots a yellow couture Bill Blass dress that Deborah is set to wear to accept an award the following night, she is the only person to tell her that it is “literally the most hideous dress I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” In turn, Deborah tells Ava that she has no right to criticize, telling her “you look like you’re about to have lunch on a steel girder.” But Deborah knows she has to break free from her mob of sycophants, and Ava telling her the dress is “giving Big Bird” is the push she needed.

Finding the right dress was a challenge for costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager. “There was no direction in the script other than it’s an ugly dress [and] no one has the guts to tell Deborah it’s ugly except Ava,” she says. “So it is a fine line to walk because I needed the audience to believe that at some point, Bill Blass would’ve talked to her into wearing this dress.”

Costuming continued to inform the plot throughout the season as well as the characters’ sensibilities. In an episode where the two get lost on a hike, they run into trouble when Ava’s phone breaks. When she asks Deborah for hers, the comedian reveals that she didn’t bring a phone because it “ruins my line.”

In another episode, Ava agrees to caddy for Deborah as she courts the studio’s satellite executives. Fresh off of being chastised about her lack of experience in service work, Ava adds insult to injury by wearing her caddy smock backwards. “That was something that came about on set the morning that we filmed that scene, because Hannah came out in her caddy costume, and she didn’t have the little visor on, and she sort of looked too chic,” Felix-Hager says. “So five minutes before we roll camera, we flipped her caddy vest and added that hat, and then they just wrote to it. I think it made the scene better, actually.”

Aside from the Bill Blass dress, which Felix-Hager embellished to be “so atrocious to me that it made me laugh,” she says, the season also signals a style evolution for its two leads. Deborah, who is wooing the network for late night, begins dressing for the job she wants. That’s not to say she abandons her love of leopard print and paillettes, but we do see her in more structured suiting. “She wants to be perceived more seriously, so her clothes are a little bit more tailored, a little less flashy—even though there’s moments of flash,” Felix-Hager says.

Ava, meanwhile, is also evolving. “She’s grown up a bit, and she’s feeling a little bit more mature in her clothes, and she’s added pieces that—in Ava’s mind—elevate her a little bit, take her out of the grungy writer vibe, and she’s a little bit more polished, a little bit more put together,” Felix-Hager says. Just don’t expect anyone to stop making fun of her clothes.

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