My So-Called Life: Never Before Seen Images & Stories

Photo: REX USA/Everett Collection.
Two decades ago, everyone’s favorite teen drama, My So-Called Life, aired for the very first time. The ultimate coming-of-age TV show premiered to vast critical acclaim and achieved something its peers have largely failed to do: It resonated with both angst-ridden teens and their despairing parents. But, despite an ardent audience campaign to save it, the cult series was cancelled after 19 episodes and an ambiguous finale.
Still, the show has not left our popular consciousness and culture; it's persistently referenced on TV, in film, and, perhaps most prominently, in fashion. For some of us, ‘90s style will forever be associated with Claire "Chase Face" Danes and Jared "I Love The Way He Leans" Leto, roaming the halls of Liberty High School in his-and-hers plaid. The costumes on My So-Called Life were one of the many, many reasons we were riveted as Angela and her cohorts navigated awkward, pre-millenium adolescence — clad in flannel, loose layers, mismatched accessories, and sporting what my grandmother might call “interesting” hairstyles.
The man responsible for the show’s iconic wardrobe is Emmy Award winner Patrick R. Norris, a TV director who spent 20 years designing costumes before making his directing debut in the My So-Called Life episode, “Resolutions.” Norris thinks “plaids are soft and peaceful." He punctuates his sentences with “like” and says “dude” a lot. In other words, he’s exactly as you might imagine.
We took a Doc Marten-shod trip down memory lane with Norris and found out the secrets behind the 1994 classic: which character was inspired by a Beatles album cover; the practical reason behind all those layers; how not to direct a 15-year-old Claire Danes; and why, try as he might, Jared Leto can’t help being “just a hot dude.” Go ahead and cancel your plans for tonight, because we’re pretty sure that after reading this, you’ll want to have an MSCL marathon instead (go now, go).
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Photo: REX USA/Everett Collection.
Who, or what, was the inspiration for the main characters?
Patrick R. Norris: "Angela was the simplest [to dress], yet one of the toughest. She had this kind of Annie Hall quality to her, in spirit, and I wanted that flow and that silhouette and that grace when she moved...and I wanted her to have texture to everything. It was hard not to make her look like every other teenage girl on TV, and to give her her own identity. In the end, her red hair made it easier for me to take that risk... I was worried they weren’t going to approve [the hair], but they flipped out — they loved it!"
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Photo: REX USA/Moviestore Collection/Rex.
"Jared Leto is so phenomenal in person; he just has the best energy. Just like you see him — that’s how he is. Just throw a flannel shirt and a pair of jeans on that guy, and he is ready. It was almost like his uniform. But, he has the body language and spirit to carry it off. He’s just a hot dude! Jared showed up to our first meeting with a necklace that he always wore, every day, and I said, ‘Dude, you gotta wear that [on the show]’ and he did. So, that became part of his uniform, too. Jared reminded me a lot of Kurt Cobain in a way — you look at any model picture of Kurt and you’ll see Jared Leto in there a little bit, and you’ll see Jordan Catalano."
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Photo: via @wcruz73.
"Rickie and Rayanne were so much fun. They were inspired by rock stars. They were a little harder than the others since they had a similar vibe, but we had to make sure they still looked individual…

"With Rickie, I was looking at the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, with all the faces of the stars, and I thought, man, we could go there! I could go into that world. Rickie was also inspired by the ‘80s and Michael Jackson, with his sleek look, and the ‘50s with Sal Mineo... I thought, Well, there’s a great blend there — of styles and silhouettes. And, of course, Wilson Cruz could pull it all off."
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Photo: REX USA/Moviestore Collection/Rex.
"I wanted Rayanne to be my kind of Janis Joplin, or a wild-child Cyndi Lauper. I would mix stuff from period costume houses, thrift stores, and designer labels — you never had one designer on her — there was probably four or five different ones at any given time. My other trick was to send her to our hairstylist, Candy Walken, who would do these amazing braids and weave stuff into her hair. Isabel Harkins, who was our make-up artist, would also jump on board with it and AJ [Langer] herself would have a strong opinion, so between the four of us it was inevitable that she was going to be a completely different character than any other you’d seen on TV before. I think every show wants to have that character now, but I don’t think anyone’s managed it."
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Photo: Patrick R. Norris.
Did the actors influence any of your decisions?
"I was always open to their input — I would never tell anybody, ‘You have to wear this.’ I think every actor needs to be comfortable and own his or her wardrobe. In the episode ‘Pressure,’ when Angela is thinking about having sex with Jordan, it was Claire’s decision to wear the dungarees. You know, I’m a heterosexual male, and my thinking was, you’d dress hot [for that scene]. But, she came at it more from the angle that she wanted to protect herself, and I totally respected that and got it."

Who was your favorite character to dress?
"That’s a tough one. It was such an eclectic, fun group that I really can’t pick a favorite. Every episode to me was...almost like putting together a Rockwell photograph — an American family and friends that each stood out individually."
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Photo: REX USA/Moviestore Collection/Rex.
I love that the characters often wore the same outfits, or paired an item from a previous episode with something else in another. Was it your aim to make the wardrobe realistic and accessible to the viewers?
“It was totally the aim. I built closets for them, because I wanted them to pull from the same space and I wanted them to repeat things in one way or another, in some kind of fashion, like any normal kid would... What happens with Hollywood TV shows is there’s always a new change per episode — sometimes four or five — and they don’t repeat stuff. I think that’s why everyone looks so ‘dressed’ on TV now.”

The show was filmed in L.A. but set in Pittsburgh — did you take that into consideration?
“What I hate about shows set east is that everyone’s always in an overcoat all the time... Instead, we worked with layers to keep the cold out: different jackets and shirts, and once in a while, yes, an overcoat, or a Levi’s jacket. Also, to be honest, when you’re shooting in L.A. in August, it’s not comfortable. It’s like a billion degrees here, and to have some poor actor running around with gloves and scarves on, trying to perform, sweating like a monkey; it’s just not worth it.”
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Photo: Patrick R. Norris.
How do you feel when you see teenagers wearing looks inspired by the show?
“When you’re that age, what you wear identifies who you are — because you can’t really talk about it yet. So, when I see kids dressed like Rickie, or Angela, or Jordan, I think, Wow, I know what they’re going through.... I don’t think I have anything to do with it. I don’t take any responsibility for it. I think that I was just…at the right place, at the right time, with the right cast.”

So many designers have been influenced by MSCL. The list is so long, I can’t even begin to name-check them all — but the show is constantly referenced, on and off the catwalk.
“I love that — it blows my mind, really... Actually, I googled [the show] after I heard from you, and to see that much stuff written about it is better than any Emmy Hollywood could ever give me.”
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Photo: REX USA/Everett Collection.
Was being the costume designer a plus or negative when you directed “Resolutions”?
“It was a bonus in the sense that I knew everybody, and I knew what everybody did. But, the scary part was that I had never directed before. I’d been watching the best and worst directors on set for years — but I didn’t know shit... I learned at that particular moment that there were things I really wasn’t prepared for. I seem to have that down now…after 20 years.”

"Resolutions" is one of my favorite episodes, for many reasons. But, mostly because it’s the start of Brian "Brain" Krakow and Jordan Catalano’s beautiful friendship.
“You know, [creator] Winnie Holzman was really smart in utilising the energy that she noticed on set to make things more awkward, and I think it was brilliant... Nothing was really forced. Pretty much the way you saw it on television was the way it played out offstage... Jordan, I mean Jared, is so cool. And, as a kid he had these piercing eyes that were gentle and sweet — but you could see that there was a lot going on with him, and that made him even more cool, you know? So, I think it was intimidating to a normal kid like Devon...but I think they built [the relationship] as they went along.”
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Photo: Patrick R. Norris.
This episode is also an excellent showcase of the many facial expressions of Claire Danes. What was working with her like?
“She really owned that character; it was phenomenal. She was so brilliant. In fact, the first time I directed her, I thought, I don’t have a fucking clue! She would ask me questions, and I did not have the answers... I was saying ‘Well, you know the day after you’ve had sex…’ and she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No, I don’t. I’ve never had sex before.’ And, I thought, I’m fucked here, man! I did not know how to explain it to her, because she didn’t have the resources yet — and neither did I, as a first-time director. My communication skills weren’t really the best. And, I felt bad about it.”

Well, now you’ve directed episodes of pretty much every teen show worth mentioning. What is it about My So-Called Life that stands out from the rest?
“I think I’ve been in high school for 40 years! I’ve done a lot of teen dramas, and I have to say, for me, everybody’s still chasing My So-Called Life. The only cast I felt could compare was Friday Night Lights, which was so organic. When I was directing that show, I could tell there was the same kind of magic going on... It’s the same in its style...of what teen life is really like. As opposed to forced storytelling. There are certain shows I’ve done where I’ve been like, Are you kidding me? Why would they say this? Why would they do that? But, that’s what the writer wants... There’s always some theme behind every teen show now, instead of just being in high school and having a relationship. That’s what I miss.”
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Photo: REX USA/ABC/Everett.
Who are some of your favorite costume designers working in television right now?
“The designer on Gossip Girl, Eric Daman... Just his eye, the way he does things, the way he moves fabric, the way he integrates major designers with his own collections — it was fascinating to me. I usually don’t even look at the wardrobe on shows any more; I just let them do their thing. But, Eric was so brilliant at what he did, it made me miss costume designing. Of all the shows I’ve done, Eric was the only guy who made me feel I should get out and shop! One of my favorite other designers is Mandi Line, who does Pretty Little Liars.”

If you were dressing My So-Called Life today, what would the main difference be?
“I would call Eric Daman! My So-Called Life was such a gift for me...looking back on it I think, Wow, what a blast I had, and what an amazing, eclectic group of clothes. I couldn’t have left [costume design] on a better gig. I couldn’t have had a better group of actors to dress who were fresh and new and had trust in me and I had trust in them. I’m not sure I would change anything.”