If a queen wears a crown, and a princess a tiara, what does the wife of New Jersey’s most famous mobster wear?
For an answer, JCK spoke with Juliet Polcsa, costume designer for The Sopranos, HBO’s award-winning drama series about life in the (fictitious) Newark Mafia. Polcsa was shopping the recently held Centurion show for jewelry for the program, but while bling might be the thing for the women in Tony Soprano’s life, it plays a deeper, more philosophical role in Polcsa’s view of the world.
“I look at jewelry as part of a sociological whole, of man’s need to adorn himself,” she said, explaining that while animals don’t adorn themselves, they have features to attract mates and communicate messages. But people in every culture—from American teenagers to Masai warriors to Swiss housewives—feel the need to adorn and proclaim themselves. (Polcsa’s own adornment consisted of a delicate lariat and a pair of understated gold drop earrings by Ted Muehling.)
Jewelry is especially important for the characters on The Sopranos. “I try to think like the character,” Polcsa says. “Where would they shop? Then it becomes like shopping for a friend and finding something you know she’d like. For example, when we began The Sopranos, I tried to get into Carmela’s [Edie Falco’s] psyche, and I fell into a store called Caché. It’s got sexy clothes for women who aren’t young. As you get older, you don’t need to get into every trend, and that’s where jewelry comes in.”
Polcsa continues, “One of the things I love about what I do is that I can create so many different kinds of people, if the script calls for it.” Through costume, she’s created many archetypes in her career—jocks, Western dudes, and now Jersey girls and wiseguys.
While Polcsa’s job may sound like heaven to a shopaholic, it’s both hard work (“Try finding size 6, blue, cotton, and washable, when the store is closing in five minutes!”) and an opportunity to make a subtle social statement.
For someone who makes her living dressing television and movie characters, Polcsa is not a fan of the celebrity-worshiping culture that’s developed in the United States. “It’s like you’re nothing unless you’re famous,” she says. Nor is she a fond of fads. “Do the younger generations understand lasting beauty and longevity—the kind jewelry provides—or do they only understand H&M?”
American women generally don’t have the kind of individuality that European women do, Polcsa observes. America’s malls and big-box stores have taken some of the personality and creativity away from dress. She feels it’s because the arts aren’t emphasized and aesthetics aren’t revered in the United States. That’s more a part of European culture than American, she says, pointing out that when school districts’ budgets are tight, the first things to be cut are the arts.
“Aesthetics can be taught, but [in the United States] we’re not being taught, we’re being marketed to. Target and Martha Stewart are the two most important people teaching design. They’re not art teachers; they’re retailers.”
Because people learn about design from marketers, they don’t necessarily know what works for them and what doesn’t, says Polcsa. “They believe that because something’s being marketed, that’s what they should have.”
Sloppiness is another pet peeve, and she uses her costume choices to make a subtle statement about it. It’s one thing to be comfortable, but looking like a slob shows disregard for those around you. “At Vesuvio [the fictitious restaurant where The Sopranos characters frequently dine], people are always dressed for lunch and dinner. People say that’s not real, but it’s my little way of making a point,” she says.
Where does jewelry fit in? “The classics have been time proven,” she says. “They work.”
She cites three designers whose jewelry caught her eye at Centurion: “Alex Sepkus, Stephen Webster, and Masriera. They’re really artists who create.”