"The Nanny" costume designer Brenda Cooper tells us why Fran Fine's iconic wardrobe transcends time
When we think of ‘90s style icons, so many come to mind. There’s Cher Horowitz from Clueless, Drew Barrymore with her slip dresses, Courtney Love with her babydoll grunge dresses, and the teenage witches from The Craft. But there’s one particular style maven seemingly omnipresent in our social media feeds: Fran Fine. The star of ’90s sitcom The Nanny, played by Fran Drescher, is famous for her bold, colorful, scene-stealing looks.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a surge of interest in the The Nanny, which aired from 1993 to 1999, despite the lack of streaming (a missed opportunity for Netflix and Hulu). The renewed interest is due in part to the popular What Fran Wore Instagram, Cardi B’s ode to Fran Fine fashion (and possible reboot starring Cardi as Fine’s daughter), and the ongoing cycle of fashion repeating itself. Many of Fran’s outfits—the checkered mini skirts, crop tops, furry coats, and thigh highs—could easily be worn today. In fact, we’re in a curious time when it comes to fashion, where many eras have cycled back and forth enough times over that pretty much anything goes. An army of Fran Fine-inspired outfits could probably flood the streets with nary a batted eye.
As with any iconic fashionable figure in film and TV, there is always someone behind the curtain, the architect of these legendary looks. For Fran Fine, it’s Brenda Cooper. The British-born costume designer brought The Nanny characters’ outfits to life—so much, in fact, that Renée Taylor, who played Fran’s mom, Sylvia Fine, told Cooper that she didn’t know who her character was until she dressed her.
Cooper worked on The Nanny for four seasons (and won an Emmy) before leaving to have children. Aside from The Nanny, Cooper has worked as a costume designer on other movies and shows (including Happily Divorced, which also starred Drescher) as well as a stylist, color expert (she has helped clients like Jamie Lee Curtis figure out their wardrobe color palette), and host of E!’s Fashion Emergency. Currently, she’s is working on a book proposal for a sort of style guide that incorporates the tenets Cooper uses to help empower women and their wardrobes.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Nanny, Cooper (who remains very close friends with Drescher) invited me to her home studio to see some of Fran’s wardrobe in person, rummage through stacks of behind-the-scenes Polaroids, and talk about the show’s most memorable looks.
HelloGiggles (HG): How did you start working on The Nanny?
Brenda Cooper (BC): I had met Fran previously on my second job, where I was the assistant to the designer Eduardo Castro. She was doing a short-lived series called Princesses with Twiggy and Julie Hagerty. She said, “If I ever get my own show, I want you to be the designer.” I had previously pursued a career as an actress that had gone nowhere faster than the speed of sound, so I had to get a job. I wanted to start a business and I was always great in putting clothes together. When I went from being on camera to behind the camera, I was—I don’t want to say the wrong word here—but a little bit alarmed with the approach to costume in film and television. To me, it was really, really important, but it didn’t seem in the hierarchy of Hollywood that costume designers were all that important. I was like, “Wow, if I’m going to do this show that Fran’s given me to do, I want to make a statement.”
HG: Were you given a lot of input as to how Fran’s character would dress?
BC: I didn’t get any direction, but I knew exactly what to do, and Fran just let me do it. I had taken some of the looks and one of the vests from Princesses—it was very colorful and it was form-fitting. That was the inspiration to create this character. I intentionally wanted to make a statement of style, wit, and humor, all combined. So I just started shopping for the show. It was intuitive, and it’s the way I work with clients today, just knowing…the way it should be. I wanted color, I wanted it to be sexy. And there was lots of color available in 1993. We would always shop in Beverly Hills. Going to Neiman Marcus was just like style heaven—all of the prints, the color, and Moschino, Cheap and Chic, and Dolce and Gabbana. They were all in there.
I’d just pull the stuff off the racks and load up clothing, and then go into our weekly Wednesday fitting. Even though you’re a designer, in a certain way you have your hands tied a little bit. Fran gave me my wings and she trusted me. We were a match made in heaven. She just let me do my thing, and that’s what the result was.
HG: Why do you think the interest in The Nanny’s style is happening today?
BC: First of all, her character is iconic. That style that I created was made to transcend the test of time. It wasn’t created to be trendy. It is as wearable today as it is then. It’s bold, it’s bright, it makes a statement. It’s sexy. I think the millennials just love it. They just love the look, and that you could wear it today.
HG: Yeah, every single outfit.
BC: Every single outfit. If you walk into my closet now, I have clothes from 20 years ago that I still wear. When you make the right choice, you can still wear it today, 20 years from now, and back in the ’90s when we did it. That’s intuitively how I work. I would use fashion to create style. I wouldn’t really go after, “Oh, we have to do this, because it’s a trend.” I don’t care about it, I never have. As I say, I paint pictures of style with clothing.
I love when millennials want to raid my closet. Or they come up to me and say, “I want to dress like you.” I’m old enough to be their mother, and possibly their grandmother. It’s great, it’s really inspiring. Then from another aspect is that character, which I didn’t realize the impact. The way she presented herself was very motivational and inspirational for people. Someone who was outspoken, who was loud and proud, who had her style. I read stuff on Instagram where people said that the character, and the way she looked, really helped them through hard times.
A lot of people consider image superficial. It’s not superficial, because it’s an expression. Your outward image is an expression of your inner self. For me, it’s always about the marrying of the inner and the outer. That’s why, to think that the creation of the look of that character has actually helped people, is really inspirational and very moving for me. At the heart of our style is confidence, and I love how I can get people to be confident through what they’re putting on the outside.
HG: I know this is going to be a hard question, but what are some of your favorite looks from the show?
BC: I have to say the first season was just so great. Todd Oldham’s outfits, because Todd was a huge inspiration for me, and I loved all of his clothes. He had this little black skirt with a vest, and Asian embroidery around it, in black satin. There’s also a brick print suit that I think was Todd.
One day, I used an inexpensive, black bell-bottom catsuit that I could kick myself for giving away. And I have it here, but it’s a Todd Oldham vest that’s encrusted with sequins, but has black silhouettes underneath it. I absolutely love that. There’s so many. I look back sometimes and I go, “Wow, I did that. That’s great.” She looked fantastic. It didn’t really hit me until recently that I created the look of a show that actually became iconic.
HG: I know you used all sorts of designers, but did you design any of the costumes yourself?
BC: Well, the speed of television moved so fast that I didn’t really have time. Fran is not a made-to-order girl. We’ve actually had a conversation about this last night, about a dress that she had made and it didn’t fit. I copied a few pieces for the episode where the joke was that she and Madeline Zima were dressed the same, they’re both in leopard. I had the leopard dress that I found for Madeline and then I knocked off—excuse me, Todd, sorry for knocking you off—a Todd Oldham bolero jacket and then made a pencil skirt.
And there’s the whole thing with Patti LaBelle. I created the looks for all the characters, so the guest stars would come on and they’d always be told to bring their own stuff. Patti shows up and she hasn’t brought anything. We’re doing the show in two hours. I thought, “Oh my God, I have to make Patti LaBelle look like Patti LaBelle.” So, I know I have a pair of bell-bottom silk charmeuse pants by Norma Kamali. Then I went into Beverly Hills and found a huge Donna Karan gold skirt. Then I run to Saks and found this beaded top dress and a beaded jacket. I get all the pieces, get back to the studio, cut up the dress, and make it into a top. I take the jacket, stitch shoulder pads in it, and take the center out of the skirt so it becomes a 1950s hostess skirt, and she looked brilliant.
HG: Oh my god.
BC: She took the outfit home, she loved it so much. I just knew I was in the right profession. One of my favorite outfits on Sylvia was a red, form-fitting sequin dress with a leopard swing coat over it that I made. Bob Mackie was inspiration for the dress. I talk to Renée all the time. She’s one of my closest friends, and she still wears that.
HG: Didn’t you also use pieces you found from Kmart back then?
BC: I didn’t care if it came from Neiman’s or Kmart. Today, I still don’t care. If I can make something work, I don’t care where it comes from. I once found an amazing jacket in a trash can that somebody threw out for another show, and I got it fixed up and used the jacket on C.C. It doesn’t have to be designer. I was asking Peter [Marc Jacobson] if he remembered anything back in the day, because Fran’s writing the foreword for my book, and he said, “Oh, you always told us, it doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to have great style.” There wasn’t money in the beginning. There wasn’t a budget, and that’s where I created the canvas of the black turtleneck, black miniskirt, the black opaque tights, and black suede heels. They had to be suede so that they didn’t reflect the light. Because if it would have been leather, you would have seen the break on camera. I wanted a solid silhouette. Then we’d change the look by the jackets and pieces that are put over it.
HG: Are there any behind-the-scene stories you can tell us?
BC: Okay, this isn’t actually costume-related, but it is funny. There was a scene where Fran is hanging in an elevator and she’s wearing a gown. They have a stunt person doing it. So, they start the shot on the feet, and the girl who’s a stunt double has got bunions all over her feet. It’s supposed to be Fran’s feet. It was like, oh my god, oh my god. Just things like that would happen.
HG: With all the clothing you come across in your work, how do you figure out what to keep?
BC: I’m very attached to clothing; clothing is like children to me. It’s so difficult to let go. I mean, I have my school tie in my closet from when I was four. I’m just passionate about them. It’s so sad what happened to The Nanny wardrobe. When Fran and I came back together in 2012 to do Happily Divorced, I thought, you know something? I want to see if I can find the wardrobe, to see if we could use any of it. When a show completes, all of the wardrobe goes into a central department at the studios. It’s like a graveyard of all of these clothes. I went to track down the wardrobe which was at Sony, and it had just been sold to a thrift store in the Valley. I called the thrift store and I begged them; I told them I was the designer of The Nanny and they wouldn’t help me. People today have pieces of clothing in their wardrobe that are the original Nanny wardrobe and probably don’t know that.
HG: Oh my gosh. It’s just floating out there in the world.
BC: Can you believe that? It breaks my heart, it really does.
HG: Can you tell us more about the book you’re working on?
BC: I’m in the proposal phase of doing a book. Dressing is the easiest part of your day. I have a system that I’ve had for years. It works on everybody and it just makes dressing effortless, easy, and you walk out the door confident, empowered, and ready to take on your day. The funny thing is, the principles that I used with Fran, with Renée, with C.C., it’s the same principles of dressing, but you’ve got three completely different flavors. I’m so committed to women stepping into their magnificence. I’ve worked with women who look in the mirror and they just hate what they see. Then I will dress them in a way that totally breaks all the rules we’re told. One woman just looked in the mirror and she just wept. She said, “I didn’t think this was possible for me.” I love giving that gift to women.