For over one hundred years we’ve watched storytelling be brought to life on our screens through poetic scripts, breathtaking cinematography and metaphoric costuming. Films and television shows have the power to shape our culture and become cultural facets themselves.
When Emmy-Award winning costume designer Brenda Cooper moved to the US in her 20s, she had no idea that her work on The Nanny would go on to become an enduring pop culture facet,launching a fashion legacy.
Originally hailing from Hertfordshire in the UK, Brenda’s obsession with fashion – and her-then rocker boyfriend Steven Tyler – saw her leave the high streets of London for the beating heart of fashion – New York City.
Here, Brenda got her first big break in fashion when she scored a gig working for the late legendary fashion designer Jackie Rogers. However, with bills to be paid, Brenda wouldn’t foray into fashion professionally for another decade when she hit a major career crisis.
“I had been pursuing a career in acting and modelling and I was about 30 living in Los Angeles when I got asked to play a hooker and I thought to myself ‘I can’t do this anymore’” Brenda tells The Weekly.
Now, amid a full-blown career crisis, Brenda looked inward for a spark to ignite her next move.
“I thought, ‘What am I good at? What am I naturally good at?’ I’m great at putting clothes together. I used to haunt all the vintage clothing stores in London… and so I ended up starting a fashion consulting business.”
In a continuing spur of sheer luck, Brenda would only ever have two clients in her fashion consulting business. The first of these clients she keeps in touch with today and the second introduced her to an agent for costume designers.
“It took me three weeks to call because I was scared, I had no experience in the business, and I didn’t think I had anything to offer” Brenda recalls.
However, within just weeks Brenda was assisting costume designer Eduardo Castro on the set of a short-lived show called Princesses where she made a fateful interaction with an up-and-coming actress called Fran Drescher.
“I met Fran on that job in 1991, we were a match made in heaven, and she said to me ‘If I ever get my own TV show, I want you to be my designer’.”
A foray into fashion
Whilst Princesses never made it beyond six episodes, just one year later Fran would phone Brenda to fulfil her promise of making her the costume designer on her own show.
On a flight across the Atlantic, Fran had encountered a moment of serendipity when she was seated next to Jeff Sagansky, a CBS executive where she pitched her idea for a show called The Nanny.
“What do you think about a spin on The Sound of Music only instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door?” Fran recalled saying to the executive in a 2018 interview with Glamour.
After a career in front of the camera, Brenda now found herself behind it and calling the shots with total freedom.
“Fran and Peter trusted me, and they let me do my thing,” Brenda explains.
“I thought to myself, if I’m doing this show, I’m going to make a difference. I’m going to make this show have an impact that supports the script with a brush stroke of fashionable fabulousness.”
To support the script and a show that was bursting at the seams with witty dialogue, slapstick comedy and vivacious characters – Brenda was put to the task of bringing Fran Fine to life through fashion.
The mastery of costume designing
Behind every great actress in a great outfit, there’s a great costume designer.
You could be forgiven for assuming that what is worn in films and on television is an arbitrary choice – particularly when those clothes seem to be everyday items. But costume designing is so much more than that; the art isn’t the clothes, but more so how they’re put together.
Every stylistic choice that a costume designer makes portrays something to the audience subliminally. Whether it’s to elevate the comedy or to inadvertently reveal something about that character – costumes are as important as dialogue to any production.
For example, Brenda says she often juxtaposed the fabulousness of Fran’s personality with the seriousness of the Sheffield household. To do this she made costuming choices such as adding vests and ties to extravagant outfits.
Each week, Brenda sifted through the glamorous department stores of Beverly Hills to curate outfits for all the show’s characters. However, the job is far more than simply buying clothes. Each piece was altered, trimmed, ornamented or “Brenda Cooper-ised” in some way.
“It wasn’t just important for the costumes to be stylish. They had to be witty, they had to support the story and elevate the script. And it always had to have a sense of glamour.”
Whilst The Nanny was undeniably popular in its six-year run, the show – and its fashion – has exponentially exploded in the years since. Now it has become a pop culture phenomenon eaching people who weren’t even born during the show’s original run.
Thousands of people dress up as Fran Fine each year for Halloween. And burgeoning fashion-lovers look to the timeless silhouettes created by Brenda to learn the art of styling for themselves. Similarly, hundreds of internet accounts have become galleries chronicling the wealth of Fran Fine outfits Brenda created.
Building the fashion legacy of Fran Fine on The Nanny
Fran Fine is an undeniable style icon. But part of her magic – and enduring fashion legacy – was Brenda’s resistance to trends.
Nineties fashion was underpinned by neutral colours and plain fabrics. Brenda found herself drawn to brands such as Moschino, Todd Oldham and Anna Sui who offered pieces bursting with colour and prints.
“What I created for Fran wasn’t what was going on in fashion. If you look at the fashion of the early ’90s you’re not really going to see Fran Fine’s style
“It’s a classic style that I updated for the 90s and I gave it a sassy elegance. But it was still classic, a classic vest, a classic miniskirt, a classic pump. You can still combine all those elements today because they’re timeless.”
What happened to The Nanny wardrobe?
To mark the show’s 30th anniversary, Brenda recently delved back into the world of The Nanny. Recently she hosted an exhibition of her illustrations for The Santa Monica College Fashion and Photography Department.
Curiously, whilst Brenda’s exquisite illustrations were displayed in the exhibit, no original pieces from the show’s wardrobe made an appearance.
For a production that has been eclipsed by its own costumes, the absence of The Nanny’s wardrobe on its 30th anniversary has a simple explanation . It was sold off.
“I went to get The Nanny wardrobes some years later when I was working with Fran on Happily Divorced.
“I called up Sony and they said they had just sold it off to a thrift store,” Brenda explains stoically.
“It was like your child had been given away. I was so upset and shocked.”
So hundreds of high-end and instantly recognisable pieces from The Nanny now exist in wardrobes across Los Angeles and California.
There’s also a cult-like following of fashion-lovers who hunt for the eclectic pieces from Fran Fine’s wardrobe.
For example, Fran’s iconic Moschino rainbow vest that she wears in promotional shots for the sitcom sells upwards of $800. And despite not being the one from the show, a Moschino patent leather red heart bag can fetch an eye-watering sum of $5000 and more.
“It’s the greatest compliment to me that my first job as a designer has become so iconic and that the pieces have become collectors’ items,” Brenda says.
Brenda says the fashion legacy of her work on The Nanny goes well beyond clothes.
“Finding my passion has helped other people find their passion whilst others have learned to elevate their confidence through self-expression. And nothing makes me happier than that.”
Inspired by this, Brenda sat down to write a book called The Silhouette Solution. In the pages, she teaches women how to develop their own sense of personal fashion, style and confidence. And the foreword is written by the flashy girl from Flushing herself.
Brenda’s underlying ethos is that fashion is not exclusively reserved for celebrities with stylists. Nor is it a superfluous commercial indulgence.
“How you dress affects everything from how you think, how you feel, how you act and how you’re perceived. How could fashion possibly be superficial?’
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