When Friends landed on TV 25 years ago, it sparked a number of revolutions: it flipped the script on tired sitcom tropes; it introduced audiences to six characters who would become household names worldwide; and it transformed simple, everyday items of clothing into iconic, era-defining looks. Sure, it might be a bit white by 2019’s standards but back then…
Now, while you probably already know how Friends breathed life into TV comedy by offering audiences something relatable, can list the qualities of the characters as if you were discussing your own family, and can pinpoint instantly your favorite fashion moments, there’s one person intrinsic to the show’s legacy you probably don’t know.
That person is Debra McGuire, the show’s costume designer, who, despite the myriad of articles written about how and why a Friends character’s look is reflective of today’s trends, was never actually that interested in fashion. In fact, she says she finds the comparisons quite funny.
“I just read an article about Monica’s clothes being 100 percent on trend for what’s happening today. I find it so humorous,” McGuire says. “The article said we overlooked Monica’s wardrobe, but here, in the context of fashion today, it’s on trend. You know, none of that has any meaning to me because that’s not really what I was doing.”
Instead, McGuire says her primary focus was on the characters and how they would interact with each other visually given they shared so much screen time. She also wanted to present something that hadn’t been done before. So when the show’s executive producer Marta Kauffman told her, “They’re in New York. They’re hanging out. They should be hanging out in jeans,'” McGuire was like, “Yeah, no. I don’t think so.”
Instead, McGuire wanted to create something aspirational. Something fresh. Yet still subtly reflecting the era and New York City.
“It was all about texture and color and staying true to a New York palette,” McGuire explains. “It was very black, white, gray, with hits of color. Jennifer [Aniston, Rachel] brought in these greens and blues. Courtney [Cox, Monica] was in this black, white, burgundy world. Phoebe was all patterns and a sort of contemporary, alternative, bohemian look. Ross was in tweeds. Joey was in chenilles and textures. Then Matthew [Perry, Chandler] brought in his sort of vintage palette.”
In terms of menswear, Chandler was where McGuire had the most fun. While Joey’s and Ross’ looks had their own individualized elements, they were still “nothing that you couldn’t buy at the store,” says McGuire.
“Chandler was the most creatively inspired. I created a lot of the garments for him,” she says, adding that the character’s array of racing stripe shirts were made from scratch. The 1940s were also a source of inspiration while creating Chandler’s looks. “He was the one character that made sense to bring in some inspiration from the past. I did that certainly with the girls a lot, but he was the only male character that I could sort of really play with that.”
Alongside Chandler’s custom-made racing shirts, later on in the show’s run, McGuire also created a number of vintage-looking T-shirts inspired by thrift store rummages. The choice to make them herself was due to copyright issues and specifically related to a vintage trucker tee she used while also working on late-’90s show Freaks and Geeks. Her team weren’t aware that the trucking company was still operating, and using its branding without consent on Freaks and Geeks resulted in drama.
“It made us super-conscious of what we used and piqued our consciousness in terms of what we could do,” says McGuire. “You don’t have to worry about clearances if you’re creating original art. So you can create original art to look vintage.”
Clearances aside, this approach worked the other way, too. Take Joey’s leather jacket, for example. It turns out his beat-up biker jacket wasn’t as thrift store-sourced as it appeared. “Yeah, it was Armani,” she says. “I know. When I bought it, I was like, ‘Ugh, I’m not going to tell this to anybody.’ It’s only 20 years later that I’m admitting it. There’s no way he could have afforded it,” she adds in reference to the character’s not-always-successful aspiration to make it as an actor.
“I pulled hundreds of vintage leather jackets and this was the only one that was right. Sometimes finding something that’s extremely expensive and deconstructing it is going to be more valuable visually, and vice versa. Sometimes the cheapest thing that you just find can work as something couture.”
However, none of the designer threads that appeared in Friends were loaned to the show. Why? Because if McGuire and her team bought the pieces outright, the designer could change them to fit her vision.
“Let’s say I bought a Dolce & Gabbana [piece]. I wasn’t committed to keeping the arms on the dress, you know what I mean?” she says. “So that’s why I didn’t take anything for free. People were always offering to give us clothes. Never, never. I was not interested because it was about our vision, not theirs.”
Keeping the characters’ styles evolving over the show’s 10-year run, McGuire says incorporating slimmer cuts was a natural shift: “I changed the fit of clothes. It’s the first time that clothes were body-conscious again, and you hadn’t seen that. Things were oversized. They were big. Dress shirts on men were huge. And what we did, and I did this quite intentionally, as a way to make things look fresh was to change the fit.”
While streetwear today remains distinctly oversized, McGuire saw shapes in the fashion mainstream begin to slim down as a consequence of the show. “I just felt like it was affecting the world,” she says. “Every decision was very intentional. This was all intentional.”
She says she continues to receive a dozen emails a week asking where to purchase a particular item a fan has seen on the show. “It’s just incredible the impact that young people feel and resonate with those characters and that lifestyle,” McGuire says. “I find it really fascinating, but that’s what fashion is. It’s this sort of cyclical reinterpretation of the past. It’s not that often that there’s a tremendous amount of newness.”