Jewel-tone caftans, perky prints and flowing chiffon: 'Palm Royale' dresses to impress

If there’s a fashion lesson to be had from “Palm Royale,” it’s that you can look fabulous even if you’re broke, marooned at sea — or, say, in a coma.

The 10-part Apple TV+ series is set in 1960s Palm Beach, Fla., and is loosely inspired by Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel “Mr. and Mrs. American Pie.” The story follows Maxine Simmons (Kristen Wiig), a former Tennessee beauty queen married to Douglas (Josh Lucas), a dashing pilot who is also heir to the plastics and mouthwash fortune of his aunt, the formidable Norma Dellacourte (Carol Burnett).

Maxine is a desperate social climber who will literally climb walls to enter the exclusive Palm Royale country club, a candy-colored oasis of indulgent leisure and unbridled envy. With Norma in a coma, the inheritance is in limbo, but that doesn’t stop Maxine from lying, stealing and charming her way into Palm Beach high society. And yet, we are inclined to like her.

She encounters her social and style opposite, Linda Shaw (Laura Dern), who runs a feminist collective out of a West Palm Beach bookstore, Our Bodies Our Shelves.

Los Angeles native Alix Friedberg had the enviable costume design duties, which became a deep dive into those opposing midcentury styles — luxe socialite versus earthy hippie.

“Initially, Laura Dern called me about it. She said the story took place in 1969 in Palm Beach, a Slim Aarons environment, and you immediately know what that is. It’s that rarefied aspirational, colorful, poolside world,” said Friedberg, who also was the costume designer on another Dern vehicle, “Big Little Lies.”

To absorb the aesthetic, Friedberg studied the Western Costume Co. archive of fashion and society magazines, photography books and the society and celebrity press coverage of doyennes such as Betsy Bloomingdale, Deeda Blair, Barbara Stanwyck and Elizabeth Taylor. She found jewel-tone caftans, perky Lilly Pulitzer prints and metallic brocades, all adorned with a treasure chest of bold accessories.

Credibly costuming the cast challenged the designer to find pristine examples of vintage couture, swimwear, golf and tennis attire, and also a distinct palette of bohemian clothing for the West Palm Beach characters. She estimated that 60% of the wardrobe was custom-made, especially for the Evelyn Rollins character, played by 6-foot-tall Allison Janney.

“On our show, it has to look like everyone had just shopped on Worth Avenue and everything is new and bright and shiny and never been worn,” Friedberg said. “That was really a challenge to get things that looked new and bright that were half a century old.”

To expedite the vast search, Friedberg had to smartly strategize for the 2022 shoot in Los Angeles.

“We cast a really wide net and put a document together — a mood board — so that vendors would understand the world we were trying to create,” Friedberg said. Some of her key sources were high-end vintage boutiques in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, but also random online sellers and Etsy, a source for things like reproductions of frilly ’60s swimming caps.

“It was a lot, but it was a lot of fun,” Friedberg said. “There was so much joy every day to open a box and see what was sent from Philadelphia, and it’s like an original Galanos that is just stunning. People were so excited about the cast and the world we were creating. We would open these boxes, and there were things with original tags and several of the same golf pants in different sizes, like someone had closed out a department store and saved it in their basement all these years, waiting for ‘Palm Royale.’

“Time and time again we would find these treasures,” she said.

What they couldn’t buy, they built at Western Costume and beyond. “There were a few months where we had everyone with a sewing machine and a union card on our payroll,” she said.

Working with vintage clothing comes with unique hazards. A memorable ’60s original for Wiig in the second episode didn’t withstand one wearing.

“All of the pants completely disintegrated. The threads in the fabric just started to come apart. And that happened on more than one occasion,” she said. Consequently, her team turned to modern fabric printing techniques to replicate any item that appeared more than once or that was to be intentionally destroyed.

With unfortunate regularity, Wiig’s Maxine plunges into water wearing formal gowns. When Friedberg learned a vintage yellow chiffon gown would get submerged with Wiig, her team scrambled to make three copies. They dyed chiffon to match the skirt, and miraculously found two more originals on Etsy to cut to fit and reuse the beaded white bodice.

Another watery scene required five copies of a pink chiffon gown made from 20 yards of various pink hues. “We found a beaded fabric, cut the beads off and repurposed them on the bodice to make them match perfectly,” she said.

Each hourlong episode features some outlandish scene at a boutique, party or colorful gathering that required many specific, stellar looks. The themed galas — so often a plot point in the series — included wildly costumed dancers and elaborate sets that required intense coordination with the production design team and a savvy calibration of color palettes to keep the characters distinct.

The intense focus on actual couture clothing made room for some fun exaggeration. For Burnett’s Norma, despite spending several episodes unconscious or immobilized in a bed or wheelchair, the character nevertheless is coiffed, made up and accessorized, often with a dazzling turban and earrings.

Throughout, the pressure for perfection pushes Wiig’s Maxine to maintain her maximal style that is equal parts optimistic and awkward.

Like Maxine, Friedberg and her crew were energized by the dazzling clothing and environment of “Palm Royale.”

“I don’t know if I can ever do a sweatshirt and jeans again,” she said. “It was really a gift of a job.”

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