Better Call Saul: how fashion plays a key part in the Netflix show’s success as costume designer Jennifer Bryan explains her style choices
- As Season 6 ends, we look at how Better Call Saul uses costumes to create a strong visual vocabulary and ultimately contributes to the show’s popularity
- Saul Goodman himself is an accidental dandy and unwitting fashion icon that menswear aficionados will treasure as a true original for years to come
After debuting in 2015 as a spin-off of the legendary show Breaking Bad, drama series Better Call Saul has come to an end with the last episode of its sixth season.
Set in the early 2000s in Albuquerque, in the US state of New Mexico, the show centres on the backstory of former con-artist-turned-lawyer Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, a flamboyant character who first appeared in the second season of Breaking Bad.
Loud, larger than life and slightly obnoxious, Goodman is the definition of the conflicted anti-hero you want to root for but at the same time can’t help despising for his questionable choices.
The crude and at times hilarious depiction of his harrowing descent into the underworld of New Mexico crime and of his involvement with drug cartels across the border has won the cult show legions of fans, including former US president Barack Obama.
An important aspect of Better Call Saul that has flown under the radar is the show’s great costumes, courtesy of costume designer Jennifer Bryan, who also worked on the last season of Breaking Bad and on Genius: Aretha, a series on singer Aretha Franklin.
Played by actor Bob Odenkirk, Goodman is a dapper dresser who loves looking spiffy, but there’s something slightly off about his boxy and sometimes ill-fitting suits.
While the show is set 20 years ago, Goodman’s retro style is somewhat timeless – you can easily picture him as the lead character in a ’50s noir film – and he never looks out of place amid the arid landscape of the New Mexico desert or the often menacing suburbs of Albuquerque.
In a scene from season six, we get a sneak peek into his wardrobe, which is filled with neatly arranged ties in vibrant colours and suits in all kinds of patterns that would put to shame the most fervent Savile Row regular. He is often depicted carefully ironing shirts and putting on accessories such as signet rings and cufflinks.
Goodman clearly enjoys dressing up and never fails to look impeccable – or at least his idea of impeccable – even when the world around him is falling apart and he is witnessing heinous crimes committed by his associates or himself.
“I work with strong, bold and ‘look at me’ colour palettes for Saul,” Bryan says. “I have his suits made in Milan to my designs. Most of his rainbow-coloured shirts are also bespoke, and occasionally I’ll find them in offbeat shops. I was always on the hunt for wacky ties and when I couldn’t find what I was looking for I would design some of those ties and pocket squares.”
If you’re sick of sweatpants and hoodies and need some tailoring inspiration, Better Call Saul provides plenty of it with its lavish custom-made suits that are the default uniforms for several key characters.
Waspy lawyer Howard Hamlin, played by Patrick Fabian, and cultivated drug lord/fried chicken entrepreneur Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, look dashing in their three-piece suits – in patterns such as pinstripes and chalk stripes – but appear more buttoned up when compared to Goodman, whose vibrant outfits reflect his comical and over the top personality.
“Hamlin’s pinstripes are not to draw attention to himself, but to assure you that you have the finest, top-notch legal eagle in all of New Mexico,” Bryan says.
She took a similar approach when envisioning Fring’s wardrobe.
“Simply put, this gentleman lives a double life. And as we know, Gus has to be fastidious and precise in his dealings with not only the cartel, but also with the employees of his chicken empire. His suits and sports coats are in dark tones sharply tailored. I thought of him like a dagger – deadly and stealth-like.
“Those costumes, even though they are as well tailored as Saul’s and Hamlin’s, had a rigid quality to them. One way that I achieved this character note was to keep his colour palette dark and limited in tone – the very opposite of what Saul’s clothes signal to the audience.”
Lawyer Kim Wexler – played by Rhea Seehorn, the main female character and Goodman’s on-and-off girlfriend and eventually wife – is the most conservatively dressed of the ensemble cast.
Her pantsuits and dresses are the typical female corporate uniform, a nod to the conservative get-ups favoured by women in power and to her role as the voice of reason in the good-versus-evil tension at the heart of her relationship with Goodman.
“When Rhea Seehorn was cast as Kim, as she was our only female lead on a male-heavy show, we had in-depth conversations about how best to represent her character through her clothes,” Bryan says.
“We went in the opposite direction [style-wise] of what I think most shows would do. The men became the peacocks and she showed her power and her strong moral compass [at least in the early seasons] so Kim didn’t need any costume window dressings.”
Bryan calls Wexler’s outfits “practical and sensible” and adds that in Season 6, as the lawyer reveals her dark side once things begin to unravel, her prints and colours get bolder and stronger, reflecting the evolution of her character.
“Was I imprinting Saul’s risky behaviour into Kim’s clothes? Was there a style raconteur underneath Kim’s practical approach to her wardrobe? You decide,” Bryan says.
Better Call Saul is a wonderful example of how costumes can contribute to the success of a show and to the creation of such a strong visual vocabulary.
“My process of costume design really begins with what’s on the page,” Bryan says. “Contemporary costume design requires a finesse to have the clothes help build the character in a subtle and definitive way.”
The series will ultimately be remembered for its main character, Goodman, who is a study in contrasts.
His haphazard personal style is a reflection of who he is: a seemingly innocuous man with secrets to bury and – deep down – a heart of gold. He knows how to use clothing as armour and as a disguise – sometimes literally, when clothes help him carry out his scams.
Endearing, awkward and yet so hard to like, Goodman is an accidental dandy that menswear aficionados will treasure as a true original and an unwitting fashion icon for years to come.