Daniel Lawson may just have one of the best jobs on television. He is the lead costume designer for the CBS All Access series, “The Good Fight.” And he is certainly having fun designing perfect wardrobes for the likes of Christine Baranski, Rose Leslie, and Delroy Lindo.
Lawson moved over from “The Good Wife,” which ended its run in 2016. He also currently works on the series “Instinct,” which stars “The Good Wife” alum Alan Cumming.
I recently sat down with Lawson in a hotel cafe in Hollywood to talk about his experiences, and his current work. His love and passion for his job really shine through as he enthusiastically regales me with stories.
We start off discussing the balance between “The Good Fight” and “Instinct,” both of which he has worked on simultaneously. And while he loves “Instinct,” he says, “‘The Good Fight’ is such an amazing show because of Robert and Michelle King, who created it.”
“I got to talk to them recently,” I say. His smile widens and he says, “Shut up! So you know what I’m talking about! Aren’t they incredible?” We both agree, and he continues, “We have such an amazing connection.” He talks of other designer friends who bemoan having to send design pictures to their producers. He answers, “I don’t have to, but I want to.”
He goes on to praise all of the creative efforts that go into the show. “The writing is so brilliant that it raises the level that, I think they pull the rest of us up around them… There’s really a sophistication to the writing and it’s the same way with the sets. I think the sets and the costumes have to have that elevated sophistication that goes hand in hand with their words and their stories.”
Lawson and I continue the discussion of sophistication, and he marvels at the dedication brought to the series by everyone, from the cast and crew to the guest stars. “I think it’s really interesting when you watch a show and you believe every single thing that comes out of every person’s mouth. Even the person that has only one line.”
He shifts topics to tell a story of a friend who guest-starred on “The Good Wife.” Lawson leans in drive home his point. “We went to college together,” he says. “He had one line, and he was in a suit. And I always have a fitting for everybody beforehand. I don’t like to do it the day of, if I can help it… It’s television, it’s always rushed, so I try to head off any crisis.
“And he came in and we were doing the fitting with him and he went through several suits and had several options. We went to Michelle and Robert to discuss, and he was like, ‘Come on, you just did that to impress me, right? All those choices?’ And I said, ‘No! That’s what we do for everybody. That’s how we keep an elevated look to the show.'”
Lawson explains that they still keep that same standard with “The Good Wife,” going on to say that they dress everyone in the background, too. Unlike many shows that give their extras a set of guidelines in order to provide their own wardrobes. “Because it is such a high end/specific look. I want to control it. Maybe I’m a control freak?” We both laugh.
And then he describes his favorite task on the series. It came with the very first episode of the season. “[It] was a funeral. And so it’s like, ‘Okay, everybody’s in black.’ So that was a bit of a challenge.” He describes finding ways to give everyone a unique look, even while draped in mourning attire.
He continues, his voice rising as he gets excited to share his passion, “But what was really exciting was that it was an African American funeral. And so a lot of times in that community, there’s lots of color and pomp and circumstance out of respect for the dead and out of celebration for that person’s life. So we really wanted to bring that. In our story it was a person who was a civil rights leader who had passed away. It would have been a big, big funeral. A lot of press would have been there… And it was so fun to add the reds and golds and purples and the choir was in purple and gold. There were hats and magnificent African fabrics and that all fell onto our background actors. And it was so exciting.”
Lawson also talks about drawing inspiration from many places, including a TCM class that delves into the history of movie musicals. “It’s awesome! It’s so fun to watch and see the way people dress, even in the background…” He says he feels like that is what he has been working toward instinctively with “The Good Fight.”
We transition from his current work to the journey he has taken. Daniel Lawson grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, like many who find themselves involved in any part of the performing arts, he got involved in his high school theater program. He describes his high school as having a big theater, and even a television studio, though he doesn’t recall how that came about. He confesses, “To be honest, I didn’t get involved in the TV side because I thought they were nerdier.” He says he now kicks himself for not having taken advantage of it at the time.
From Indiana, Lawson went to college at Northwestern, thinking he wanted to be an actor, but realized immediately that it wasn’t the right plan. “I get too nervous,” he says.
But he loved clothing, and found great joy in working as part of the costuming team. He says he continued to take acting classes throughout his studies, because it helped to be able to read a script and find the moods. That gave him more insight into creating aesthetics.
After graduation, he worked for a year at the Dallas Theater Center, before going to Rutgers for graduate school. “I was afraid to go to New York,” he says. “I was afraid I’d get lost. Not physically lost, but lost in the shuffle of everybody’s fabulousness.”
With a master’s degree in hand, he worked in the theater for a few years. What he lacked in income he made up for in working with Broadway legends like Patricia Ziprodt. “You should look her up!” he says.
Not having much of any knowledge of the New York theater scene, I did. She won Tony Awards and Drama Desk prizes for “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1965, “Cabaret” in 1967, “Pippin” in 1973, and “Shogun” in 1991. She also scored nominations for “Chicago,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “My Fair Lady.”
He continues, “I worked with her for a year.” He mentions a few other notable names he worked with during his time in theater. And then decided he wanted to work in soaps “for some reason.” He got a job on “One Life to Live,” where he stayed for five years, working from assistant to associate. “I was the first costumer they put under contract,” he says, proud of the accomplishment, but not boastful about it. After that, he picked up work on independent films and then landed a job on the NBC series “Third Watch.”
Speaking about “Third Watch,” he credits that show with teaching him how to work in the fast pace of network television. He also notes that finding creative ways to create distinct character looks when everyone is in uniform is a skill that helped him move into the world of high-end looks for lawyers.
“I think it’s interesting how people feel really slotted into a very narrow pigeon hole and they can’t break out of it. But I think that ‘The Good Wife’ and now ‘The Good Fight’ has really brought elegance and individuality back into the workplace or the legal world.”
He also says it’s extremely important to him to promote female empowerment. “It’s so important to me that my women feel empowered and feel strong and feel like they can do what they need to do with the story.” He goes on. “It’s amazing when you can put an outfit on someone and you can suddenly see them stand straighter and have more fortitude.”
Lawson praises the show’s emphasis on diversity, not only by employing five female leads, but also by incorporating African American and Hispanic actors as well. I commend the show, saying “It’s got to be one of the most honestly diverse casts on television.” He grins, “That’s a great way to put it. It’s exactly right. And it’s honest because it’s part and parcel of the story. We’re not imposing it on the story. It’s part of the story. We’re paying service to the world [Robert and Michelle] have created.”
He also praises CBS All Access. The network is a companion to the CBS broadcast network. But he hopes that audiences will realize the value of the shows that appear on the All Access line up and are willing to come on board. He enjoys the extra amounts of freedom they have in being part of a streaming service, because they can get away with plot points and story lines that might not fly with regular broadcast shows.
We talk more about the freedom of All Access, and also about working with individual characters. But when the conversation turns to Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, he sits a little straighter, and dives into the transitions they have taken together from “The Good Wife” to her own spin-off series in “The Good Fight.”
“It was important that our audience tune in and first recognize ‘The Good Wife.'” But they also needed to recognize that we were working on our own. That this is a whole new show.
“With Christine, I’m able to modulate [the budget]. Diane has gone through a roller coaster. So we were really able to adjust her wardrobe. When we first started and her money went away, we were joking that she should come in with clothes with holes and a broken heel. We were joking, but what we did do was make it look like she was pulling clothes from the back of her closet. She didn’t have money to buy new things. It was more of a classic look.
“I wanted it to be a curation of different textures and different fabrics.” He said he transitioned into metallics, too. He wanted her wardrobe to look a little more thrown together. But going into the second season, “I was putting skirts with jackets and things that were really bizarre patterns together that worked really well. I wanted to get the sense of metal and Teflon, like she’s…armoring herself against what’s happening in the world.”
He describes pieces with metallic threads sewn in, and other elements that would go unnoticed to an average viewer, but that added to Christine’s story. He also discusses some of the wardrobe choices for when she is outside of the office. A red dress, an outfit for martial arts training, other things like that.
“I feel like on ‘Good Wife’ she didn’t vary a lot. Her look didn’t really change. Diane was already at this level of success. She dressed a certain way. So it was really fun to see her go through these changes and I think it’s reflected in her wardrobe.”
We discuss the actors, and how they handle situations where the actors disagree about a costuming choice. “When they have a story reason for a choice, I listen,” he says. But he also says if he feels it’s more about comfort, or disposition for a day, he sits down and talks with them about it. He likes to have open communication with the cast. He has a clear vision, but believes that sticking with one definite idea shows a lack of confidence on the part of a designer. “I’m happy to amend a look because I feel confident about where I am and what I can do with their looks.”
Confidence is essential to a show like “The Good Fight,” which lives in the world of expensive law firms and high-rolling clients. “What I do has to make the actor feel like they are completely being honest in a scene. And if what they’re wearing is taking them out of that moment, then I failed.”
And just perusing the looks for “The Good Fight,” it is clear that Daniel Lawson has certainly not failed. You can view his work on CBS All Access, where all episodes are available for streaming.