‘Following fashion? It’s a waste!’: Patricia Field on dressing SJP – and changing the world’s wardrobe

Field styled Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty, ran her own boutique, and claims to have invented leggings. She describes her wild life, and what it’s like to dress Patti Smith, Madonna and Cardi B

It is midday, and in New York the costume designer Patricia Field is gearing up to talk about Sex and the City. A “costume person and a fashion person”, Field, who turns 81 this week, is best known as the woman who put Carrie in a tutu and Samantha in Giorgio di Sant’Angelo bodysuits, convincing us along the way that a newspaper columnist could fit 200 pairs of shoes inside a Manhattan studio apartment. There was nothing in the script, but the party line, according to one of Field’s costume assistants, is that Carrie had a storage container in Brooklyn.

She is also the person who put Aidan Shaw, Carrie’s lapdog-of-a-suitor, in turquoise jewellery and expected us to get behind him. “He [John Corbett] had just done some sapless show and he wanted to repeat the look,” she says of his necklaces, while rolling her eyes. “I was like, OK, this is gonna be tricky.”

It was his clothes, too – particularly a suede jacket and white cowboy shirt – that supposedly thawed Carrie’s cold heart, yet somehow looked all wrong. “I know what you mean,” Field says. Was it the jacket? Or maybe the shirt was too tight? “Maybe it was the casting … but that’s not my department.”

Sarah Jessica Parker is ‘the person I’ve enjoyed dressing the most’: Field (front left) talks to Parker on the film set of Sex and the City 2.
Sarah Jessica Parker is ‘the person I’ve enjoyed dressing the most’: Field (front left) talks to Parker on the film set of Sex and the City 2. Photograph: Tina Paul

Field is about to publish her memoir, a colourful and compelling tell-all about her life and career before and after the show that made her name. In it, she describes Sex and the City (SATC) as like “an in-law that just won’t get out of your life”. But she also named the book Pat in the City, describes Sarah Jessica Parker (who played Carrie) as “the person I’ve enjoyed dressing the most” several times, and knows better than to gloss over what she calls “its mix and match fashion”. She writes about how Carrie’s aversion to scrunchies – a detail that would later become a plot line – was Parker’s idea; how Parker believed that her character shouldn’t wear tights, even in snow; and how Field managed to construct up to 50 outfits for each episode.

Sitting in her basement office below her gallery in the Bowery – “I always have offices in basements, I don’t know why” – Field appears on Zoom, fizzing with energy and dressed ready to hit Studio 54, one of her old haunts. Her cherry-coloured hair is barely contained by a red Hermès hat, and she stands up to show me her outfit: colour-block Versace jeans, a black scarf and a pair of black leather sleeves – they run from wrist to tricep. I have never seen a pair of leather sleeves. Her assistant directs me to Field’s website, where she sells them for $250 (£208). For $80 more, you can buy a Carrie necklace in yellow gold. Many do – it is still one of her bestsellers. Most of the stuff she sells is a mix of old and new, but all unusual – incongruous yet fabulous, much like Field. The outfit is very Milan, I say. “I like that about Italy. They’re absurd,” she says in a low, thick New York accent, and laughs.

That’s the thing about Field: she loves the absurd, and hates trends. She describes her aesthetic, personal and professional, as “happy” clothes. “Following fashion trends? It’s a waste,” she says. “To me, fashion is a cousin of art. And like art, originality is what counts. When it starts to feel intimidating, it’s time to change.” This might sound odd coming from the woman who has styled the most fashion-adjacent TV and films of the millennial age, including The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty, Emily in Paris (on which she was a consultant) and, of course, SATC. But it is probably why, decades later, it is the clothes that you tend to remember.

Field on the runway for her Art Fashion Runway show at Art Basel in 2019.
Field on the runway for her Art Fashion Runway show at Art Basel in 2019. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Take Carrie’s tulle skirt in the opening sequence, which Field found in a $5 bin at a fashion showroom, and chose not only because Parker used to be a ballerina but – in a sentence that is the best encapsulation of Carrie I’ve come across – because the character has “princess syndrome”. The snag was that Darren Star, SATC’s creator and Field’s longtime collaborator, didn’t get it. “Darren is not fashion … but that’s not his role – it’s mine. And if we put something that is trendy on the opening moments, and if this show is a hit, this trendy thing is going to get stale. And PS, it did become a hit.”

Field has little to say about its sequel, And Just Like That. She didn’t work on it because of a schedule clash with Emily in Paris. But like everyone, she was “up in arms that [Kim Cattrall] didn’t go”, she says. “But I get it, that was personal with her, and it doesn’t matter now.”

Field was raised surrounded by clothes, at some points literally. She is half-Armenian, half-Greek, but US-born: her maternal grandparents emigrated from Lesbos to New York, where her mother began working at a laundry. Here she met Field’s father, an Armenian tailor. He died of TB when Field was young and her mother got remarried, to a man she met through a dry-cleaning business. In the book, Field jokes that she has “[Greek] mercantilism woven into my DNA”.

She grew up believing fashion and costume were interchangeable. Her mother dressed her in Peter Pan collars but Field loved the Lone Ranger, and dressing up as a cowgirl. She also knew how to put together an outfit. Her favourite piece of clothing was a Burberry raincoat with woven leather buttons bought on Madison Avenue, which she wore with prim Pringle cardigans and clumpy boots.

She didn’t plan to go into fashion, instead going to New York University to study philosophy and government. The book is littered with references to Plato and Socrates, and when we speak she is reading Aristophanes. At one point, she likens the bathroom at Studio 54 to Plato’s Symposium, “with gay men talking about eros”.

“I found my way at college,” she says. “That’s fairly typical.” It is also where she met her first partner, Susan, though she insists this was “no big gay pronouncement”. (Field has had several long-term girlfriends, but is currently single.) After graduating, she worked as a sales assistant to make money, but found that she was better at draping the mannequins. She became a buyer, and then opened her own place in Greenwich Village in 1966.

Field got the SATC gig after meeting Parker on the set of the 1995 romantic comedy Miami Rhapsody, one of her earliest gigs as a costume designer, and it was Parker who introduced her to Star. They had already shot the pilot for SATC with another costume designer, but if you rewatch it, you can see it looked too 90s, and too realistic. In one painfully familiar scene, Carrie is working from home in a baggy blue shirt and grey jogging bottoms. Field would change all that.

While you can usually see Field’s hand in something before you see her name in the credits, the reception to the outfits in Emily in Paris was mixed. Field was only a consultant (she hired Marylin Fitoussi as the costume designer) and, after two seasons, pulled out of that too. “I don’t know Paris and Paris fashion well enough to do it,” she says. “I also got too homesick. I missed my doggies, I missed my bed.”

Before filming started, though, she insisted on doing a recce, to get a handle on Parisian style. “So off I go, and I get outside and everyone is in cut-up jeans and sneakers,” she says, in mock horror. “French chic is dead, I said to Darren, but it’s not dead with me. Long live Pierre Cardin.” She does, however, blame Americans for bringing ultra-casual, distressed clothing to Paris. “I call it depression-wear,” she says, shrugging.

‘I don’t know Paris and Paris fashion well enough to do it.’ Field, who was a consultant on Emily in Paris, explains why she pulled out after two seasons.
‘I don’t know Paris and Paris fashion well enough to do it.’ Field, who was a consultant on Emily in Paris, explains why she pulled out after two seasons. Photograph: Stephanie Branchu/Netflix

I’m surprised to hear how down she is on casual wear given that, in her book, she claims to have “invented leggings” (her executive administrator later admits that it has never been backed up). Regardless of this, Field’s came in spandex and cost just a few dollars to make, but flew off the shelves when she sold them in the late 70s, early 80s. It was, she says, all about timing, “because then, I saw Olivia Newton-John in these leggings and I was like, oh my God”.

The success of her TV work led Field to The Devil Wears Prada, and its layered necklaces and cerulean-blue jumpers. That was “a lot of fun”, she says, except for the part involving the character of the editor, Miranda Priestley, and her hair. Meryl Streep, who played Priestley, decided she wanted it to be white. “I thought, fabulous, it would work so well with all the editor clothing,” she says. “But the producers were men, stuck in their groove, and they think white hair is for old ladies so I said: ‘Meryl, you have to sell the idea. Only you will get your way.’” In the end, they agreed to give Priestley an ice-cream whip hairstyle. It was based on that of Christine Lagarde, who later became chief of the International Monetary Fund.

It is strange to think that costume design was a late-life career for Field. But for 50 years, from 1966 to 2016, she ran her boutique, Patricia Field, and its namesake label, House of Field. The space was small and the boutique would change address three times. She ran it throughout her career as a costume designer because, sensibly, she knew real estate was a safe bet. If Studio 54 and Paradise Garage were the places to party, her shop was the “place to be”.

Its success hinged around Field’s celebrity reach, but also, the “colourful people” she hired, that perhaps other people at the time wouldn’t – trans people, club kids and performers such as Amanda Lepore and Armen Ra. “I’m not a campaigner,” she says. “If I were a fish, the hook that used to catch me was how someone put themselves together. I just looked for creativity,” she says.

Field (right) on the set of The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep.
Field (right) on the set of The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep. The male producers were against the idea of Streep having white hair for the part. Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

It became a magnet for celebrities. Her second shop in the Bowery was “sub-sidewalk, six steps down”, so she could usually see people coming. “The first time Patti Smith came down to the store, I was like: ‘Who is this ragamuffin?’” she says. “She was wearing these wrinkled-up pants and top. Then the second time, she had an olive-green mink coat which she just threw on a chair. She picked out this chiffon blouse I’d got from Paris and said: ‘I guess you’re wondering where I’m gonna wear this?’ I said, yeah. She said: ‘For the final night of my tour. Do you wanna come?’ So I did, and there she was, on stage in this $250 blouse, all wrinkled up.”

The shop’s staff and customers sound like a glossary of New York characters from the early 70s to the late 90s. Britney Spears, Ronnie Spector, Paris Hilton and Lenny Kravitz were all regulars. She sold Keith Haring’s “Free South Africa” T-shirts, and he would also do her window displays. Jean-Michel Basquiat would sit on the floor, drawing on Tyvek jumpsuits with a marker pen (the jumpsuits sold for $25 each). At one point, she says, Basquiat used to rehearse with his band, Gray, in her loft apartment because she had a baby grand piano there.

Field is wry, sharp and funny, but occasionally her memory fails her. Some of the book’s more granular anecdotes, of which there are many, were obtained through its co-author, the journalist Rebecca Paley, who interviewed former employees. Such as the time Madonna had to wait outside until the shop opened (she had arrived at 10am and they didn’t open until 11am) or how Cardi B used to pay for clothes with single dollar bills (she used to be a stripper). Or how Matt Dillon never wore underwear when trying on jeans.

But she remembers the dark times, how living and working in New York during the 70s and 80s meant she was in the thick of the Aids crisis. This is partly why she became involved in the ballroom scene, getting the fashion journalist André Leon Talley to judge, and Debbie Harry to attend. This scene, she says, had become more than a competition; it was a respite from what was going on.

Field didn’t fixate on it. “The nightlife was still alive,” she says. “But it was shocking.” She lost several friends to the crisis, including the designer Halston, her store manager Tim, and her good friend Little Michael, who introduced her to Studio 54. What struck her was the silence, and the speed of it. “I remember when Little Michael one day said: ‘Pat, I have the gay disease.’ I said: ‘What gay disease?’ Less than a month later, he was dead. He was 22.”

No one, least of all Field, predicted this many career changes, and certainly not the success of most of them, particularly SATC. But if the show’s longevity hinges on the writing, and the chemistry, it wouldn’t have lasted without the clothes. Does she get fed up talking about it, all these years later? “Sometimes, I get a little sick of talking about it – but I don’t want to get too jaded,” she says, laconically. “Bottom line, I’m glad it happened and I’m glad people enjoyed it.”

Pat in the City. My Life of Fashion, Style, and Breaking All the Rules by Patricia Field, published by 4th Estate, is out on 14 February.

• This article was amended on 8 February 2023 to say that Patricia Field will turn 81 this year, not 82 as an earlier version of this article said.


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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