Drama and imagination: The iconic stylist behind “Sex and the City” on what fashion should be

Why the woman behind Carrie's closet, "Emily in Paris" & "Devil Wears Prada" hates sweatpants and wants men in pink

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 2, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Costume designer Patricia Field surrounded by characters she's outfitted from Ugly Betty, Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Emily In Paris. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Stephanie Branchu/Netflix)
Costume designer Patricia Field surrounded by characters she's outfitted from Ugly Betty, Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Emily In Paris. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Stephanie Branchu/Netflix)

Her most well-known work may be Carrie's tutu that took a humbling splash from a passing bus at the start of every episode of "Sex and the City." But stylist and designer Patricia Field has an even more historic claim to fame.

Recalling the early days of her legendary New York boutique in her candid and colorful memoir, "Pat in the City: My Life of Fashion Style, and Breaking All the Rules," the flame-haired 82-year-old writes, "Out of all the trends that began on Eighth Street . . . perhaps the most lasting and wide-reaching has been leggings. I claim to be the inventor." 

Although others assert differently about the true provenance of leggings, Field's flair for invention remains beyond dispute. She dressed generations of club kids long before her work in television and film ("Ugly Betty," "The Devil Wears Prada") gave us some of the most memorable fashion moments in modern entertainment.

In her book, she reminisces about the nonstop party that was pre-gentrification downtown, as well as her encounters with famous and infamous drag queens, artists and celebrities. (JFK Jr. had the distinction of getting kicked out of her shop.)

Field joined me recently for a spirited conversation about why she "loved" working with Sarah Jessica Parker, the challenges of dressing her male stars and why she's ready for us all to ditch our "depression wear" sweatpants. Watch the Patricia Field "Salon Talks" episode here, or read a Q&A of our talk below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Long before "Sex and the City" came into your life, your downtown stores were landmarks. There's a line in the book that really moved me. "No matter how hip hop, rock and roll, or anything else we got, Patricia Field would never lose its drag history." Talk to me about your relationship with that scene and how it became so much a part of your work, your style, the iconic looks that you've created.

As far as my shop on Eighth Street was concerned, I hired people who looked like they could put themselves together. That's what I was impressed with, because if they could put themselves together, presumably, they could put a client together. They knew fashion. That's what was important to me. Not a college degree. Not whatever. It was just the look and the ability to communicate. 

"I did love working with Sarah Jessica because she got it. I didn't have to do any explaining to her. She's very fashion."

I had no idea or thought that, "Oh, I'm part of a scene." Jean-Michel [Basquiat] would come in. Madonna, I believe, was working at Danceteria. It was back before everyone got famous. They were just simply the kids that came into the store.  

It was fun looking back on all of this and having someone like you making me even more conscious or aware that it was a scene because when I was living through it, in my mind, I swear to you, I never thought it was a scene. I never had that mentality. It was my store. It was my clothing store. It was my life. I lived down there. I worked down there. It was all simply what I do. 

You got "Sex and the City" when you were in your 50s. That was obviously a transformational career move for you and put you on a different level. Tell me what the iconic "Sex and the City" tutu represents and what it says even now, almost 30 years later.

Even more so now, these tulle skirts are everywhere. I'm happy to see them because it's a great replacement for sweatpants. That's my little dig on the way fashion was recently. I call it "depression wear." I even found that in Paris. I was in Paris getting ready to do "Emily in Paris." I was talking to Darren Star on the phone. I said to him, "I'm going to go out now and check out the Paris chic." I went outside of our studio. All the girls are in sweatpants and sneakers and jeans. I'm like, "Oh, my God. It's worldwide." I like it a little bit more dramatic and with some imagination.

Is fashion over? Is it just sweatpants now for everybody because we haven't left our houses?

Now we're going to get into my philosophy about fashion. Fashion is art. What paintings and fashion have in common, in my mind, is that they tell the story of the time. It's either a happy time, or it's an unhappy, depressing time. You see it in the way people dress. I can happily say I'm starting to see they're coming out of this past couple of years.

"It was back then before everyone got famous. They were just simply the kids that came into the store."

It's a mentality. It's how you feel. You're depressed. I think I mentioned in the book the Roaring '20s. It was after World War I. All of a sudden, the skirts went high. I think it was reflected again in the '60s, the positivity of expression through fashion. Me, I love to express myself through fashion. Today I'm wearing a pair of my Versace pants that I bought years ago. I was just outside having a smoke. A young girl came past me and said, "Love your pants." I'm glad that people are recognizing special things again and not just putting on a hoodie and sweatpants and sneakers.

I don't look at things by price [either]. It's expensive or it's cheap. It's like you see it, you like it, it'll find a good place in your closet, you'll wear it. I don't know. I think that's basically what motivates me. I like happy. I would like to see people get happy.

You talk about how you enjoy dressing people, but it was interesting reading about dressing people on "Sex and the City." The person that you had the most difficulty dressing was John Corbett. What is it about dressing men that makes it harder for you?

You know what? It's not men in general, but what makes it sometimes harder to dress men is because men are, in my opinion, in a box. This is what they can wear; it's a polo shirt or it's a shirt and tie. But it's about a choice of four things. It's almost like a uniform. I feel badly for the men because I like to see the men swing out a little bit. 

There was an actor who was on "Sex and the City," Blair Underwood. He was in the role of Cynthia Nixon's beau. I wanted to give him a pink shirt because he's a good-looking guy. His skin is sort of milk chocolate. He was like, "No, I don't wear pink." But I was liberated a few years later when I ran into him at a party and he told me that he has a pink suit. I was so happy to hear that because, a little simple pink shirt? What's a pink shirt? It's nothing to me. It's a pink shirt. But a pink suit? Wow. It was very rewarding to hear that from him.

Pat, in our family, we call it the cage of masculinity. Why not wear a pink shirt? It's fine.

That's a great expression. I'm going to use it in my next book.

When you think back on the iconic looks that you've created, are there one or two that you're really the proudest of? 

"Men are, in my opinion, in a box."

Nothing in particular. I did love working with Sarah Jessica because she got it. I didn't have to do any explaining to her. She's very fashion. So that was really very encouraging for me. She understood it. We had worked previously on a film in Miami. That's where we met. Then history repeated itself with "Sex and the City." She brought me to Darren Star, actually. Because she was fashion, you didn't have to explain it to her. It was really fun to work with her on that level. She was secure in her fashion. She had a beautiful body because she was ballet-trained. She's a tiny little one. But she wore those clothes and those shoes. It was inspiring for me. 

For me, the biggest revelation of the book is that you say that you are the inventor of leggings. Every woman I know, we may not have a tutu in our closets. We may not have Dior. But we've all got leggings. What is it about the legging that makes it so perfect?

I got my inspiration from this movie "Grease." Olivia Newton-John was this goody-goody girl, and all of a sudden she comes on with these tight black pants. In those days, it wasn't really the style. It veered back to more like the '50s. But when I saw that last scene in those tight pants, with John Travolta, I was like, "I love that silhouette." 

I wanted to present it in my shop as just something affordable. At that time, they had just started with this stretch fabric that stretches every way, but it has some body to it. I found this fabric and went to the lingerie company on 29th Street. I said, "I just want you, with this fabric, just make a pull-on pant that's tight." I could put it out there at a price that people could afford because that was always very important to me. I'm just not comfortable with overcharging. I like to get the most out of my buck. That's what I put out there because that's how I feel. But it was that silhouette that got me. I took it a step further because this new fabric that was strong but stretched every way, pull-on pants. Leggings.

The rest is history. Right?

As long as I'm not history.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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