PEN15’s costume designer Melissa Walker shares how PEN15 managed to pull off a seriously legit-looking 2000s pool party & other secrets from the second season of the Hulu show.
PEN15 is officially back for its second season on Hulu, and it’s still seventh grade for best friends forever Anna and Maya, played by 33-year-old writer-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine inhabiting 13-year-old versions of themselves. Just like in the first season, the middle school memories and pre-teen outfits definitely do not disappoint.
Season 2 finds the BFFs attending a co-ed pool party just days after their secret closet rendezvous with seventh-grade heartthrob Brandt during the school dance that closed the previous finale. For the splashy occasion, Anna wears a denim print swimsuit with a zip down the middle while Maya rocks a floral printed handkerchief-style top with ties. Both looks feature boy shorts, a swimsuit staple for adolescent women in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I myself am guilty of owning plenty.
While their swimwear may seem rather simple, costume designer Melissa Walker explains that it required a lot of creativity to squeeze the stars’ adult bosoms into the suits so their bodies look like that of seventh-grade girls. This is a challenge Walker has run into since the show debuted in 2019, but luckily she’s since been able to upgrade from ACE bandages to compression tanks and bandeau tops. These details are also what make the lead characters’ actions so compelling: From wearing muscle costumes and trying to join the boys wrestling team to practicing witchcraft while rocking thick eyeliner and necklaces made from hair, Maya and Anna always stay true to themselves.
Walker likens the process of working with Erskine and Konkle to a “slumber party” because of how it also gives her an opportunity to dip into her own middle school memories and wardrobe. “Maya and Anna are so collaborative, and it's like, ‘Oh, here's a very specific memory from my childhood. Here's one from yours,’” she tells MTV News. “And it's just nice to cook them all in the pot and see what the most embarrassing soup is that we can make.”
Below, Walker talks about the process of building out the stars’ wardrobes and why she loves working with the IRL best friends so much.
MTV News: What has your process been for building the wardrobe out for the characters?
Melissa Walker: When we started, I went ahead and bought a bunch of YM and Seventeen magazines from like 1997 to 2000 so that we could still see what the kids [saw], who were a few years behind or got hand-me-downs from their older siblings, which is the case with Maya and those more on top of trends. There was such a variance between going through these teen magazines and seeing what the fashion sense actually was versus how that's interpreted by a high schooler or even a middle schooler, because it's just so different.
I'm a few years older than Anna and Maya. So I looked through my yearbooks and even thought about the way I translated trends versus how you do in seventh grade. Like, it's usually right before your first job, so you don't have money to buy anything on your own, and your parents have much more of an input into what's going on. That was a big factor, especially with Maya's mom being a little more overbearing, and then there’s Anna’s parents going through the divorce and being distracted. So we definitely tried to factor that into the decisions that they made through their wardrobe.
There were also very specific things this season, and last season, that were universal, like Rocket Dogs, Skechers, and low-rise jeans. There were very specific memories for Maya, having grown up in California, that we inserted into the show. And then Anna, all the popular girls in her school — she grew up in Vermont — had the matching Tiffany's jewelry. So we made sure that all the popular girls had those.
What were some of the challenges you’ve run into with trying to make them look like seventh graders?
The first episode they threw at me this year was a pool party. We ended up building these bathing suits with compression in it already. We made Anna a denim pocket print tankini suit with spandex and boys shorts. I remember one of my friends had something similar but it was a handkerchief top. Then the bottoms that Maya had, they were little boy shorts, but I specifically added strings on the side. Back then, you’d wear them long so when you left the house, your mom thought you were being a good kid and then soon as you get to pool or beach you’d hike it up thinking that showing another inch or two inches of your thigh was sexy, but it ended up just bunching and looking like a diaper.
Sometimes I'd have to do very quick fittings with them for a specific outfit in between scenes, and when they're not wearing the bra, you can see a difference in their posture and how it helps them change into their characters.
That sounds like such a fun thing to witness.
The best part of it is that they're just willing to go for it. One time there was a pair of MUD jeans, and I was like, oh, these might be a little too small. And they're like, “No, we want the muffin top. We want that. We want the cringe. We want the embarrassment.” They're not afraid of pushing it as far as they can go. And that freedom for a costume designer is such a treasure.
So in terms of sourcing the pieces, did you pull from thrift stores? Did you mainly create the pieces that they wore?
We did a few different things. Season 1, we definitely did a lot of Goodwill and thrifting. The ‘90s were popular, but Y2K wasn’t old enough to not be cool, but not old enough to be cool again. So I was able to find a lot of what I was looking for thrifting or on eBay and just in the time since then, the items I was looking at on eBay went from like $30 to $300. And now there's this resurgence of specific Y2K fashions, so finding things was definitely more of a challenge.
The price point of all the vintage went up, but then we got to do a lot more collaboration with companies because, you know, Tommy Hilfiger, Lucky jeans, and Skechers — they’ve all started revamping older styles. I got to reach out to some different brands and actually have them send me some of their archived graphics from like 1999 and 2000 so I could reprint them. It was fun to get to collaborate with bigger brands and designers. And then this year we got to make more of the garments too, because we had to have multiples of a lot of things this year for different gags and whatnot. For example, we actually had to remake the Tommy Hilfiger shirt Maya, Anna, and Maura ended up all sharing.
That's so cool. And you mentioned that there's an actual clothing collaboration, right?
We’re making a PEN15-inspired clothing line and right now that’s just launched. Once we started shooting this year, the girls were obsessed with their bathing suits and they were like, “We need to make these.” And so we had intended on making a clothing company, and I was putting together my pitch, but then everything shut down with COVID and no one wanted to invest in the clothing line. So I actually partnered with a factory in downtown [Los Angeles], and we're creating a program now to help encourage more designers to make clothing lines inspired by their work on the big screen.
This article was written by Sara Radin, and originally appeared on MTV.com. It's been edited for local eyes.
Main Image Credit: PEN15, Hulu