A costume designer’s avant garde path to Hollywood

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

It’s not always glamorous working in Hollywood, says Amanda Penny, an assistant costume designer for the series “Glamourous” that is scheduled for release on Netflix this year.

A visit to the boutique to purchase haute couture names like Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and Louboutinis only one scene of the show for those who have worked in costume design. Standing knee-deep in mud while holding an actor’s towels and warm-up coats under pouring rain, dressed in simple utilitarian clothing, is another that Penny remembers clearly.

“I would definitely tell them to not give up,” she says, speaking of advice for someone starting off in the industry and alluding to her experience in the “egotistical” and “nepotistic” side of Hollywood.

“You have to be very consistent, because you don’t get hired on your dream project overnight. It took me a few years before I actually started to get my name out there and recognized. And then people will start to ask for you by name after they learn who you are and like your work.”

Before she was hired to work for fan-favorite shows such as the Amazon Prime original “The Boys” (2019) and the upcoming Netflix series “Glamourous” (2023) where she worked as an assistant to costume designer Nancy Gould, Penny was once a college drop-out that often returned to her hometown of Fort Frances to rediscover what she needed to do.

In 2004, at 18 years old, Penny moved out of Fort Frances to join the first cohort of students in the Acting for Film & Television program at Humber College.

The program required students to take a yoga course, Penny said, a class that she failed after being chastised by the teacher for smart-off remarks and supposedly not wanting to participate.

Penny had a note from her chiropractor that proved that she wasn’t trying to be rebellious, she just had scoliosis and couldn’t hold positions like the downward dog. She says, “I couldn’t hold it, I kept falling out of it just because of how bad the pain of my shoulders would be. And [the teacher] was constantly chastising me for not wanting to participate in the class, and not wanting to learn.”

When the teacher gave her a failing grade, Penny had two choices. She could either repeat the first year of her acting program, or drop out entirely.

“I just dropped out and said ‘screw this,’” she says, adding that she then went back to Fort Frances.

Five months later, Penny returned to Toronto with a friend and started a few acting gigs through an agent. Realizing that her heart wasn’t in it, she switched course while keeping her roots in the film industry.

In 2009, Penny completed a fashion design program from Vancouver.

After another move home to Fort Frances as a recent graduate, and another return to Toronto where her friend had film connections, Penny started working in costume design for a couple short films such as “Somnolence,” a futuristic and dramatic short film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

“And we from there, just trying to figure out what we wanted to do in film, like if we wanted to take this as a future career if we wanted to just do it as a hobby.”

Background actors used to be called “extras,” Penny says, and can be distinguished as anyone in the scene that isn’t a speaking actor. Penny worked as an “extra” for about two years.

As an extra for the historical disaster film “Pompeii” (2014), Penny began chatting with a “costumer” about her degree in fashion and desire to work in the industry.

The costumer happened to be Madeleine Stewart, costume designer for the classic television series “Avonlea” (1990) and more recently the American superhero film “Suicide Squad” (2016).

“She came out and talked to me. And she’s like, ‘Oh, you have a degree in fashion design for costuming, that would be really, really important. That would be vital. A lot of people don’t even have sewing experience who work in the costume department. Do you want to get your permit for the Union so you can work with us?’”

Since then, Penny has built a vast portfolio through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Union. In November, her team wrapped up production for “Glamorous” (2023).

“I find that a lot of my friends that do non-union shows, they’re not getting them all the money that you would from a union show,” Penny says. “They’re not getting the same exposure or they’re not able to work with the same big names. So if you want to work on your dream project, honestly, being part of the IATSE union is definitely life changing.”

The work of a costume designer is equal parts fun and arduous. Alongside “Glamourous” producer Kameron Tarlow, Penny mapped out what each character would wear for each day within the episode. And unless the character was scripted as a fashion-anorak who obsessively wore the same thing every day, multiple outfits need to be prepared.

“Because if you see them in the morning at home eating breakfast, they’re in their pajamas, then you see them at work, so now they have a work look. And then they’re out for dinner that night. now they have a night look. So you’ve got three looks within that one day change. You have to do that throughout all of the cast for every single episode,” Penny says.

Fort Frances native Amanda Penny worked on set for the Amazon Prime Original “The Boys.” She stands in the rubble from the movie “Dawn of the Seven” within a scene from season 2 of the show. – Submitted photo

“Once I get all that mapped out on the truck and laid out, everything gets steamed and prepped and then I’m the one that puts it in their rooms,” Penny says, describing the role of a costume truck supervisor. “When the actors come to get dressed for their scene, I’m standing outside their trailer door waiting for them to get dressed. Sometimes actors need help with their shoes, or they need help with buttons on their shirt cuffs, sometimes actresses need help putting on their earrings, their necklaces. The costume truck supervisor is the one that stands by and makes sure the actors are all dressed for each scene.”

“The background coordinator is basically the costume designer for the extras. A lot of times a lot of costume designers don’t have the time to devote to thinking about what every single extra is going to be wearing. So they hire a background coordinator,” Penny says, explaining her role on set for “The Boys” (2019).

Dressing the Haitian kings with bright colors, mixed patterns, fuzzy bucket hats and big gold chains in season two of “The Boys” was one of her favorite experiences, Penny says, in addition to working with costume designer Rebecca Greg.

Simons at Square One mall in Mississauga, Ontario, was the go-to store for Penny to have a “riot” selecting crazy colors and patterns. One instance that brought many laughs to the costume department was when an episode scripted the superheroes to film a movie with the show called “Dawn of the Seven.” Inspiration for background actors serving as film staff came from the real film crew she worked with.

“Our crew and those crew members just thought it was hilarious that we were using them as inspiration for the background actors that were going to be in the shot”

Penny says she likes asymmetrical lines, fabric and pattern mixing—comparing her personal style to the casual yet bold nature of Japanese street wear.

“I don’t wear Chanel, I don’t wear anything tweed with pearls. I’m not that kind of design. I like labels that you would never even have heard of. Labels that are just completely bizarre and off the wall like Marine Serre, that’s just bizarre clothing for the sake of being bizarre,” she says, also naming Aakasha, a Belgian clothing line with Japanese influence, and Yohji Yamamoto, a Japanese fashion designer.

Penny has worked in many roles, from sewer to truck supervisor, but the trajectory she feels for herself is focused on the core of a designer role: creating a character.

She said she hopes to work with friend and costume designer Nancy Gould again, and to “explore more into the buying world of costume designing.”

Penny has been known professionally by her maiden name Amanda Bone. She met her husband, who also works in film doing visual effects, during her time in Toronto. Together they reside in Niagara, Ontario in her husband’s childhood home.