Ryan Murphy’s most recent series, Halston (2021), celebrates late-20th century American fashion while inevitably glossing over some interesting details to fit the short runtime of the series.
The complete disregard for various career successes, removed for the sake of drama, was more than a little disappointing.
Ewan McGregor stars as the titular Roy Halston Frowick, who went from simple hat designer to a pioneer of 1970s women’s fashion.
The series briefly addresses Halston’s hat making, though, his milliner career was instrumental in his rise to fame after Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of his pillbox hats for JFK’s presidential inauguration.
Jackie’s influence on women’s fashion ushered in an era of public recognition for Halston’s designs and inspired a trend of pillbox hats throughout the early 60s.
The series focuses predominantly on the Halston brand rather than the designer’s time with other companies, essentially skimming over this crucial point in his career.
Episode one Becoming Halston: memorable fashion at every turn
A notable example of cuts made in the series is when Halston finds a use for a material that he is fascinated with: suede.
After failing to get an idea for a suede trench coat off the ground due to water damage, Halston finds a solution in Ultrasuede, a new synthetic fabric.
Created by Dr Miyoshi Okamoto, Ultrasuede has had various uses since its invention in 1970, including upholstery and hacky sacks.
Halston created his trench coats in Ultrasuede, earning the favour of socialite Babe Paley. Contrary to what the series suggests, Paley was only one of a group of high-profile Halston enthusiasts at the time.
Actresses such as Lauren Bacall and Catherine Deneuve also wore the Halston brand before the Ultrasuede garments were released.
Becoming Halston sees Halston experiment with tie-dyed fabric, an idea borrowed from his assistant Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin).
Halston drapes the fabric over jewellery designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), making it look elegant and flowy. This experimentation leads to the house creating a lavish line of tie-dyed caftans, with Schumacher credited as the brains behind the collection.
In reality, the caftans were made of silk chiffon, a lightweight plain-woven fabric, while Schumacher was assigned to work in knitwear where it seems unlikely he would have been as involved with the caftans as the episode suggests.
While the first episode of the series is enjoyable and has great fashion moments, it omits significant details from Halston’s career to enhance the impact of others, leading to over generalisations.
Give this a watch if you’re willing to put up with story omissions to see pretty dresses.
Episode two Versailles: a gorgeous display of 1970s American fashion
Versailles focuses primarily on the events surrounding the famous 1973 Battle of Versailles, a fashion show that set five up-and-coming American designers against five French designers who ruled the 1960s fashion world.
Halston was part of the American team with designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows. The French designers were Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan of Dior. This was a group of creatives at the top of their game, battling for the top prize: dominance in the new decade.
While the episode portrays this event as the ultimate factor in solidifying Halston’s relevance throughout the 1970s, it undersells the accomplishments of these other influential designers to make Halston the focus.
Generally, the American designers embraced a looser, more flowy silhouette than the rigid, structured one that had dominated the previous decade. The “American Look” has its roots in the casual, breezy 1940s designs of Claire McCardell.
While the series claims Halston was most influenced by Cristobal Balenciaga, the beauty and draping of his designs demonstrate the inspiration he drew from McCardell–pioneer of the popover dress and the romper.
Halston’s muse and long-time friend Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriquez) was also involved in the “battle”, performing songs to introduce and conclude the American portion of the show.
The episode re-enacts the actual performance from 1973, with some changes to Minelli’s costume by Halston’s costume designer, Jeriana San Juan (70s show The Get Down). While not accurate, San Juan’s sequined vest and matching pants design certainly is fun.
Overall, Versailles is visually sumptuous and does justice to one of the most important fashion shows of the twentieth century.
Episode three The Sweet Smell of Success: bucketsful of drama and backstory
There are fewer iconic Halston fashion moments in, The Sweet Smell of Success, but it does feature various goods the company made during the 1970s. The highlight of which is the subplot based around the creation of Halston perfume.
Halston’s sessions with perfume designer Adele (Vera Farmiga) function like therapy sessions, with Halston flashing back to his childhood and coming to terms with his past.
McGregor’s talent is evident in these moments, as he skilfully conveys the strong emotions brought forth by Halston’s history and the spousal abuse witnessed in his family home.
Another commendable note from this episode is the acknowledgement of the work by Elsa Peretti. Rebecca Dayan portrays Peretti with grace and respect, and it’s great to see Peretti’s accomplishments recognised, even if they have to play second fiddle to Halston.
Peretti starts as a model and muse to Halston before eventually breaking into the fashion industry in her own right, designing jewellery. Halston, inspired by Peretti’s necklace design, asks her to personally design the bottle he decides to use for his perfume.
Although The Sweet Smell of Success is lighter on fashion content, it has bucketsful of drama and backstory. Of all the episodes, this portrays Halston the most sympathetically and compellingly.
Episode four The Party’s Over: hard-pressed for highlights
Unfortunately, the party is over as the second half of Halston fails to offer the same visual splendour or general quality as the first.
There are certainly highlights throughout episodes four and five, but from this point on, the series prioritises the drama of Halston’s personal life, limiting many of his fashion accomplishments to brief appearances.
Halston resigns to creating clothing for a department store, considered a sell-out move for the fashion house. However, after struggling to stay relevant, while fashion rival Calvin Klein takes the 1980s by storm, Halston gives in and becomes the in-house designer for JCPenney.
At this point, Peretti has established herself as a gifted jewellery designer, working for Tiffany and Co. Once again, Dayan is wonderful as Peretti, bringing weight to a role that had the potential to be dismissed as merely a “model turned designer”.
This episode also sees a notable difference occurring in Halston’s personal fashion choices in the form of chunky knits. Halston decides to wear light-coloured woollen jumpers, transitioning him from one of the top American designers from the 1970s to a man of leisure in the 1980s.
The highlights from The Party’s Over are the Studio 54 fashions, and the hats and headdresses shown in flashbacks from Halston’s childhood.
Episode five Critics: there’s no business like show business
The series concludes with episode five, focusing on the costumes Halston creates for choreographer Martha Graham’s (Mary Beth Peil) greek tragedy Persephone (1987).
The costumes are designed for the Broadway dance performance, pushing Halston to carefully consider how the clothing will fit and flow as the dancers move on stage.
Since this is an often-neglected aspect of Halston’s career, showcasing his Broadway costumes is a great fashion moment to end the series with.
While the series only touches on Persephone, Halston and Graham also collaborated on stage shows Lucifer (1975), Clytemnestra (1978) and Acts of Lights (1981).
Halston also created the costumes for the Broadway musical The Act (1977), starring Liza Minelli in a role that won her another Tony Award.
The omission of these details and accomplishments for the sake of dramatic impact reduces what could have been a strong second half to a slightly boring experience.
Halston is at its most enjoyable when it allows the costumes to shine, making Versailles the episode to watch.
Unfortunately, the series suffers from fact altering and omissions from the get-go, with many of Halston’s more interesting career milestones reduced to cameos to make way for the cookie-cutter drama that fills the rest of the show and makes it seem to drag on.
For those looking for something more informative, a Halston documentary came out in 2019, featuring Joel Schumacher, Liza Minelli and other figures who appeared in this series. However, for those just up for some great 70s fashion, Halston (2021) will deliver the goods.