Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
The opening credits of Sex and the City, in which a tutu-clad Carrie Bradshaw is splashed by a passing bus that happens to have her picture (and the slogan “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex”) plastered on the side, are probably some of the most famous of any opening credits of all time. The show’s costume designer, Patricia Field, was the mastermind behind the ensemble, and all of the styles sported by all four characters that inspired a generation of women.
Though the show, and the two subsequent films that followed, have endless memorable fashion moments, Carrie’s tutu remains the most iconic of any ensemble featured on the show, and spawned scores of replicas. It was, after all, the very first outfit that we ever saw on our fashion-plate heroine, and viewers immediately came to associate the character of Carrie with the tutu, even though she didn’t wear it again until the 2008 film, in a scene where she cleans out her closet.
Here’s the story behind that plain camisole top and tutu from the iconic HBO opener…and the very different look that almost appeared instead.
The birth of Sex and the City
Before six seasons on HBO, the DVDs, reruns, the hit movie and sequel, there was a newspaper column.
“Sex and the City” first appeared in The New York Observer on November 28, 1994. The column’s author and central character, Candace Bushnell, was then a 35-year-old freelance writer and a native of Connecticut who had attended Rice University and New York University. She had tons of talent and charm that came across in her humorous column for the paper, as well as a ton of anxiety over her career as a writer, her love life, her closetful of Chanel, and even her ability to pay the rent. In fact, Bushnell said that one year she earned $14,000 and was thrown out of her sublet. But she also summered in the Hamptons, dated the publisher of Vogue (the real Mr. Big) and socialized with New York’s elite.
Bushnell’s column ran for two years and then, in 1996, the columns were collected in a book of the same name. Two years after that came the HBO series, based on the book of columns and starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw. It became a pop culture phenomenon that eclipsed both the book and the column.
Darren Star, the series creator, wrote the pilot episode for HBO. “I wanted to do a show that felt more like an independent film made for TV – R-rated and adult, very frank and honest about sexual relationships,” he said. “It was the first time I had the opportunity to write something so close to my own experience and the people I knew.”
Furthermore, Star wanted the show to be about the female experience. “From the beginning I wanted it to be a show about independent women who were not looking to define themselves by a man,” he said. “They are women who are career oriented, sexually free, and always about putting themselves and their friendship with each other first.”
Star wrote the pilot with Sarah Jessica Parker in mind as Carrie. According to Parker, “I was flattered, but didn’t want to do it. He convinced me, begged me to do it, and I signed a contract.” The pilot episode was subsequently shot in June 1997 – but Parker disliked it, saying, “I hated the look, the clothes…. I didn’t think it worked.” In fact, she feared it would end her career, and actually tried to get out of her contract, offering to work unpaid in three HBO movies. Though Star would not release her, he listened to her concerns and implemented major changes before shooting the first season. Parker said: “The funny thing, after the first episode of Season 1, I never looked back, and the rest is history. I never thought, though, that the show would become what it has become.”
The series premiered on June 6, 1998, a year after the pilot, and concluded on February 22, 2004, with 94 episodes broadcast over six seasons.
Creating the look
Before the first season of Sex and the City, Parker and Star asked Field to design and curate the costumes for the series. Field became the woman behind the show’s fashionable look for Carrie (Parker) and her three best friends – Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte York (Kristin Davis).
For her work on Sex and the City, Field was nominated for five Emmy Awards, with one win, and nominated for six Costume Designers Guild awards, with four wins.
Before she came to be the Sex and the City costume designer, Field had already spent decades dressing people. In 1966 she opened her first downtown store, Pants Pub, which evolved into her eponymous New York City boutique Patricia Field on 8th Street, before moving to Bowery. Field’s eclectic shop was the go-to for the below-14th Street creatives, club kids and generations of stars, like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Missy Elliott. She shuttered her legendary shop in 2015, but shortly afterwards opened the doors to ArtFashion – her concept shop offering affordable pieces customized by local artists and friends – in a buzzy section of the Lower East Side.
Through Field’s distinct, irreverent and often envelope-pushing work on Sex and the City, she changed the landscape of how fashion was represented on the small screen – and ultimately influenced how we dressed, whether we watched the show or not. She single-handedly turned Manolo Blahnik (and countless other designers) into household names, and introduced her irreverent downtown styling methods to the masses, mixing high fashion pieces with dollar bin finds, showing women how to confidently express their individuality through wardrobe.
Field recalls the early days: “The girls were described to me, and it was interesting because the only one who wasn’t communicated clearly to me was Carrie,” she explained. “She was the one who sort of developed over time. The other three you could describe and an image was conjured, but Carrie evolved, working together with Sarah Jessica Parker.”
Though the Carrie Bradshaw character would become known for her elaborate designer wardrobe, Field was careful to inject everyday elements into her look, items that any style-loving New Yorker might stumble upon.
At times, it was madness. But, there was a method – and meaning – to Field’s madness. Take, for example, the famous “Carrie” nameplate necklace. Beyond becoming a signature of Carrie’s (and playing a crucial role in the series’ finale), the small gold charm spoke about her place in New York City, and was inspired by the script necklaces that shoppers at Field’s East Village boutique were wearing. “It was a piece of New York, not just Manhattan,” Field once told the Television Academy Museum. “New York was my palette, but I never really made a conscious connection between the city and the wardrobe as such,” she said, alluding to the statement that many fans have made about the city being the unsung fifth character holding the show together. “It was more about, ‘Oh, this looks good, this looks like the character.’ I didn’t try to expand it.”
In the series opening credits, Carrie wears a plain tank top with a tutu and heels as she dashes around the Manhattan streets. As it turns out, the tulle skirt in that now-iconic sequence was actually a $5 bargain find.
Field once revealed to the Television Academy Foundation: “I was in a showroom and there was a bucket on the floor for like, $5 each or something, and I pull out this tulle skirt, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, let’s just take this. We’ll see.’
“So when I showed it to Sarah Jessica, she loved it. And I said, ‘Okay, so we’ll put it with a little T-shirt,’ and she loved it. She felt it. And then we had to convince Darren. He didn’t get it. I don’t blame him – it’s not his thing. And we were coming to him with something strange, in his mind. So we had to convince him.”
Field went on to explain that the white tutu was actually one of four options considered for the opening credits: one was a tight-fitting, colourful dress; the others she can no longer recall.
Two versions of Sex and the City’s opening credits were actually shot. In the alternative opening credits, Parker isn’t wearing a signature piece of her character’s look. Instead, she’s wearing a sleeveless, knee-length, powder blue sheath dress.
“We did one pass where Sarah Jessica was wearing a blue dress and didn’t get splashed; instead, she trips when she sees the ad,” Star said. This opening, filmed in March 1998 on Fifth Avenue near Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, was “a nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
The lost blue dress was designed by Marc Jacobs and is from his Spring 1998 collection, during the height of late-’90s minimalism (in fact, it was modelled by Kate Moss on the runway). It may be a missed opportunity for Jacobs now, but in an interview on Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, Parker revealed that at the time, no fashion designers were willing to lend the show any clothes. It wasn’t until that second season, when Fendi jumped in with their baguette bag, that the floodgates really opened — so if they were using that Marc Jacobs dress as a potential opening credits feature, odds are that Field either called in a favour or bought it herself.
Interestingly, many of those involved in making the final decision between the two opening ensembles favoured the blue dress, but Field says she was adamant that the tutu and tank be used because the dress would date easily, while her favoured look would not.
In the end, the tutu won out, and Field says it couldn’t have been more symbolic of who Carrie was as a character. “It was such a brilliant choice because, in a way, Carrie’s dancing through her life in New York,” Field said.
Really makes you wonder if the alternate version of Carrie – this more buttoned-up, tutu-less, blue-dress-wearing Carrie – would have ended up with Aidan or Petrovsky instead of Mr. Big. Looks like we’ll never know.
Want more? You can read other stories from our The Story Of series right here.