A decade ago, when Brenda Cooper went in for career day at her son's school, she brought in some skirt suits, colorful vests, and purses from The Nanny, assuming none of the kids had ever heard of the show. But all the girls came running up to the front of the class to profess their love for Fran Fine; turns out, they watched The Nanny on Nick at Nite. As a child of the '90s, I grew up using my allotted 30 minutes of TV time to watch it too. TV execs wanted to make Fran Italian so she'd be more relatable to middle America, but the Jewess from Queens, or "the flashy girl from Flushing," as the tagline went, prevailed. We loved her because she was unlike anyone else on TV.
If The Nanny was the I Love Lucy of the '90s, in color instead of black and white, it was Cooper who brought it into bright, sequined, and often clashing color by way of her costumes. She created the Fran Fine Formula (more on that later) and helped shape the characters by way of their daily dress. After four seasons on The Nanny, Cooper left to have a child. But a year later, she was back in the TV world as a host on E!'s Fashion Emergency, one of the first big makeover shows. Since then, Cooper has worked as a stylist, costume designer, and personal color expert, which means she advises individuals on what colors suit them best.
Though the show isn't streamable anywhere (help, Netflix!), Cooper's costumes have reemerged thanks to the @WhatFranWore Instagram account. (I hoped to speak to both Drescher and Cooper, but the former was doing her Cancer Schmancer Cabaret Cruise, and when I suggested we speak in the weeks following, her PR agent said, "Thirty minutes is a pretty long time.") When I called Cooper in July, she'd just gotten back from a seven-city European tour for the TV show Better Late Than Never, which required 40 suitcases' worth of clothes for guys and still found her chasing down white underwear in Stockholm. On the phone, she's warm and funny, with an unexpected and very posh British accent.
Alex Ronan: How did you end up doing costumes for The Nanny?
Brenda Cooper: I was pursuing an acting career, and that going nowhere faster than the speed of light. So I was trying to figure out what to do, and I've always been good at putting clothes together. I got a job at a fashion-consulting agency, and my second client insisted on introducing me to a Hollywood costume-design agency. I didn't think they'd talk to me, but three days later I had a job as a costume assistant, and three years later, I was walking up onstage to get an Emmy for The Nanny. I met Fran Drescher on the set of a show called Princesses, where I was a costume assistant, and she told me,"If I ever get my own show, I want you to be the costume designer." A year later, she sat next to a CBS executive on a plane, pitched him her idea, and it became The Nanny.
AR: What did you want to do with the show, costume-wise?
BC: With Fran, I wanted you to know who she was before she even opened her mouth. I was dressing the entire show, so that's like 50 to 60 outfits a week. I needed a system of dressing to simplify things, which was how I came up with the Fran Fine Formula. I started off with a black silhouette: so a black turtleneck and a black short skirt, black opaque tights, and black high-heel stilettos. Then I would add color to it. Nothing would ever come from a store and go on camera without being altered in some way to accommodate her character. We'd shorten skirts to make them sassier, pull in tops to make them more form-fitting, and often swap out the buttons for more impact. It was a jigsaw puzzle of possibilities. You get into a rhythm. Monday morning was a production meeting with the latest script, then we'd shop, prepare, and sew in order to fit all the actors on Wednesday. Any changes to costumes would happen on Thursday, and then Friday, the show would get shot in one evening in front of a studio audience.