Janine Teagues, second grade teacher extraordinaire, is the type to be friendly with the employees of her local Old Navy. And because of that, “Abbott Elementary” costume designer Susan Michalek shops there, too.
Created by Quinta Brunson, who also stars as Janine, “Abbott Elementary” follows a group of teachers who work at an underfunded Philadelphia school, leading Brunson and Michalek to decide to constrain the show’s costumes to a realistic teacher’s budget. H&M, Zara, Target and Old Navy became Michaelek’s go-to stores, with occasional spurges at Anthropologie.
“We really want to keep it at what these people could afford, as much as we possibly can,” Michalek says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and through the eras, it’s all Gucci and Prada. This is the first show I came in under budget on, and that’s [out of] 40 shows.”
But keeping it cheap has not forced Michalek to sacrifice creativity. Janine is known among her colleagues (and fans on Twitter) for the eccentricity of her wardrobe — more than one heartfelt moment is ruined when a fellow teacher notices her clashing patterns or outlandish accessories.
“It’s happy — and a little off,” Michalek says of Janine’s style. “When she walks out the door, she really thinks she’s hit it, but obviously she hasn’t. But it’s so endearing!”
With Season 1 of “Abbott Elementary” coming to a close, Michaelek selected six of her favorite outfits to break down with Variety.
Abbott Elementary Student Uniform
Much of “Abbott Elementary” is inspired by Brunson’s mother, who is a retired Philadelphia elementary school teacher, as well as her own experiences attending Philadelphia public schools. Growing up, Brunson’s school uniform consisted of khakis and a navy blue polo shirt. The students of Willard R. Abbott elementary wear something similar.
“We changed it to light blue just to make the color a little more enlivening, and we put a logo on it. And everything is sandwashed,” Michalek said, referring to process used to soften and fade fabric. “We wear it down. We like it messy and real. And these kids are so adorable that is individual on each kid. It’s a big mix-match of whatever looks the most real.”
The child actors are supplied with shoes and accessories, but they’re also encouraged to bring in their own. And there’s no science to the fact that some kids wear their shirts tucked in while others dress more loosely. Michalek allows them to make themselves comfortable: “It’s like, ‘Here’s the shirt and the skirt that fit you best. Which shoes do you want? Which jacket you want? Wear it how you want it. Put whatever bow in your hair you want.”’”
Janine’s Coral Dress and Jelly Bean Belt from Zara (Episode 4)
Janine’s most notorious fashion faux pas happens in Episode 4, “New Tech.” When the teachers at Abbott are given brand-new tablets equipped with a program meant to aid reading lessons, veteran teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) struggles and begins to feel insecure about her age, until an emotional scene when Janine breaks through to her that it’s OK to need help.
Having been desperate for Barbara’s approval since starting at Abbott, Janine asks, “Are we having a moment right now?” Confusion and dismay cross Barbara’s face as she notices Janine’s outfit: “Are those jelly beans on your belt?”
“Janine is always trying to get this love, and she’s not quite getting it,” Michalek said, likening the character’s social skills to her fashion skills. They aren’t real jelly beans — the belt and the dress she wears with it are from Zara — but the costume is a good representation of how enthusiastic Janine is, even when it’s too much for others.
“I give [Brunson] a big selection of things right before every scene, and she puts on a weird thing she finds from that, and rolls right into a shot,” Michalek says. Therefore, each time a character makes fun of Janine’s clothes — which happens almost every episode — the joke is written on the fly. There’s a writer, Patrick [Schumacker], who’s one of the executive producers, who’s on set all the time. And often the writer for the particular show episode is on set also. So Quinta goes and works out with them when she has the outfit on.”
Janine’s Puff Sleeve Green and Purple Dress from Yevu (Episode 5)
The almost-neon striped dress Janine wears in Episode 5, “Student Transfer,” is from Yevu, a small brand based in Accra, Ghana that aims to sustainably employ women. Their website mentions that they pay above the living wage, provide employees with 380 hours of training, run a free apprenticeship program and also work in Accran to provide menstrual hygiene products and educational programs.
Yevu pieces are high-quality and hand-made, which comes with a price tag. The dress Janine wears, titled “Puff Sleeve Midi Dress” in the pattern “Ice Cream” is listed at $260. But Michalek justified the cost within her low budget ethos by considering parts of Janine’s persona outside of her salary. She’s big-hearted and lives to give to others, and it made sense that she would admire a brand like Yevu and save up her money to support it.
“It’s a special company, and we were lucky to find it,” Michalek says. (Yevu appeared as a targeted ad as she was scrolling through Instagram.) “They caught that Quinta wore it and they were so happy, and that makes me happy, too. That dress is just sort of weird, and also cool, and slightly strange. It just fits.”
Gregory’s Lightweight Sweater and Pants from H&M (Episode 8)
Day in and day out, Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) wears well-tailored shirts and ties in a muted color palette. He’s a long-term substitute teacher who’s been snubbed after training to be a principal, and his clothes reflect that. But in Episode 8, “Work Family,” he learns from Barbara and Melissa Schemmenti that strictness isn’t always what’s best for children’s learning.
“He’s so uptight, but a scene at the end gives Gregory the opportunity to loosen up in front of the kids,” Michalek says. In “Work Family,” Janine’s boyfriend Tariq is hired to write and perform an anti-drug rap at a school assembly. Noticing that his class is having less fun than the other kids, Gregory lets go of his polished attitude and begins to dance wildly. His students soon join in and flil around with joy. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him experience joy before,” notes Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), another teacher. “It’s weird!”
Gregory is dressed in a comfy — but still fitted and collared — sweater, with brown pants that stick to his business casual repertoire but allow him a wide range of motion. Michalek describes the slight change from his normal costumes as a “teeny bit” of progress as he ultimately learns to relax into the environment of Abbott Elementary. She adds: “And the ladies on Twitter really liked that outfit. They liked him a lot.”
Abbott Step Shirts
In Episode 9, “Step Class,” Janine finds an unlikely collaborator in Ava Coleman (Janelle James), Abbott’s typically uninterested and incompetent principal. Janine starts teaching after-school step classes, but takes a backseat in the program to give the spotlight to Ava, who, all flaws considered, is a much better dancer. This is the first time in the series where Ava truly shows up for the Abbott community, and the students’ matching Abbott Step shirts and black leggings help commemorate that united front. (Though, true to form, Ava glamorizes the outfit with shinier leggings and a chunky gold necklace.)
“We just decided that the school colors would be royal,” Michaelek says, referring to the bold blue fabric and shimmery gold lettering of the shirts. She credits the neat-but-imperfect lettering assistant costume designer Kate Lombardi, who hand-painted the shirts instead of printing them to give the impression that Janine had taken her limited resources and made something special. Lombardi also painted glitter onto the hair bows that some students wear.
Ava’s Sweatsuit from Adidas x Marimekko
Ava is too cool for school, and it shows. She got the principal gig by blackmailing the superintendent, whom she caught sleeping with a church deaconess, and therefore moves through the halls of Abbott Elementary like no one can touch her. When it comes time for an open house event, instead of working to connect with parents or impress the school district, Ava appoints herself as the DJ for the night. She dresses for the job in a sleek black and yellow sweatsuit from Adidas’ collaboration with Marimekko.
“Marimekko is a Finnish company that started in 1951,” Michalek explains. “So it’s her being flashy and irreverent.”