Entertainment

Why the Instantly Iconic Outfits in Showtime's 'Ziwe' Make the Talk Show

The excellent new series is a haven for ridiculous, wonderful fashion that disrupts the late-night talk show host dress code.

Ziwe
Showtime

The uniform for late-night hosts has been fairly static ever since The Tonight Show Starring Steve Allen started airing in 1954. Occasionally, some have balked the trend of the boring suit, but even the few women who have entered the arena, like Samantha Bee or Chelsea Handler, have conformed to what is generally known as business casual. Not Ziwe of Ziwe, though. Sure, in the first episode of the comedian's new Showtime show, she wears what looks like a suit to interview the essayist Fran Lebowitz, but it's not a suit you would normally see on one of her counterparts. It is an Alessandra Rich jacket dress with a pink collar, and she accessorizes it with a La Perla slip and Naked Wolf platform boots that stretch over her knees. It's talk show host by way of Clueless

"Technically, this is in the late night slot, and when we look at what that space generally looks like, it's pretty consistent and it's pretty boring," Ziwe's costume designer Pamela Shepard-Hill told me. "And so, I just really feel like Ziwe gave an opportunity to be a bright light, a bright light with her comedy, a bright light with her interviewing, a bright light with her insights, a bright light with her passion. None of it disparate, it all connects. And so the comedy, the intellect, the fashion, all of it is hand-in-hand."

If you didn't become aware of Ziwe this past summer when she took her web series Baited to Instagram Live, you were missing out. The writer-performer, who has been on staff at Desus and Mero and The Rundown with Robin Thede, invited a mix of well-known and often controversial figures, including the influencer Caroline Calloway, the cookbook author Alison Roman, and the actress/activist Rose McGowan. She quizzed them on civil rights and asked them how many Black friends they had with the tone of Regina George in Mean Girls, leaning into the camera with impeccable eyeliner to catch them in  awkward moments. It has now resulted in Ziwe, the series, produced by A24.

From a set that looks like Barbie's dream house with pictures of Oprah and Michelle Obama hung on the walls, Ziwe interrogates guests like Lebowitz, comedians Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison, and Real Housewife Eboni K. Williams. Her questions—all based around themes like race, class, and beauty standards—are leading and inspired. Her wardrobe, incredible. It's all part of the aura of Ziwe who weaponizes over-the-top feminine aesthetics. To get to the bottom of these brilliant fashion moments, I had Shepard-Hill walk me through her decisions. 

The toddler look

According to Shepard-Hill, Ziwe's motto, when it comes to costuming, is: "Dress me like a 3 year old." That means lots of matching, and "more is more" as a guide. Considering that Ziwe is just 29, "dress me like a 3 year old" also means embracing what was popular when Ziwe herself was a toddler. You'll notice that Shepard-Hill takes a lot of inspiration from the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2000s, the stuff Shepard-Hill's mother wouldn't let her touch in middle school.

"I definitely wanted it to be a nod to the '90s and Bratz dolls and Clueless, and, you know, just what the cool girls were into," Shepard-Hill says. "Delia's, Claire's, all of those things, but how do we elevate this for this young woman? And how do we elevate it in a way that feels of the moment? So that was something that was a fun puzzle to put together." This joyful youthfulness often stands in stark contrast to the topics Ziwe is tackling, but so are the ways she asks her questions, like for instance when she cheekily challenges Lebowitz with the query: "What bothers you more: slow walkers or racism?"

"There's a levity, there's a humor, because this is a variety show," Shepard-Hill says. "They're very heavy topics that are being discussed, so what is something that helps to bring a balance to that for the viewer?" 
 

The "Black Elle Woods" look

When Williams is on, Ziwe asks how she settled on her look for the show, a form-fitting pink dress. "I wanted to serve Black Elle Woods today," Williams says. "That's what I pitched the show as," Ziwe responds, wearing a midriff-baring blue and pink tweed suit with a Peter Pan collar and a Chanel vibe. Characters like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde and Cher Horowitz from Clueless were touchstones for Shepard-Hill, but she wanted to look at them through a Black lens.

"All of my reference images—yes, we are talking about Elle Woods, yes, we are talking about Cher—but when it came to building the [mood] board, it was how that moment looked on Black skin. How that moment looked amongst us. And I did find a real joy in being able to have such a specific perspective. It was an opportunity to reframe what I personally remember a bit differently. But then I think of my nieces now, and their reference will be Ziwe." Other icons that appeared on the board included Kimora Lee Simmons, Diana Ross, and super model Donyale Luna. 

Ziwe
Showtime

The "Stop Being Poor" look

Each episode features a music video starring Ziwe and directed by Quinn Wilson, who has served as Lizzo's creative director. In the first, "Lisa Called the Cops," Ziwe sings a torch song about a white woman (portrayed by show writer Cole Escola) who gets her rocks off on calling the cops on Black people. Ziwe alternates between a LaQuan Smith slinky catsuit and a RetrofĂŞte white minidress with beaded fringe. Shepard-Hill had Josephine Baker in mind for the jazzy number. For a later interlude, Shepard-Hill thought country club by way of Hype Williams. In the Paris Hilton-influenced song, "Stop Being Poor," Ziwe and Patti Harrison bop around in tennis skirts while imploring people just to get over their poverty.

"Instantly, I am thinking of these stereotypes, and I'm thinking of what are elitist worlds, and I'm starting to think of sports and I'm starting to think of tennis, and worlds where, oftentimes—and again, these are very general stereotypes—but not everybody is welcome in the room," Shepard-Hill says. "So those tennis outfits, as adorable as they were, are 100% a part of the commentary of the song." 
 

The "Girl, who do you think you are?" look

If some of Ziwe's looks seem ridiculous, well, that was very much intentional. Take, for instance, the pink slip dress with a giant pink fur coat from Daniel's Leathers that she wears to interview Harrison and Yang. "It's absolutely ridiculous, and she looks amazing," Shepard-Hill says. "That's kind of the baseline: She looks really good in all of these looks, but I just think how bombastic and just wild that look is. It just cracks me up upon sight. It just is so funny to me, because it's like, 'Girl, who do you think you are?' The way I see Ziwe is as someone who gives herself permission to take up as much space as she wants."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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