Susie Essman Unpacks Her Eye-Popping ‘Curb’ Wardrobe

“Who buys this stuff?”

Courtesy of HBO
Soraya Roberts

The fourth episode in the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm features one of the ugliest pieces of clothing I have ever seen. Susie Green, the famously foul-mouthed wife of Larry David’s manager, Jeff, appears out of nowhere in an electric yellow, black, and white tiger print, which is bad enough, but the top is further stamped with a familiar early-20th century angel lithograph. While this kitschily garbed harpy — played with tireless gusto by Bronx-born comic Susie Essman — gets press primarily for her expletives, her clothes are just as hilariously offensive. And they have only become more remarkable as the series has progressed, culminating in this 11th season, perhaps Susie’s gaudiest.

Essman has compared her look in the past to “Russian immigrant women in Brighton Beach” (“very colorful and over the top and flashy,” she decrypts for me). But Curb is not a cheap show. This series, loosely based on Larry David’s own life, is dominated by L.A. showbiz types who dress accordingly. While David is sartorially subdued, it’s a classy subdued — James Perse, Rag & Bone, even some Prada and Ermenegildo Zegna. And it turns out the tiger print/angel top is by the pricey label Fiorucci — costume designer Leslie Schilling remembers spending several hundred dollars on it. That’s not uncommon for Susie’s wardrobe. “So many of her clothes are really expensive,” Essman tells me, “And it makes you wonder, who buys this stuff? Who is spending that kind of money for these clothes? Somebody is, otherwise, they wouldn’t make ’em.”

Essman got Susie from day one, when she saw her character’s house — modern, brutalist — and understood that the woman who lived there would rule her kingdom in translucent, leopard print glory. “She’s a Los Angeles housewife,” Essman explains. “For her to spend money on clothes and jewelry is, you know, that’s what she was born to do.” Susie doesn’t care that her husband is habitually unfaithful, she just pays him back again and again with his own money. While Essman knew how to play her unscripted character from the jump, it took her some time to narrow down her precise style. Susie originally had a soft blowout before graduating to her current wild mess of dark curls that, along with her near-constant grimace, transforms her into a modern-day Medusa. Essman remembers the exact episode Susie’s wardrobe congealed: Season 2, episode 7, “The Doll.” Here she appears in open-toed sandals, khaki green metallic leather pants, gold rope belt, and a fur (from a silver fox or similar?) vest over a sparkly transparent gold roll neck. Since then, Susie’s knack for telegraphing nouveau riche tastelessness has been so consistent that in a show which otherwise treats wealth with relative ease, the ramifications of vulgar excess are never quite out of mind.

Season 2, Episode 7. Courtesy of HBO

Susie’s ensembles are particularly held together this season, and there’s a reason for that. Though Schilling arrived back in season nine (when the show returned from its six-year hiatus), before season 11 went into production, she was not only about to go on maternity leave, the pandemic suddenly hit. For the first time, there was no possibility of trying various things on for several hours during playful fittings. That meant Schilling had to create Susie’s entire wardrobe (including accessories) in Los Angeles using a mannequin, before sending everything to New York for approval by Essman and executive producer Jeff Schaffer — no on the spot consultations, no last-minute changes (Essman finally had her fitting the day Schilling gave birth). Everything was predetermined for the first six episodes, which ends up giving the outfits a more finished quality. Explains Schilling, “I find one piece and it all just, like, comes together all of a sudden.”

This season Susie has 30 wardrobe changes, which is a lot for her — Larry’s usually the clothes horse (unsurprising when he’s in the most scenes). But Schilling prefers dressing Susie. “Larry’s clothes are nice, but they’re boring,” she says. There’s a formula to his pieces — all of which David apparently takes home — neutral colors, slacks, collared shirts, unstructured blazers, cashmere crews. No prints, no jeans, nothing cheap. Larry’s undershirts are $65 (Cotton Citizen), he wears the same comfortable sneakers as my mom (Ecco, expensive) and Oliver Peoples glasses (Patrick Bateman’s brand, even more expensive). He’s old, he’s rich, and if he were less successful, he might be normcore but, in this case, he serves as a forgettably elevated backdrop against which others can pop. By season 10, Schilling realized that because the rest of the show basically dresses itself, she could focus on the more eccentric characters, like Larry’s housemate Leon and Susie.

Season 11, Episode 5. Courtesy of HBO

“With Susie, it’s like, every single thing has to be thought about because it is so crazy that it could go wrong really easily,” explains Schilling. Or, in Essman’s words: “We don’t want her to look like a clown.” The costume department shops for Susie all over the place, from Neiman Marcus to Macy’s last call rack. For one of her and Essman’s favorite looks, which appears in episode 5 — fringed jean jacket, jean newsboy, quilted jean purse, black sweater featuring white cowboy boots, caramel brown leather pants, heart belt and to top it off, tinted cowhide cowboy boots — Schilling already had the sweater kicking around and then found the Jeffrey Campbell kicks (which retail for around $300) and voila! As Essman explains, the key to Susie’s look is “that she combines everything together.” And this is not the kind of person who wears the same thing twice. Even when she’s at home, she is DRESSED. Susie does not lounge. She is conspicuous consumption personified — if her job is to spend her husband’s money, her wardrobe is the outcome. “She expresses herself creatively,” Essman says, “either sewing tapestries or dressing like a crazy person.”

In season four, Susie creates some campy bedazzled sports sweatshirts that she attempts to hawk out of the back of her car. Larry’s reaction is characteristically apathetic, to which Susie spits, “Whoever said you had taste, Mr. Hush Puppy Rumple Suit Look?” David has neither on nor off screen ever really bothered much with Susie’s clothing. That doesn’t mean a vetted outfit doesn’t occasionally get overruled by the show’s creator. Essman recalls walking on set one day and David immediately responding: “You look insane! I can’t even act with you looking like that!” According to Shilling, Essman is fully open to experimenting with the mercenary housewife who made her famous. “No matter how crazy it is, she’s gonna at least try it,” she explains. “She doesn’t care if it’s too tight and she has a little muffin top, that’s what life’s all about.” Essman, herself, is wearing a simple black T and jeans when we talk. When I ask if the domineering materfamilias she has played for two decades has ever rubbed off on her wardrobe in any way, she says it’s the contrary — she thinks she’s become more conservative after playing Susie for this long. “One thing I’ve never said to one of our wardrobe designers,” she says, “is ‘Can I keep this?’”

Soraya Roberts is culture columnist at Defector and editor-at-large at Pipe Wrench magazine.