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Matthew Van Dyne

Written by Jake Stump

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We've all heard the nagging warning, likely as children, that "television will rot your brain." Not for Matthew Van Dyne. Growing up in Pine Grove, W.Va., a town of around 500 in Wetzel County, Van Dyne took to television for creative inspiration. Rather than erode his brain, the small screen served as a catalyst for an unlikely yet prosperous career behind the scenes in Hollywood.

Van Dyne, BFA ’79, Acting, MA ’81, Theatrical Design, has worked as a costume/wardrobe designer or supervisor on a variety of programs including “Entertainment Tonight,” “Murphy Brown,” “Cheers,” “The Shield” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. 

Perhaps it was the imagery of one classic sitcom that ultimately led Van Dyne from the small town to the bright lights. At age 8, he began sketching what he saw on television. One of his favorite subjects to doodle was Barbara Eden’s costume from “I Dream of Jeannie.” 

“Her costume captured my imagination,” he said. “I could still sketch it from memory. I was just fascinated with her. 

“When I look back at growing up, it was very innocent. Creatively, because I was so removed from everything, I didn’t have access to theater or going to the movies. My imagination emerged from not being accessible to things. So I’d see things through television. I would just watch, observe and sketch.” 

Sketch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He attended WVU in the mid-’70s to study acting. But as he wrapped up his undergraduate studies, he was drawn back into the fashion and design elements of theater, thanks to Al Tucci, who headed the costume department at WVU. Van Dyne then entered graduate school under Tucci’s guidance. 

“He pushed me and pushed me,” Van Dyne said. “Nothing was ever good enough. At the time, I was so frustrated. He was always trying to get me to paint a certain way.” 

Tucci’s hardnosed approach to mentoring Van Dyne paid off. Van Dyne finished his master’s degree and knew he wanted to work in television. 

With his portfolio in hand, Van Dyne went to Hollywood looking for work. He got a pass to visit Columbia Studios through a connection of one of his students in grad school. 

“I put on my suit and tie and walked through the gate,” he said. “The first person I passed was Ron Howard and I thought, ‘My goodness. Where am I?’” 

That visit led to a gig in the costume department at the Hollywood gossip and entertainment roundup show “Entertainment Tonight.” It was meant to last three months but he ended up working there for 10 years, dressing guests and the hosts Mary Hart and John Tesh. 

There's a science to his art. 
“You have to take into consideration the lighting, the set design, the backdrop, the way people are positioned, the camera angles, the framing,” Van Dyne said. “All of that is important. 

“For Mary [Hart] back in the ’80s, she was seated and she became known for her legs. That was a big deal, so we showcased that with skirts and dresses. We’d also take her skin tone, hair color and hairstyle into consideration. When Mary altered her hairstyle, I had to reconsider her necklines. She also became synonymous with red. She wore a lot of red.” 

For a few years, Van Dyne would pull double duty. He’d tape “Entertainment Tonight” in the mornings and then head over to the set of “The Merv Griffin Show” in the evenings as wardrobe supervisor. On that program, he got to meet and dress big names like Whitney Houston, Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, George Clooney and President Jimmy Carter. 

Van Dyne poses with Candice Bergen and coworkers on "Murphy Brown."

Van Dyne’s work would not stay limited to talk shows and news-style programs. He supplied fashion and wardrobe advice to CBS Sports and the Winter Olympics. He would serve as a costumer on 24 episodes of “Cheers” and then as costume supervisor on the last three seasons of “Murphy Brown.” Then he would venture from sitcoms to dramas. In 2002, Van Dyne worked on 12 episodes of crime drama “The Shield” and a year later, he would land perhaps his most famous costuming role at “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for which he still receives fan mail. 

“At first I didn’t really appreciate Buffy from a fashion perspective,” he said. “I wanted to move the characters into a more stylish or sophisticated direction. I said, ‘No, I’m not doing it. Do you know how hard that show would be?’” 

Van Dyne served as costume designer on the show’s final season in 2003 and is responsible for Buffy’s pink jacket from the final battle that he says is one of her most recognizable outfits. 

“When I did ‘Buffy,’ the clothing became a little more upscale,” he said. “Plus,   the merchandising from that show is still unreal. I’ll see figurines and go, ‘Oh my God. That’s my costume!’” 

Nowadays, Van Dyne is transitioning from behind-the-camera to on-camera as an interviewer on some undisclosed projects. While his work has evolved beyond genres, he has no intentions of changing his platform: television. 

“I call myself a television hack,” he said. “Feature films were never my desire. They’re tedious. They’re slow. I like TV and flying by the seat of your pants.”