“When you think of Billie Holiday, you automatically think of the gardenias in the hair,” says Paolo Nieddu, the Emmy-nominated costume designer (Empire) who re-created the jazz singer’s look for the Lee Daniels-directed biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday. While filming, however, gardenias were actually not in season—so Nieddu had to get creative. “We used some synthetic ones made from silk. In research, we found that Billie did wear orchids in her hair. So we did some fresh orchids too.”
Nieddu also worked with a dream collaborator for 9 of the approximately 70 looks devoted to the title character: the Italian fashion house Prada. Nieddu combed through archives to research Holiday’s style, selecting “the looks that I thought were interesting and that I wanted to interpret for the film,” and then pored through Prada’s archives to find period-appropriate looks that matched. “It was literally this mad science of stringing together these different elements…saying, ‘Okay, where can I find a dress in Prada’s library that kind of looks like this?’ or ‘I love this skirt, but can it flow to the floor?’ They basically took those notes and then came back to me with their interpretation. It was a beautiful collaboration.”
The nine looks include several gowns, a robe, a rehearsal ensemble of a green cashmere sweater and black pants, and a stunning violet purple suit that Andra Day, who stars as Holiday, wears with a turban to court. “I realized what an avant-garde person she was,” Nieddu says of what he learned about the icon through his research. “She was somebody who seemed so ahead of her time and didn’t seem to follow trends. She had a strong individual style.”
NEWS OF THE WORLD
To find inspiration for Tom Hanks’s Civil War veteran, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, two-time Oscar winner Mark Bridges (The Artist, Phantom Thread) pored over images of distinguished men of the period. “People like Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln,” says Bridges, explaining that “Captain Kidd would want to represent himself [similarly].” He borrowed a few sartorial details from the real-life leaders, like the woolen jacket and brocade vest that Kidd wears for much of the film.
Bridges called upon the same weaver he worked with on There Will Be Blood to create the fabric for Kidd’s riding coat, opting for a cool gray that provided contrast to the brownish Texas landscape. Knowing how important authenticity is to director Paul Greengrass after two prior collaborations (Captain Phillips, Jason Bourne), Bridges used details, rather than colors that would have been unrealistic for the period, to create visual interest—like the scale of the pocket, the slimness of the sleeves, the placement of the seams, and a polished linen lining ordered from England.
Once Johanna (Helena Zengel) begins her journey with Captain Kidd, she wears a calico hand-me-down from one of Kidd’s friends. Bridges settled on a Civil War-era pattern with a color that “read well in nature and in the darker interiors of the period. It’s something that wouldn’t overtake the scene but would be interesting to look at.” And for Johanna’s Native American dress, Bridges used late 19th-century techniques to smoke deerskin hides. “We would walk into our shop at Universal and you’d just get hit by this smell of wood smoke,” says Bridges. “That’s the fun stuff for me—testing myself to see how well I can re-create history.”
Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) took on a classic literary character in Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma, creating a sumptuous wardrobe for Jane Austen’s protagonist that telegraphed her position in her sleepy English town. “Emma being the queen bee, I wanted the world to revolve around her—because she’s spinning the people around her,” Byrne says.
Emma’s impeccable gowns were inspired by Regency-era fashion illustrations and museum pieces, and Byrne evoked period-appropriate vegetable dyes to create vivid marigolds, burnt oranges, and crushed raspberries in her clothes. “The story takes place over a year, and I wanted to show the different seasons through the color of her palette,” Byrne says. “She is setting the style that everybody is aspiring to.”
Byrne played off Emma’s coveted wardrobe when designing costumes for Harriet (Mia Goth), the young woman Emma takes under her wing. “With Harriet, I had the perfect foil to play against Emma,” says Byrne. “Emma is lending her clothes and teaching her about clothes…it’s a kind of awakening for Harriet, but without the income and resources that Emma has.” As Harriet’s and Emma’s lives become more intertwined, there’s a “mirroring” between their costumes. It’s what Byrne calls “the subliminal telegraphing of the story.”
THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD
Director Armando Iannucci wanted the characters in his Charles Dickens adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield, to spring to life. “He wanted colors that were fresh and vibrant so that these people would jump out, basically, and not just disappear,” says Suzie Harman. The costume designers had discovered through their research that the Victorian era marked the advent of aniline dyes—a synthetic alternative to natural dyes that opened wardrobes up to a new world of vivid color. “It was the start of the vibrant color period, and people just loved them,” says Robert Worley of the ensemble cast’s bright hues, like tangerines, magentas, and emerald greens.
For style guidance, Harman and Worley looked to illustrations of Dickens’s original novel done by Phiz (the pseudonym of Hablot Knight Browne). “The illustrations are so eccentric,” says Worley. “They really push the character and heightened and exaggerated everything,” adds Harman. In addition to the illustrations, they also referenced American photographs from the time. “Strangely enough,” says Worley, the actual clothing of the period was “even more eccentric.”
Liberated by the real-life whimsy of the era, the designers chose “a clash of patterns” and a different color palette for each character—selecting cinnamon and gingers, for example, for Tilda Swinton’s Betsey Trotwood, to emphasize her warmth. “Every time we showed Armando a color or a palette, he would go for the brightest one,” says Harman. “That gave us the biggest confidence, really, to go for it.”
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
Charlese Antoinette Jones started work on Judas and the Black Messiah by studying photos of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old activist and Chicago Black Panther leader whose 1969 assassination continues to resonate in a country still battling egregious racism more than 50 years later. “Fred was really young at the time that he took over as chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther party,” says Jones, who dressed actor Daniel Kaluuya in collegiate-type clothing to play a teenage Hampton at the start of the movie and kept his wardrobe mostly “tranquil and minimal.”
LaKeith Stanfield’s character, William O’Neal—the real-life FBI informant who infiltrated Hampton’s Black Panther chapter—was a stark costume contrast. “[Director] Shaka King described his character being very much that of a capitalist,” says Jones. “He wants a better life than what he has and he’ll do anything to get it. So as the movie progresses and he is getting paid, you see that kind of come out in his clothing,” says Jones, referring to the green fedora, embroidered shirt, and flashy green boots O’Neal starts wearing.
Jones also made sure that the characters looked considerably different at Black Panther functions—with Hampton wearing a more functional version of the famous uniform of leather jackets and berets. Since Hampton “embodies” his ideals, Jones says, he doesn’t always “have to dress the part.” O’Neal, meanwhile, is “the most in-uniform person in most of the scenes.… He’s an imposter and almost putting on Panther as a costume.”
Since there aren’t many existing photographs of the real-life Mary Anning, the 19th-century paleontologist Kate Winslet plays in Francis Lee’s Ammonite, Oscar winner Michael O’Connor (The Duchess) essentially began his costume design process from scratch. He built a wardrobe for Anning that was practical for her grueling work and realistic for her modest means but suitable for socializing in town. O’Connor theorized the real-life Anning would have gotten some of her items secondhand—including a naval jacket and a few men’s pieces inherited from her father.
Anning’s life changes when Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte appears in her shop. O’Connor initially telegraphed the women’s differences by outfitting Charlotte in more feminine, fashionable designs. Told by Lee to mostly avoid reds and yellows, O’Connor dressed Charlotte in blue and green tones. “The idea was to always reflect the sea with her in the patterns of her dresses, keeping them feminine but not over-fussed so that she looked like a doll,” says O’Connor. As the two women grow closer, O’Connor depicted the bond by “slightly merging” their aesthetics. “At first you see the contrast between the two women and their two different worlds, and gradually you see the one world they both inhabit.”
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