Hollywood is alluring for a number of reasons. As an actor/actress, the material allows a person to step into the role of someone drastically different than who they are in real life. For screenwriters, the medium brings their words to life. And for directors, the entire project is a meditation on working with countless different departments to make the characters and stories seem wholly believable.
To achieve this so-called "movie magic," each aforementioned profession must rely on the ingenuity of the costume designer.
In a Hollywood context, the film community has recognized the importance of clothing — having awarded the first Academy Award for recognition to Roger K. Furse for 1948's Hamlet. In a contemporary context, films like Phantom Thread, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Duchess, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and The Aviator have taken home the honor.
One quickly gets the impression from looking at a list of past winners that Hollywood loves period pieces when it comes to costume design. Equal parts a scavenger hunt for archival pieces as it is a lesson in cut-and-sew from a different era, the costume designer must literally show us that we've been transported to another time and place.
Although it is too early to predict who may land an Oscar nomination at the 91st Academy Awards, a popular choice will certainly be Marci Rodgers, who handled the aesthetics for Spike Lee's latest film, BlacKkKlansman, which is certainly timely in its subject matter despite it being a 1970s period piece.
Having worked with Lee on BlacKkKlansman and his Netflix series, She's Gotta Have it, Rodgers seems to be the auteur's new go-to costume designer much in the same way that Ruth Carter handled the job for Lee on films like Malcolm X, School Daze, Do The Right Thing, and Crooklyn.
We recently caught up with Rodgers to discuss how she got into the business, her inspiration for the look in BlacKkKlansman, and key pieces from the film that are ripe for comeback in contemporary fashion.
For those who may not know, what does a costume designer do on a film/TV show?
A costume designer creates and selects the appropriate wardrobe choices to best support wardrobe instructions in the script. We also collaborate with the Director, Art Director, Director of Photography, Head of Hair and Make-up to create the best possible depiction of the character that will be portrayed on screen.
For the uninformed, who would be on the Mt. Rushmore of costume designers, and what made their films/choices so important and memorable?
Reggie Ray – Holler if You Can Hear Me! Aggie Rodgers – The Color Purple, BeetleJuice, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Paul Tazewell – Hamilton, The Wiz Live! Ruth Carter – Malcolm X, School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Crooklyn. June Ambrose - Belly.
For all of the aforementioned costume designers: [some of ] their films/plays/musicals tell the story of someone’s life. To me that is important and memorable. I remember watching each of the productions in awe not knowing it took a village to create what I saw on screen. On the other hand, the productions helped create fashion trends that are still relevant to this day like Do The Right Thing.
What's your background, and how did you get involved with costume design?
My background is actually in business, as I obtained a BBA from Howard University. Shortly after graduating, I secured a job at Howard University’s Law School where I would end up becoming the Assistant Director of Admissions. During my spare time I would wardrobe style in the DC area, but I knew there were bigger opportunities for me. So I would always say I wanted to be a “costume designer.”
In 2015, I applied to Central Saint Martins in London, where I did a short course in fashion design and marketing. Shortly after I met my mentor, Reggie Ray, who was a Broadway costume designer [and] took me under his wing. Months later, I met Helen Huang the Director of graduate studies in Costume Design at University of Maryland–College Park who offered me admissions. I graduated in 2 and a half years from a three-year program as the commencement speaker for the entire department, and the rest is history.
Was there an "aha" moment when you were younger when you realized while watching a film that it was someone's job to provide the costumes for the characters?
Actually no. I had no idea costume design was a profession.
What was your first big break in the industry?
My first break in the industry was Chi-Raq, where I worked as a production assistant in the wardrobe department.
BlacKkKlansman director, Spike Lee, said, "the biggest thing we wanted was to put stuff in the script, very strategically, so it would not be a period piece." But as a costume designer, you can't deny the 1970s Colorado Springs backdrop. Did you find yourself having to pull back from the really bold style choices of the era?
Actually, no. My costume choices were bold and purposeful. For all the characters, I wanted to make a distinction. For some, bolder than others.
I noticed the prominent appearance of necklaces on men, and also shearling jackets. How do those pieces capture the era?
While doing my research at my alma mater, Howard University, I visited the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center where I looked through Essence Magazines, Jet, Kwame Ture’s photo files, and the Library of Congress. After compiling my research, I noticed that some of the men and women (for sure) wore jewelry. It was a symbol of self-expression and style. The shearling jackets certainly capture the era as men wore leather/suede shearling jackets.
Ron Stallworth's character seemed to also have a thing for rings. Do you see that trend ever making a comeback in today's era?
Yes, I do see it coming back. Men’s accessories were always a thing, and I am a fan of the return! Everything in moderation and tastefulness.
The crux of the story is Ron and Flip pretending to be people that they really aren't. Did you have to consider the secrets they kept when constructing their outfits?
In part, yes. In theory, I designed Ron’s costume to allow him to enter in and out of the worlds he would enter in. For example, the Kwame Ture speech scene. I wanted Ron to look “hip” but still professional at the same time.
It was scripted that Flip would wear plaid. I added the trucker hat to make him fit into the world of the “organization."
You have the benefit of sourcing original pieces, and constructing your own. Which method do you prefer?
Both. Sourcing original pieces are important. After all they are a part of history and inevitably validate the story, which is why I believe the costumes for the movie have been so well received. I do, however, like to construct costumes. It gives me a reason to play with fabric.
What ran through your mind as you created the Ku Klux Klan outfits?
I really tried to look at it from an artistic standpoint and make sure my designs were portraying the wardrobe as accurately as possible. For the group of men [from the organization], it was very simple – they are every day citizens who are essentially our neighbors. So, I asked myself, "what does that look like wardrobe wise?" The answer was simple and presented in my research, which was my guide.
What vintage stores across the country would you recommend for people who love thrifting for hidden gems to add to their daily wardrobes?
Hmm…that’s a tough one, but I would say for those I have visited: In Chicago: Pilsen Vintage. In Los Angeles: Wasteland, Crossroads Trading. In Atlanta: The Clothing Warehouse, Rag-O-Rama, Psycho Sisters. In New York: Rag-O-Rama, L Train. In London: Rokit, Beyond Retro.
BlacKkKlansman producer Jason Blum, has said, "The eye-popping fashion offers the perfect counterpoint to the wildly relevant horror of this chapter of American history." What do you take away from his statement?
Honestly, I had to re-read the statement a few times as I was in awe! I am very proud of my work and am honored by his words. I thank Mr. Blum, Mr. Peele, and Mr. Lee for having the courage to tell Mr. Stallworth’s story during that chapter of American History and having me along for the ride.