Renee Ehrlich Kalfus has designed costumes for the 2104 Annie remake, Chocolat, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Her work can currently be seen in Hidden Figures, the story of three women scientists and mathematicians who were integral to the success of America’s space race 50 years ago. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a NASA scientist struggling to earn respect in her career at a time when the civil rights movement was a key issue in the country as a whole.
Kalfus and I caught up to talk about working on a period film, and how Ebony magazine and news archives helped her evoke the look we see in the film. Kalfus also talks about the color palette and how the Kennedy brothers inspired the grey look that we see on the men.
Read our interview after the jump.
Awards Daily: Well, I saw the film the other day, and I have to say, it certainly put a smile on my face and left me feeling inspired.
Renee Ehrlich Kalfus: We need that. It is a very unbelievable and inspirational story. Everybody in that film is fantastic.
AD: When you’re creating a costume, where do you start?
REK: With this story, it was a very specific time, it took place in 1961-62, and at the end, we have a pop of 1963. We start with research. In this movie, Ted [director Theodore Melfi], Mandy [cinematographer Mandy Walker] and I met and we talked about this movie because it has several sections to it. It always starts with research even though this story was completely untold. We’d never heard it before. The time is well documented and it was just really interesting to go back.
There was a tremendous amount of NASA research, and together we planned a way at looking at this. The NASA look was cooler and that was one kind of look. When the women were outside of this world, the women had a warmer look. Then we would dive into specifics as to what each of the women would be wearing. We discovered that Katherine made all her clothes.
AD: What a woman.
REK: Really. She was raising three children, was a genius, and sews. She was remarkable. One of the producers told me they had screened it for her. She looked at the film and said, “I wore those clothes.” That was such a high compliment and to have her say we got it right.
I discovered that I could delve into the archives of Ebony magazine and that allowed me to get a flavor of what was happening both in its advertising and in its articles. It brought me back to those times.
AD: How do you strive for authenticity when you had to get the look of the astronauts too?
REK: What moved me when I was doing this research, these guys were like space cowboys in that big room. They had a personality and were people going into this tiny capsule being shot into space. When we saw the capsule, we thought, wow. They were brave men, and they looked different from the engineers and mathematicians.
AD: You mention that Katherine Johnson gave you her seal of approval. What other challenges exist when you’re costuming characters based on real life?
REK: I wasn’t really trying to recreate. We had a modern eye looking at it because the story feels so contemporary in a way. None of us wanted to really be a slave to period.
AD: What about the characters? Did you have a color palette for each of them, not just the women, but the men?
REK: Let’s start with the men, they were all in grey. I worked with Brooks Brothers who have their archival suits. I read that the Kennedy’s wore a suit that they now call the Fitzgerald suit. I asked if they could make those suits for Kevin and Jim. There was an interesting piece of research that showed how they were trying to get the Kennedy’s out of two button suits and into something sharper, but none of them were willing to do that. So, that was our model, the conservative look. The early ’60s is part of the ’50s, and it was a very conservative time with clothing.
All of the women wore bras, girdles, and stockings, and that was happening.
AD: I loved the kitchen scene. They’re not as conservative, they get to let their hair down.
REK: What we were trying to do was explain who these people were in their family life, and explain the camaraderie and how they supported each other. We talked about making the sets warmer and how that allowed us to walk about from the steel look of NASA, and into this deep and rich explanation of what life was like outside of their work. The palette we see here was rich and textured.
When they went to work, their skirts had to be a designated length, and they were given a uniform, and the same went for the men. These women were the crème de la crème of mathematicians with the drama of the space race, and lucky for us there was this other side to the story about them outside of work that we could tell in another way.
AD: How much did the cast get involved in costuming?
REK: We had a lot of fittings of course, but they were very pleased with everything. There was no struggle, it was a movie that came together with everyone on board.
AD: How many of the costumes did you make for this one?
REK: Katherine’s wardrobe was 80% made. Octavia’s was all made. With Mary’s character, she fit into a lot of those period dresses that we found, so I’d say 50/50.
There was a lot of fabric finding, and finding the colors. I wanted to make Katherine’s clothes because when I met Taraji for the first time, I gave her a lot of the patterns I was going to use.
Back in the 60’s, it wasn’t like today with options. It was much more defined. It was Made in America. There were certain shoes, and certain girdles, which became a nice discipline for me.
Hidden Figures is released on December 25