Make no mistake, Barry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful story and one of the most beautifully shot films of the year. Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, the themes are are just as timely today as they were in the 70s.
Costume designer Caroline Eselin used James Baldwin’s descriptions in the book to help style the film’s wardrobe. To show that Tish and Fonny are deeply attached, Eselin dressed them to and mirror each other, enhancing the fact that their love was their destiny. Eselin also talks about the use of green, and the way she brought color from page to screen.
When we see Fonny and Tish for the first time, the costumes speak a thousand words before they even speak. What did you want those outfits to say?
I think instinctually, it was as young lovers do, as young people do, they instinctually dress similarly. They are already in sync. They’ve known each other their whole lives and are completing each other’s sentences. It was just this magic that happened.
How does her wardrobe evolve? She’s a young girl who becomes pregnant. How you approach that?
Early in the flashback scenes, it’s a time of optimism and purity. We hoped that’s what you feel when you see them on those first dates when they go to the restaurant and they make love the first time, and they go to the loft. Those are all times of optimism and hope.
You cut to the present day which is darker and more mature. I definitely wanted to show that she’s having to grow up going through this with Fonny. Even as something as simple as earrings, we go from earring to a loop to show the maturity. She got a little bit older. She is making the best of what she has too. We worked with a very small amount in her closet. There are scenes that were cut out, but you would have seen the same clothes, the same things repeated in different ways. We just wanted to make the best with what she had. It was a time of their early time of being innocent and the pure in the world. They were going to start their new life. It gets darker as the film goes on because everything that’s happening.
I noticed that. It struck me that she didn’t have an extensive wardrobe because that’s not who she is.
She can’t. They can’t afford it. Everything is going to get Fonny out of jail.
How did you work with the production designer to dress the families?
With the Rivers family, we tested some diamond patterns on Tish. Our departments were passing swatches back and forth. You’ll see the green dotted through the story and that actually came from Baldwin.
First and foremost, everything in the movie starts with Baldwin. He’s so descriptive in the book and we wanted to honor that as much as we could. right up to the last minute we’d try things and some things wouldn’t always work from it, but we hit on a lot of things.
Green was something he wrote about a lot. There’s a scene where Tish’s sister is in a green bathrobe. When Sharon arrives in Puerto Rico in a green dress, that’s straight from the book. First, we drew from Baldwin and then the meaning of green.
We wanted things to have a cohesive harmony with the look of the film.
What was the percentage of creating from scratch versus sourcing?
We modified a lot of things. We found things in cardboard boxes. We’d go to clothing recyclers and dive in boxes and pull things out.
I combed all of Brooklyn and NYC to compile and pull pieces. The movie is intimate, but there are some big background scenes that actually are no longer there, but there was a lot of people to dress and we had to pull in as much as we could.
No one has the latest and greatest of right now. That was certainly the case with Sharon. She pulled everything out of the back of her closet to take with her. She certainly wasn’t going to buy anything new to take to Puerto Rico. It’s all a big mix.
Fonny’s lumberjack jacket is from an earlier time period. He cobbles things from his father’s and Tish’s father.