The Wiz, Hamilton and Jesus Christ Superstar Live! are just a few of the shows that Paul Tazewell has created costumes for.
His work can be seen in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, the story of slave turned heroine Harriet Tubman. It’s only taken us until now to have a film about Tubman. For his research, Tazewell researched black and white photographs of Tubman to help conceptualize her look, but it was in her arc – from slave to superwoman that Tazewell could create his color palette and textures for the Harriet wardrobe.
I spoke to Tazewell about his colors and creating the costumes of Harriet.
I loved seeing the textures and fabrics for this movie, but where do you begin when you’re dealing with a real-life person who only has sepia or black and white photos to go off of?
That’s exactly where I started. We pick up in the 1840s. It was a time when they started to do the stereotypical photography of the period. There were a lot of photos out there to be able to pull together a pretty good idea of how people dressed then. People understand that. We’ve seen the period before whether it’s Dickens or doing classic stories or other stories about slavery. I think looking at photographs of Harriet, many of them were photographs of later in her life. They had recently found a portrait of her when she was younger and free. It allowed me to think about her in a different way. It was keeping with the screenplay and how Kasi wanted to see her and consequently how Cynthia ended up playing her. She was a woman that was fully rendered. She was a woman who had a passion for life, other people had love and she was a full being. Part of that was also style.
In telling the story, one of the important themes that Kasi wanted to incorporate was Harriet as a mythic figure, as a larger than life person. Building an arc for her that starts in various humble beginnings in slave clothes and working up to representing her as a superwoman able to do anything. That led me to the color scheme that I gravitated to for her specifically. Also, the style and strength of the fabric would resonate as she matured into who she became.
I love that. The first time we meet her; she’s in the slave checked dress, then she’s at the funeral in knits. She goes North and Janelle Monae dresses her and she has that “superhero” outfit at the end. Talk about those moments and how the fabric changes from that tatty dress to the leathers.
Her first dress was linen. Actually, not for this plantation, but in researching clothes for slaves, the fabric was sometimes woven by the actual slaves. They would weave the fabric. They would grow the cotton or flax and they’d spin it, weave it and make clothes out of it. Often times, the fabrics that were used were specific to a certain plantation. So, if they escaped, they would know where that slave was from. We weren’t quite as specific for this plantation because it wasn’t a very big plantation, so fabrics were purchased by neighboring plantations- they still would have probably made their undergarments, day clothes and nightclothes. There was a lot of handing down from older people within the community or family. All of that was very dear and functional. With that, being mindful of human nature and the need to feel self-respect.
In the church scene at the beginning, they’re all dressed in the best shawls or aprons that they have, something that aligns with the formality of the event they’re attending, even if it’s the on the porch of their slave owner.
The dress is about to fall off on a good day. By the time she goes into the water and goes down the rapids, it’s completed busted and gone. Her corset is completely gone too. She’s then redressed by the Quaker family. You don’t get it from the film, but it was originally written as a leftover dress by a daughter who had passed away. It’s a leftover dress that doesn’t fit her, but it’s specific to the Quaker style in dark brown.
She goes to spend time with Janelle Monae’s character, and she learns style from her. Janelle Monae’s character is a very stylish woman of great means. I think that’s where she learns a sense of refinement and what she doesn’t carry within her, she sees what that is for a free woman.
That first dress is a simply designed dress in basic cotton. It’s a pattern that was printed in India. She’s asked for a dress to go back to the plantation to get her family and her husband. I think there’s a strength to that green as a middle ground for her. This is before she starts to take on disguises. She is somewhat disguised as a free woman, so she can pass through and is dressed well enough so that she won’t be stopped. Because she ends up seeing her in that dress for a long time where she’s guiding that first group to freedom, I thought it was important that she be connected to nature. The fabric itself, although it has a texture, there is an iridescent to it and it radiates a certain amount of light. I think that’s what you need to feel that when you’re seeing her, this savior quality to her.
Moving forward, she becomes head of the bandits. She’s running through the forest with a wide-brimmed hat. She takes on men’s clothes. She wears a top hat. She takes on the persona of blackjack or a sailor. Then we get to the place where she’s going to confront her childhood tormentor, and that’s where she needs to be at her most powerful.
We chose the deep red to represent that and to really armor up. There is one image of a wide leather belt that she wears as well. We end with her as a Union civil war officer at least as she must have been as a woman. It was a remarkable thing for a black woman to be leading the way, but she understood the riverway and the land. She understood how to navigate the land. I feel we end at a very high moment that feels very heroic.
What I also loved was the contrast of the textures. You have the funeral scene, and the slaves are in knits against the richness of the fabrics of the slave owners, or even when she’s battling Joe’s character, that texture contrast of the outfits.
That is something I do in all of my work. I do have a love and passion for different textures and contrast of different textures. I think because I’m tactile and because I love fabric, I feel and I know that when I see a piece of fabric, it has a story to be told and resonates with what feels like. I know some of it is when I see actual garments from the period and it speaks to me in a very specific way. I attempt to reinterpret what that feeling is as accurately as possible in the clothing I designed.
There’s a lot of texture that was appropriate within the slave world, but if you compare that to the free people, or the plantation owners, it is economic. It is their way of showing their wealth and sophistication. It’s a balance of what will tell that story of economic level and contrast between the groups and also speak to the character and what’s appropriate colorwise and whatever it might be to help and support the interpretation of the character.
I’m so in love with Leslie’s character and that vest.
So was I.
You’ve designed for him in Hamilton, what was it like dressing him for this?
If you see them in their own clothes, Leslie and Cynthia wear clothes really well. They have excellent style and are unique to themselves. It was definitely a joy and absolutely a joy for the two times that I’ve dressed Leslie. When you have an actor that understands how clothes are to be worn and how period clothes are to be worn, it makes a huge difference. You can have an actor that is really an unmade bed, but it doesn’t go beyond a pair of jeans and t-shirt, anything more formal than that, you’ll be chasing them around to keep them tucked in. I think Leslie really embraces well-fit clothes and knows that things look good on him. It’s a joy for me because shows a similar joy to what mine is.
What was it like designing for film after doing tv and stage?
I am so grateful to have the theater experience that I have. I’ve been so lucky to have done so many theater productions and to have the world of tv and film open up. Even now, I’m finishing up West Side Story; it’s such a huge gift to have this opportunity to do this work that I’m so passionate about. It feeds me to be able to work with different actors and directors and people who are highly talented, that feeds me. And to be able to be in support of strong stories that we need to hear.
Let’s talk about the accessories before I let you go; there are hats, satchels and belts.
It’s definitely a period of accessories. Cravats and bonnets are tied in the right way. There are pieces underneath that help shape what’s on top. There are the right boots, the right shoes and the right gloves. For each of those pieces, there are different levels that would be appropriate for the economic levels. All of that, I eat up. Like with my love of fabric and texture, I love detail and re-creating a world that existed in the most accurate way I can.