Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has my favorite costume design of the year. When you look at the crafts from David E. Talbert’s film, you realize it’s more than just the typical holiday fare. There is history and care here. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson wanted to create an Afro-Victorian look that would be informed by the colors and fabrics of the time. It’s both whimsical and historical.
Almost every piece that Wilkinson and his team created will catch your eye. There are so many different patterns and colors that one might assume some pieces would look too busy or garish. It’s never too much because Wilkinson fuses the colors to the exact degree. When things are supposed to pop–like Journey’s yellow bowtie–they definitely catch your eye. They used 19th century tailoring but used fresh fabrics.
Awards Daily: In a lot of ways, Jingle Jangle finely walks the line between fantasy and reality. How did you balance the Victorian era with this newly established world?
Michael Wilkinson: When I first met with the director David E Talbert and his producer Lyn Syson Talbert, we all agreed that for this project to succeed, we had to get the balance right between fantasy and reality. We wanted our audience to be inspired and amazed by imaginative and wondrous imagery, but also to be moved by strong, complex and believable characters. So I began by deep-diving into research into the photos, paintings and written material of the two periods–1860s for when Jeronicus is a young man, 1890s for the rest of the film. After absorbing all of that, I freed myself up and started sketching from the heart, thinking about the details of each character’s personality, and how to express them is the most compelling, imaginative way.
AD: There are so many colors and patterns but it’s never garish and it never feels like anything is mismatched. How did you want to establish the colors for the characters?
MW: I’m obsessed with the expressive possibilities of color, and in each of my projects I try to explore this in a new way. I knew that I wanted each character to have an iconic look – each character needed to jump off the screen with the originality to match the bold, unconventional script. So I spent a lot of time working out a strong set of colors, patterns and silhouettes for each character.
My concept was to create eye-catching Victorian-era silhouettes accented by fabrics from African cultures and countries. It was a constant balancing act to juxtapose the old and the new – even though our story is set in the 19th century, the music and the choreography is very modern, and we wanted to make sure the costumes appealed to contemporary audiences. Again, color was important here – David reminded me that history wasn’t in black and white and sepia – it was in COLOR!
AD: Roughly how many pieces did you create? I feel like I could talk to you for hours about individual pieces.
MW: I had a talented team of costumers – my tireless “fabric hunters”, ager/dyers, an incredible workroom of cutters and stitchers. We used complex 19th century tailoring to make costumes with wonderfully fresh, surprising fabrics that were full of life and color. We were determined to make something that audiences haven’t really seen before. And so all of the principal cast had to be made entirely from scratch – right down to the undergarments. We needed to make corsets, petticoats and trousers that could withstand the vigorous demand of the choreography. For the background artists, we were able to use some carefully curated pieces from rental house in the UK and Europe, but 80% of their costume pieces were custom hand-made pieces that I designed and that were made in our workrooms.
AD: The production design and costuming for Gustofson remind me so much of The Wizard of Oz. Everything is green like money and he’s such a sham. What influences did you want to include for him?
MW: The character of Gustofson was a lot of fun to create – I always say that the villains get the best costumes! He is a full-blown extrovert, and uses clothes to impress and dazzle. We created complex layering of rich African fabrics, complex embroideries that my amazing stitchers created in-house, and plush velvets and wools. It was James Brown meets African royalty by the way of Willy Wonka. My favorite sequence is “Magic Man G”, which is a psychedelic fever-dream as Gustofson croons his way through the swirling patterns and wild colors of the dancers costumes.
AD: How did you work with Sharon Martin to create cohesive looks? Did it vary character by character?
MW: Working with Sharon was a match made in heaven – I’ve found my creative soul-mate! Together we would always push each other further and further. It was great to have a trusted confidante to check in with, while we created this new look together. For each role, we would meet and design a look together that captured the essence of the character – making sure the costume and the hair/make-up worked together seamlessly. I think it was lucky that both of us had done projects that were set in the Victorian era before. We had a solid knowledge of the rules, so then we could go ahead and break them.
AD: Jingle Jangle is so unique because we haven’t seen a big, holiday film with a predominantly Black cast, and David has been working on it for so long. How did you want to infuse the costuming with nods to the Black experience?
MW: The infusion was very organic and natural. When I was researching Victorian fashion, it was clear to me that there was a connecting thread between them and the traditional clothing of Nigeria and Ghana. Within both worlds, there is a love for strong geometric prints and plaids, surprising color combinations, and clothing with bold graphic details. That was my launching pad for a creation of an “Afro-Victorian” look for the costumes.
We used fabric from all over Africa, but there was a natural inclination towards the fabrics of West Africa because of their colors the scale of their patterns, and their exuberance. I was drawn to the personality of each of the incredible fabrics that we sourced, and matched each piece to the personality of the characters. I created a pile of Jeronicus fabrics, Journey fabrics etc. The designs then came to life when combined with the traditional plaids and velvets of the Victorian era.
AD: I wanted to talk about some specific looks. Ms. Johnston is so impeccably dressed, and the blue dress she wears in the mistletoe moment is a nod to the post office but it fits her body so well.
MW: The ingenuity and complexity of Victorian tailoring is another one of my passions. Ms. Johnston needed a post mistress uniform, so it gave me the chance to interpret this type tailoring through the prism of our fantastical vision for the film. I found a beautiful checked wool in the most divine shade of teal blue, and we spent a lot of effort sculpting a memorable silhouette for her. Combined with her burgundy Victorian post mistress cape, it had become fan favorite!
JAD: Jessica looks powerful and feminine in the maroon dress during “Make It Work Again.” The yellow accents look so good.
MW: Anika Noni Rose is such an inspiring collaborator – we talked a lot about the combination of strength and vulnerability that needed to be captured by her costume. I love the look of her audaciously sculptural 1890s leg-of-mutton sleeves, her tiny corseted waist and elegant bell-shaped skirt, rendered in a mixture of wool, velvets and African vintage fabric. Purple + mustard yellow was a favorite color combination in the 1890s – surprising, right? We found African printed waxed cottons in the same colors for her under layers – I knew we would see a great flourish of the petticoats in the dance sequence.
AD: The outfit for Journey during “Square Root of Possible” is so character driven. It is kind of scholarly with the striped sleeves and vest but the boots look like she’s ready for anything and the bow tie really pops.
MW: Journey’s character is a real one-of-a-kind – she doesn’t follow any rules and is ahead of her time. She’s a pioneer and captures the burgeoning interest in the 1890s in clothes that a woman could actually move in. She has bold knitwear and a type of cycling /riding skirt that is split in the middle like culottes. Her suede jacket is inspired by a future adventuress, Amelia Earhart. Her natty red veldt waistcoat has unconventional leather trim. Her purple jacket is customized with hundreds of tiny cogs and screws for her workbench that have been embroidered onto the surface of the wool. I wanted her clothes to express her individuality, and to allow her to move through the world without anything stopping her!
AD: What piece would you steal for your own closet. I’m very partial to Jeronicus’ beige and blue plaid robe.
MW: Yes, in fact we made David a copy of Jeronicus’ robe as a gift! Although personally, I’m bit more partial to the vibrant and quirky look of young Jeronicus, 30 years earlier, with his strong combinations of contrasting patterns and colors. I think I could carry off his jaunty waistcoat.
Having said this, I’m also proud of older Jeronicus’ costumes – I used the same silhouette as his younger self, but with a lot of the color pulled out, to show that he has lost the spark of his optimism. But there’s an inner life that’s waiting to be ignited, and I wanted to express that in his costumes – so there are all sorts of interesting braids, details and textures that keep him compelling on the screen.