Chinonye Chukwu’s Till was one of the most harrowing moviegoing experiences for audiences last year, and it rightfully deserves to stay in the awards conversation for recounting the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Chukwu is getting recognition for her work with her actors, but attention should also be paid to the crafts and design of Till. Costume designer Marci Rodgers had the difficult task of recreating historical silhouettes but reveled in steeping her designs within the character arcs.
A lot of costume designers like to put themselves into the shoes of the characters themselves. Some use the aid of production design to understand a character’s taste or aesthetic, but Chicago in the 1950’s was a bustling and thriving city. Rodgers new where Mamie Till found her clothes.
“We know she shopped at Marshall Fields,” Rodgers said. “In doing some dramaturgical work, her mother, Alma, was a seamstress, so she would’ve acquired fabric from the local stores within the cities. She would’ve constructed a lot of her clothes that way.”
A piece that everyone keeps bringing up is the yellow dress that Mamie wears when she escorts Emmett to the train station for his trip down south. It’s such a beautiful and bright shade of yellow, and it almost shimmers on Danielle Deadwyler. If you look closely, you can see the same hue in Emmett’s necktie. That connection was very purposeful on Rodgers’ part.
“Chinonye [Chukwu] and I talked about Emmett’s color being assigned to yellow,” she reveals. “In that scene, as we know it, she puts the tie on him. I hand swatched that fabric myself, and it has flecks of gold in it. When you go into the scene where he is leaving and he’s getting on the train, he is poetically leaving behind yellow and what that means. It’s kind of a bleed through, because we see those flecks in his tie, and the yellow dress is what embodied Emmett as a person. There were options that I present, and that dress was kind of a beautiful mistake. There is a background character walking behind Emmett in yellow, so it’s kind of like Chicago and Mississippi are in this in cyclical phase: Chicagoans go to Mississippi and Mississippians go to Chicago. It’s really Mississippians traveling north for what they hope is freedom and opportunity.”
As we see Emmett spending time with his family, the clothes he wears tell a story. We may recognize that Emmett is not from that Mississippi town just by the clothes Mamie packed in his suitcase. In a scene at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, he is wearing shades of dark blue. Rodgers clued me in on something key to help star Jalyn Hall with the scene, and she shared where she started with his designs.
“It first started with his hats,” she said. “Those hats were prominent, and I was very adamant about building and making his clothes. We only know Emmett based on the photos that are historic. I wanted Chicago to bleed down south, and I can attest Emmett sticking out as a “city kid” because my mother was from Mississippi. The way that we dressed, similarly to how Emmett dressed (from the north to the south) is just different.
“The costume you brought up–with the blue shirt–was made from raw silk. Truthfully, it’s extremely uncomfortable. I purposely put that in that scene, because I wanted Jalyn [Hall] to be uncomfortable in his costume since it feels like sandpaper. The fabric is beautiful and vibrant, but it also feels horrible. I had to figure out how to immerse Jalyn with the costume design.”
We can see Mamie’s attire changing as she becomes a figure of strength for her son. That strength was always there, but after her son was murdered, it transforms into something more vocal and outwardly positioned. The patterned or lightly colored dressed become darker as she mourns. Everything that Rodgers selected is indicative of the characters’ circumstances and point of view in the moment.
“She always had the strength but the delicacy was a plus,” Rodgers said. “Before the story, she was a strong woman, and that’s why she took her son to Marshall Fields in a time when Chicago was segregated. When Emmett was taken from her, she had to keep that poise, dignity, and grace. Back then, the African American community’s Sunday Best was every day, and Sunday was even better. I have a great-aunt–who is in her eighties now–who told me to never leave the house without earrings on. I understand that now. You could leave the house in sweatpants, but it’s about that something extra. It’s about an accessory or the lack thereof that can further underscore that character. That can underscore her strength. Juxtapose that with Alma, but I didn’t put her in pearls. I didn’t want her to seem too elderly. Mamie had a nice job at the time, so she could also pick out those things for herself.”
A lot of attention was paid to the variety of hats seen throughout Till.
“The hat that she wears at his funeral–when she is standing over his casket–was so meticulous, and I need to give a public thank you to the milliner at Western Costumes,” she said. “He found out what the project was, but he was adamant to find different angles for the hats. He found that it was pearls set into a sequence on the hat, and that level of detail was so important to my design.
Since Rodgers has such a deep connection with the city of Chicago, this feels like a personal project for her. When I ask costume designers what piece that might want to take for their own closet, they struggle to decide on a few pieces, but Rodgers wants something from almost every character.
“There’s a few, but the pink dress I was very particular about,” she reveals. “Even down to the buttons. I might have driven my crew crazy. There is something about a garment that you can make or source from a costume house that can take on another personality. From Emmett, I would take the hats. I made Mamie’s funeral hat and her Harlem hat. I made Gene [Mobley]’s hat to match the iconic magazine photo. For Alma, I had a blast with her, because I fabric swatched everything for her. The ’50s in Chicago…it could be anybody’s closet.
Till is available to rent on demand.