'BlacKkKlansman' Costume Designer Talks Perfecting the Black Power Look

BlacKkKlansman’s Power Look - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Focus Features

Designer Marci Rodgers referenced 1970s Essence and Jet magazines and watched Klan videos for inspiration: "It was about how they used the white sheets as a bit of costume."

"It's always been there," says costume designer Marci Rodgers of the breadth of African-American style, reflected recently in the tribal-tech looks of Black Panther and Beyonce's Coachella concert costumes as influenced by historically black colleges. "Now, we just have different platforms to expose it."

For Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, out Aug. 10, Rodgers brings to screen the style of 1970s Black Power activists with turtlenecks, suede leisure suits and Afro-pick jewelry. The film is based on the true story of African-American cop Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, duped Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) and became head of a Colorado chapter, all while romancing activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). "It all has meaning that relates back to Black Power," says Harrier of her look. "Putting on a wig was a huge part of it."

For research, Rodgers (who also worked with Lee on his 2017 Netflix reboot of She's Gotta ?Have It) hit the library of her alma mater Howard University, poring over old Essence and Jet magazines as well as Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs. She made half the costumes ("including a pair of 1970s marshmallow shoes") and sourced the rest, naming Albany, New York, rental house Daybreak Vintage "a gold mine."

"I did have the opportunity to speak to Ron Stallworth and ask him what he wore when he was undercover," she says. His lucky charm was a cross necklace, onto which she layered flashy rings and bracelets. But the wardrobe of sharp jackets was Rodgers' idea to help define the smooth-talking character on film. "I tried to find ones that were as stylized as possible. John David's favorite was the leather with the fur collar."

For Patrice, Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis were visual touchstones, and Beacon’s Closet and L Train Vintage in New York City sources for all-black leather trench coats, chunky sweaters and minidresses.

To home in on the look of the Klan, Rodgers went to the Library of Congress to watch videos of rallies. "It was about how they used the white sheets as a ?bit of a costume," says the designer, adding that she found a handbook that decoded the robes' colors and symbols.

However difficult the subject matter, Rodgers notes its resonance in the recent surge of white nationalism as seen in the 2017 Charlottesville riots, which are included in Lee's movie. "All of his films end up being educational," she says, "and not just for the African-American community." Adds BlacKkKlansman producer Jason Blum, "The eye-popping fashion offers the perfect counterpoint to the wildly relevant horror of this chapter of American history."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.