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For Focus Features’ biopic of Harriet Tubman, who freed some 300 slaves via the Underground Railroad, Harriet costume designer Paul Tazewell relied heavily on photographic research (as he did for his Tony-winning designs for Hamilton). Fortunately, daguerreotypes, an early photographic process that offered up “haunting images of slaves and the humanity that resonated from them,” were “becoming very popular” in 1840, according to the Emmy-winning designer.
Played by British actress Cynthia Erivo in the film (out Nov. 1), Tubman journeys from life as a Maryland plantation slave to Philadelphia abolitionist and freedom fighter. “We would talk about the characters in both general and very specific terms,” says director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons. “We’d talk about the fact that enslaved people often [wear] work clothes and underclothes cast away or handed down from their slave owners.”
Adds Tazewell, who created 40-plus looks for the 19th century superheroine, both custom and sourced from L.A.’s Western Costume and vintage outlets: “This was a woman who was hugely oppressed by the family she is owned by … She is a shape-shifter and takes on disguises to do the work she needs to do.” Erivo donned a red petticoat as a slave (her workwear was distressed with the color of the plantation’s dirt), seaman’s garb as Blackjack Harriet on a cargo ship and Union blues while leading a troop of Buffalo Soldiers into battle in the Civil War.
Lemmons “has written a story packed with emotion and action,” says producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg. “Harriet was a[n] impassioned heroine in the vein of Joan of Arc; it was important that the costumes reflect that.”
The level of action necessitated making “10 different versions of the same outfit during her escape … to show how it was going to deteriorate over time,” says Tazewell. The wear and tear of traversing dense Virginia forests and muddy bogs while running, riding a horse or climbing a cliff was created with repeated washings, scrubbing with sandpaper and dyeing for an aged, worn look.
Tubman’s styles contrast with those of Marie Buchanon, a fictional owner of a Philadelphia boarding house that shelters former slaves, played by Janelle Monáe. “Janelle’s character is a self-made woman. She was born free and never experienced what it was to be a slave,” says Tazewell. “She is well dressed and has a sophistication about her,” as expressed in the character’s velvet and silk brocade looks.
Leslie Odom Jr. (who worked with Tazewell on Hamilton) portrays William Still, a civil rights activist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, who in real life was often clad in regal suits. “People were much more worldly than you would imagine, and he was very well dressed,” explains Tazewell. “Leslie had no problem pulling the looks off.” Lemmons was beyond pleased with the overall effect of Tazewell’s work: “When I saw the finished [results], it was both what we had discussed and what he had sketched, but with such texture, color and attention to detail that I was blown away,” she says, adding that “his work was critical to the look and authenticity of the film.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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