The One Way 'Beale Street' Costume Designer Strayed From James Baldwin's Book

If Beale Street Could Talk White Cape - Publicity - H 2018
Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer chose to make Tish appear "innocent" — she's the only character whose clothing isn't fully described in the novel.

Costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer says she and director Barry Jenkins wanted to honor James Baldwin by staying true to the clothing descriptions in his book If Beale Street Could Talk.

"Early start and visions came straight from James Baldwin," Eselin-Schaefer tells The Hollywood Reporter of the film adaptation. “Wherever James Baldwin is descriptive of clothing in the book, we wanted to honor it.” His story, in 1970s New York, centers on young couple Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), the latter of whom is sent to jail for a rape he did not commit. Tish then finds out she's pregnant, and their families try to get Fonny released from prison. 

Baldwin’s words led to Fonny’s red and black checked jacket, and Tish's mom Sharon’s (Regina King) iconic green dress when she takes a trip to Puerto Rico. But there was one character whose attire left something to the imagination: Tish.

“He’s not really descriptive of Tish,” Eselin-Schaefer says of the 19-year-old heroine, simply characterized as plain. “We took artistic license with Tish and to show her sort of innocence and purity.”

They based her wardrobe on the “undercurrents” of the book that depict Tish as innocent, from how she loses her virginity to how she copes with being pregnant while Fonny is in jail. Eselin-Schaefer also took cues from her job at the department store to inform her style.

“There’s a few pieces of Tish that I love that I think really say, at the moments she wears these certain costumes, that it is a time of optimism,” Eselin-Schaefer adds.

One such look is when Fonny and Tish are seeking a loft together and meet Levy (Dave Franco), who shows them a fixer-upper that they happily envision themselves living in. Tish wears a blue mod turtleneck, zip-up shirt with long sleeves and a blue and white miniskirt. “There's something very innocent about it and girly and very optimistic. To me that just captured all the optimism they had and all the joy. The world is about to be theirs.”

Another signature piece from Tish’s closet is her cream cape, worn on a date with Fonny in a flashback scene. “That cape, to me, was also the essence of optimism.… I just think it made her 'angelic" to signify the hope of their new relationship.

That hope makes it all the more tragic when Fonny gets wrongfully jailed — so Tish’s style shifts. Her white innocence disappears and is replaced, in one scene, by a green coat, which is a '60s-style hand-me-down from mother Sharon, whose onscreen color is green throughout the film.

“It’s a little short in the sleeves. It's the heaviest coat she’s got and so she’s making do. She's making the best with what she’s got. Period,” the designer says of Tish’s outlook not only in terms of her clothing, but also the situation “she’s up against” in raising a baby on her own.

"It was challenging just making sure that we served the story and honored the story,” Eselin-Schaefer concludes of having less original material to inspire Tish’s wardrobes. Aside from Tish, she closely mimicked looks Baldwin wrote about: “He gave us the color. He is so descriptive of color of the clothing in the book.” A bold palette of blues, reds, yellows and greens is woven throughout Beale Street.

This includes Sharon’s green dress they built for her Puerto Rico visit (actually filmed in the Dominican Republic due to the hurricane). “It said in the book that she wears a green summer dress and a green hat, but that hat ended up becoming a wig and a scarf in one of her disguises,” Eselin-Schaefer says. She likens the disguise to armor when Sharon confronts Victoria, who has accused Fonny of rape.

Other inspirations for her mood boards came from collaborations with production designer Mark Friedberg; researching images of Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and photos of the shooting locations (down to the paint colors) so she could base outfit colors on the red of a restaurant booth, for example.

“We loved to collaborate. The more information we shared, the better. But Baldwin gave us all the beginnings of our color permission and story,” Eselin-Schaefer says.

If Beale Street Could Talk opens wide Dec. 25.