Dressing the Queen of Soul in Genius: Aretha

Dressing a legend: The costumes of Genius: Aretha

Highlights 10 June 2021

From the ’50s to the ’80s – Head of Wardrobe Jennifer Bryan talks about the triumphs and challenges of dressing Genius: Aretha on National Geographic (DStv channel 181)

The latest season of National Geographic’s (DStv channel 182) biographical drama series Genius: Aretha tells Queen Of Soul Aretha Franklin’s (played in the series by Cynthia Erivo) story from her childhood to her life as a legend on the world stage. It’s an imaginative and empathetic recreation of historical events, told through music.

We chatted to the series’ passionate Costume Designer and Head of Wardrobe Jennifer Bryan about some of the show’s stand-out costumes and moments, and the challenges of dressing such a well-known and fashion conscious figure over so many decades of her history to create the portrait of both a person and a period in time.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Watch National Geographic Read more about Genius: Aretha

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Fashion history

Jennifer researched Aretha’s fashions and period fashion intently and has aimed to be as historically accurate as possible.

“In my research there was a mention, at 1 point, that Aretha entertained the thought about having a fashion line. And who can dispute her outward love of furs, which she just wore with such abandon, I guess would be the word,” says Jennifer. “She had a style that was exclusively hers, regardless of what the current trend was at the time, maybe with the exception of when she was in the late ’60s after Dr Martin Luther King (played in the series by Ethan Henry) died, when she became quite active and made some personal choices in her look like changing her hairstyle to a natural Afro. And her clothes became a little bit more Afro-centric in style and direction. When you look across the whole panorama of her style change, you do see where she made conscious choices of her own.”

Jennifer was careful not to downplay some of the fashion choices, particularly from the ’60s and ’70s, that can strike our eyes now as being uncomfortable. “I don't think it will be like adding an artificial sweetener to something to make it palatable to the audience. That wasn't my aim,” says Jennifer. “My aim was to come as close as I could in my costume storytelling to what it was. So I sought out polyesters. I sought out old fabrics. And going back to our colour palette, if I did a pink or if I did an orange, I would want to do it with the vibrancy of those pinks that they used back in the ’80s. We still wear pink (today), but we probably would find that pink rather garish. But back then, that was the style. So my mandate is to deliver that to the viewer. “I didn't want to artificially paint in colours or tones or textures that we now know and live with every day (now, in 2021). Then that would be sort of glamorizing it, and taking away its authenticity. So I've really tried to be very, very, very true – as much as I could,” insists Jennifer.

“I remember looking at some plaid shirts, for example. And if you go, ‘Okay, so I take a background person and I put them in this plaid shirt… and I was looking at my assistant and my team. We're looking at plaid shirts, and a bunch, of course, are available (at contemporary shops). And I said, ‘No, it's not right. They were not weaving plaids, or printing plaids like we do now. I rejected them. And they said, ‘We have to find plaids that look like ’60s and ’70s, not 2010! Not looking like they came from J Crew or something.”

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Spot that look!

The wardrobe team’s extraordinary attention to detail and detective work shines throughout the series. This is particularly clear in 2 authentic outfits based on what Aretha actually wore at the time. 1 is from episode 1, a silver dress that Aretha wears when she is crowned Queen Of Soul, and 1 is from episode 8, which cuts from Cynthia as Aretha in her dressing room in a velvet brocade outfit, directly to archive footage of the real Aretha singing Nessun Dorma when she filled in for opera star Pavarotti at the Grammys at the last minute. “So within the design complex of Genius: Aretha, not only do you find the pieces that I designed, the pieces that I collected, curated pieces, there's also pieces that had to be duplicated for specific events that she wore during her lifetime,: says Jennifer.

“This silver gown was 1 that Suzan-Lori Parks, our executive producer, wanted me to do, which was on my list of dresses that they wanted duplicated. There are only 2 photographs that were taken from the stage that night because Aretha truly was not expecting that (to be crowned Queen Of Soul) So there's like 2 snapshots, and they're in black and white! I could tell the dress was metallic, but what colour was it? Was it gold? Was it silver? Was it pink, was it green?” Jennifer laughs. “I knew it was sequinned. I literally had this photo just blown up and then I had a magnifying glass and I just really, seriously, I was like the Scotland Yard of fabric, trying to figure out what am I looking at? What is it? Finally I went to Kevin (Genius: Aretha’s cinematographer, Kevin McKnight) and I said, ‘I think this is silver,’ And he agreed. So we agreed on silver. And then I had to find a lamé fabric with the right size of sequins that was woven onto lamé, as it was back in the day. I actually found some sequinned lamé that worked! And we built that dress. I had an amazing tailor department that built it for her. As simple as that design looks, it was actually very, very challenging just to get the silhouette and the shape just from that photo, but it came out really well.”

The Nessun Dorma outfit was also on Suzan-Lori Parks’ list of outfits that would need a direct duplicate on screen. “What I had was the footage from the Grammys, which was shot from the audience. There were a couple of close-ups. There weren't any close up photographs close enough for me to see the detail. However, there was enough there that I knew that this fabric, this jacket in particular, was encrusted. So I started off with a base of burgundy velvet, and then I had embroideries and applique and stoning that I cut out of other fabrics to build it up, to get that fullness of her jacket. And then she had a velvet skirt, which we also did. It's tricky, because in the show, they use the actual footage. So I really had to come close. Certainly not trying to be identical twins about it, because we are telling a story that's been re-enacted by someone else (Cynthia). But at the same time, it's still an icon and someone that most of us still know of, that everyone remembers. And the evidence is there. I must have looked at that photograph 1000 times!” Jennifer reveals.

Aretha: Strong foundations

Underpinning both dresses was something that the audience doesn’t even see, but that could be thought of as the wardrobe department’s silent partner in getting period silhouettes to read correctly on screen. Jennifer and the wardrobe team had to assemble bras, girdles, hose and slips and men’s underwear to dress not just for their lead cast, but every extra on set, during the rapidly changing fashion years between the 1950s and the 1990s.

“Foundation is really critical in period clothing, for period clothing to fit on the body as it did authentically back then,” says Jennifer. “It doesn't matter whether it's 17th century panniers and bustles, or whether it's a ’60s Twiggy mod dress. It's like building a house. If you don't have the right foundation, which the dress is built for, it will not fit you the same. So my first challenge actually, when I started doing my prep and research, was, ‘I've got to find those Maidenform Cross Your Heart bras!’ Nobody saves their bras and girdles and long-line bras. And men's outfits, with the guys’ sock garters that they used to wear back then. You're not going to find them in a thrift store.”

“But the Foundation Gods were with me and I found a little cache of bras and longline bras, and Cross Your Hearts and girdles with the little rubber snaps that our grandmothers used to wear. I found a whole stack of them in all the sizes I needed. And that was about it. It really helped. For Cynthia herself, we built a special foundation, because she had so many clothes to wear. I built body suits that kind of pad, too. We did a couple different bodysuits that were built for specific lines of dresses, that help to just facilitate it and made it easier for her. So we had body suits that would fit in an A-line, and dressy ones that would fit her gowns. So that's what we did.”

Genius Wardrobe Lime Green Feathers

Lime milkshake, feathers and a dirty alleyway

One remarkable gown that was built for the show from the ground up demonstrates the lengths that the team went to to get fabrics looking right on screen…and the fate of costumes in a day’s work on set! In episode 3, Aretha is wearing a feathered, extravagant confection of a gown in lime milkshake green. She has it on when she ducks into an alleyway to speak to Dr Martin Luther King…and in that priceless dress, Cynthia, playing Aretha, sits down on a rusty, dusty metal staircase in the alleyway. It’s enough to break a wardrobe mistress’s heart!

“I mean!” Jennifer exclaims, then laughs. “I knew that she was going to go out backstage and have a cigarette and have this really wonderful conversation with Dr. King…I did not expect that she was going to be sitting on a Real. For Life. Rusty staircase in the back of a building in Atlanta! And no, we didn't put anything down (for her to sit on). I think my costumer probably dashed out and did a quick wipe. After that it was just, you know, crossing the fingers. But it held up. It ended up okay.”

That outfit had been made from scratch by the wardrobe department.

“I had to fabricate it (that outfit), because that is a copy of what she actually wore. It was very interesting because my research kind of limited me to mostly black and white photographs. But we finally came across some colour photography and discovered, ‘Okay, the dress is green’. But for me, it had to be more accurate than that. What shade of green was it? Looking at old magazines, over time, these colours are unstable. I'm not looking at a digital image, I'm looking at an old print image, or old still camera photograph, or a publicity photograph. And sometimes the lime green was so different. Eventually, I did find a photograph that I thought was a good, satisfactory colour. And then on closer examination, I discovered that there were sky blue stripes in the green silk which didn't show up in all the photos. So I basically recreated that fabric. Couldn't find it and couldn't find the right tone of lime green ostrich feathers. So I had to dye them with about maybe, you know, 4 different depths of green to give it depth and value. Then I had my seamstresses – they probably wanted to kill me – but I had them applique the blue stripes across the fabric, the bodice and a skirt of the dress. Talk about copying something from scratch! Really scratch. And then she sits on an iron staircase! But it was okay. It survived. Yeah, my heart, my heart. My design heart skipped a beat when I was like, ‘Can she sit on a sofa cushion that happens to be in the garbage dumpster in the bin in the back?’” Jennifer jokes.

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Teamwork makes the dream work

Taking a delicate garment like that lime milkshake green outfit is also a perfect illustration of how closely Aretha’s production department worked together and what it was like for them creating art together. Jennifer worked hand-in-hand Kevin McKnight to ensure that the dress would show correctly on screen under the various lighting conditions that we see Aretha in, in that outfit. “He was my secret weapon, my guardian angel. So sweet,” Jennifer says lovingly. “He says the same thing of me. He says, ‘You brought me great stuff that I can shoot, that I can light.’ And I'm like, ’You're making my clothes come alive!’.

“We started from the same baseline. We had a colour palette that Anthony Hemingway (Aretha’s co-executive producer and director) and Kevin developed. They came to me with it and said, ‘Listen, this is a colour palette that we want to use’. And I am a huge proponent of colour telling story. It’s a thing for me in my design toolbox, I use it in a lot of my projects. So once I knew what that palette was, at certain breakpoints where we wanted it to shift and change. For example, the most obvious 1 is in the flashbacks of little Aretha growing back. That's all black and white. It was a deliberate choice. It’s quite gutsy for nowadays when we were so flooded with colour and digital. And from my perspective, it presented certain challenges in the sense that I had to find tones and hues that register in black or white, so that everybody didn't look like they were wearing the same thing. So I worked with texture a lot. I had a little bit of liberty with prints in that I didn't have to worry about colour so much. And then when we moved into the colour palette, often times before I cut the garment or decided on something, I would bring it to Kevin. And we would hold it up in front of the camera or sit outside and tell each other, “I want to shoot this,’ or ‘I want to make this in this particular fabric’.

“There's a dress that Little Aretha (played by Shaian Jordan) wore, that even though it was being shot in black and white, it was like a little tartan or check plaid, but it had gold metallic thread in it. And I brought it to his attention. I said, ‘I know you shouldn't get this in black and white. But is there any way you can make this metallic thread just glint?’ And he did!” Jennifer says proudly.

“This show in particular has been very collaborative with the other creatives, where their work affects your work. Lighting angles, set, our production designer (Tim Galvin) was amazing. We had many, many conversations. With the choreographer (Dondraico Johnson), I'd be like, well, what, what's the movement? Are they doing this? Are they doing that, and whatever?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I have been doing this-and-this,’ and I go, ‘Oh, fringe! Then I gotta do fringe!’ Sometime it was the reverse. Sometimes he would say, ‘What's the dress? What is it going to be a mini? Is it going to be a gown?’ And I'm like, ‘Well, I'm thinking of white gogo boots,’ and he goes, ‘Oh!’ You could just see the wheels turning. It's just so wonderful. He would be like, ‘Oh! Gogo boots, okay, I know what to do’. And somehow the gogo plays a part in the choreography. All throughout the creative process, this would happen time and time again. I think it really reflects in the ambience of the show.”

Dressing vintage

Along with the gowns the wardrobe manufactured, Jennifer also sought out period originals, which created its own set of challenges. 1 case in point is the gorgeous gown that Aretha wears to the industry party in episode 5, paired with Afro hair and gold jewellery. It’s a gown that has to encapsulate Aretha’s moment of pride when she walks out of the event with her first raised in the air in a black power salute.

“ I did a lot of hunting down vintage pieces, high-end vintage pieces, to be as authentic as I possibly could in representing the era and style, in addition to the pieces that I designed from scratch. It would have taken me probably 2 years to build every single bit,” Jennifer explains. “That gown is an actual vintage piece that I discovered. It’s silk embroidered with bullion thread at the top. It looks like it's beading, but it's also bullion thread, which is that fine gold thread, which originated in India. It's wire, and it's malleable. It’s a very luxe material. This piece of enchantment was so wonderful when I discovered it. I had got it before that episode (outline) landed on my desk, so I really didn't know where I was going to put it. But once I saw that set! You have an ivory tower, the grand staircase and she looks very out of place, even though – ironically – it's her money, her success and her work. That props up this music industry ivory tower. And I thought this dress, the gown was so elegant. The colour palette was right against the ivory setting. It was a no brainer to me that that had to be done. And then with our Afro, it's just as a beautiful dichotomy of luxury with power, which is what she really was trying to impress on those producers, in that uncomfortable conversation that she had.

But with the gown’s heavy and delicate metal thread, Jennifer’s team had to treat it with special care to ensure that it survived the shoot.

All the vintage pieces I found, especially for Cynthia, were really exquisitely curated, I sought out private collectors, I also saw thrift stores, you can find a gem or 2 there also. But I knew that the dresses, especially the vintage ones, normally would be (made) out of natural fabrics, silk and linens and wools. And then in the mid ’70s, I found a lot of polyester because that was the fabric of the century. The polyesters, of course, are pretty blooming, indestructible. They held up and they hold colour quite well. I went over them like a surgeon with my seamstresses and my tailors to make sure that, indeed, they were sturdy enough to withstand days of shooting with Cynthia, or whoever, having to wear it for days on end, while we finished that scene.”

“There were things that I had to reinforce. But then there were times I would go up to Anthony Hemingway and say, ‘Okay, this dress is magnificent. I want to use it. You have 1 day. Like, the shelf life is 1 day’” Jennifer reveals. “And he was saying, ‘Really?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it's expensive, and it's fragile. But please don't have her jumping over a bonfire or something of the sort because it's not gonna survive.’ I was very aware of the practical aspect of using vintage. On the designs that we built, that was not a problem because we were making it with modern techniques and the dress would be sturdy and can stand up to just about anything. There were some pieces, vintage pieces that were so beautiful, but too fragile for 1 reason or the other. What I did was I reproduced them with my own twist, so that I could get the essence of that piece if it was too fragile and I knew it wouldn't hold up. We replicated it, embellished it and made it work.”

5 outfits worth pausing for

Jennifer loved every piece but says these items are worth watching for…

  1. Episode 3: The lime milkshake green ostrich feather.
  2. Episode 5: The 1 at the music industry party that we talked about.
  3. Episode 1: Little Aretha's purple and pink dress that she wears when we transition from black and white to colour which our director calls the read the birthing of Aretha Franklin.
  4. Episode 5: We can’t forget menswear. There is a suit that Ken Cunningham wears. It's a rust coloured polyester, absolutely the real deal with collars out to here (she opens her hands wide), that 1 should take a look at.
  5. All episodes: And I put them as a group, the dresses of Aretha’s backup singers in the recording studio. I think they're little gems that could get overlooked.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00. The series will be available on Catch Up.

National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, Click here

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Genius: Aretha

  • drama
  • historical

Genius: Aretha on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) takes the Queen of Soul from childhood to the world stage as she raises her voice for civil rights and personal expression

From Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

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