Mild spoilers ahead.
It’s impossible to take your eyes off Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country. She’s an electric performer as photographer and activist Letitia “Leti” Lewis, but she also stuns in her vintage wardrobe in the ’50s-set thriller. Throughout the new series, she sports A-line skirts, tie-front cropped blouses, and pedal pushers with absolute ease. She is bewitching when she glares from the top of her cat-eye frames. Her fear is palpable when she’s sprinting away from monsters in bloodied attire (this is a horror show after all).
Leti’s clothes, whether dirtied or delicate, add to Smollett’s performance, but they also represent a defensive layer for her mysterious character. Leti is introduced as an old friend of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) who then joins him and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) on a road trip to find Atticus’s missing father, but there are questions about her past.
“We found Leti, and we got to really play with her because she uses clothing as an armor,” costume designer Dayna Pink, whose film credits include Crazy, Stupid Love and Bad Boys for Life, tells BAZAAR.com. “She’s dressed beyond her means. We don’t know where she got those clothes and it doesn’t matter where she got them, because she’s a girl that gets what she wants. So we just went with, ‘What would she want to wear?’ And that’s what we did.”
Of course, Smollett pulls off every look. “We always find the character in a fitting,” Pink adds. “So we just started out bringing a bunch of silhouettes, and Jurnee was so amazing that every single thing we put on her looked good.”
Pink recalls that Smollett was collaborative in the fitting process. “She looks great in white, and we did some really simple pieces, like the little cropped blouses that were very of the moment then.” Leti’s looks are all about the details, from the three buttons on the side of each collar, to the little accent pockets that are styled differently than they are today.
To create the spirited retro feel of Lovecraft Country’s wardrobe, Pink took notes from real ’50s photography, modern-day fabrics, and showrunner Misha Green herself, who said to never repeat an outfit. Here’s what to know of the costumes on the thrilling new show.
They were inspired by real photography from the time period.
Rather than make a mood board with stills from other TV shows, Pink and her team referenced real photography of 1950s Chicago, and even scenes from the ’20s and ’30s. For the fantastical, sci-fi element of the story, though, they used their imaginations.
The photography of Gordon Parks, whose photojournalism centered on the civil rights movement and segregation, also had a heavy influence. “You’ll see in the pilot, we re-created a lot of Gordon Parks’s images that were so iconic and beautiful, and that was our inspiration for many things as well,” Pink adds.
They were inspired by Black designers and Black fashion from the time period, even noting a book titled Vintage Black Glamour, but the focus was on real people rather than screen icons or celebrities from the time. “This is about real people,” she explains. “I can’t give anything away, ’cause I know you guys haven’t seen it yet, but there are parts that have some iconic people in it. And there are some surprises that are very elegant and amazing that are towards the end of the show that I’m really proud of.”
The importance behind the vision of the show only elevated her work, she says, as they also took inspiration from real moments in history. “Not only could we make Leti look amazing, which she is amazing, but we got to re-create Emmett Till’s funeral. And we got to do things that were important historical landmarks that maybe some people don’t know about. So we’re helping to tell the story. I felt a responsibility in those moments to do it authentically and to sort of give it everything we had.”
The wardrobe is a blend of modern and vintage.
With her background in fashion and styling, Pink knew after reading the script that she wanted to embrace the spirit of the ’50s in the wardrobe while incorporating modern themes and materials, rather than go the full period costume route.
“And that’s what we did. We didn’t go rent pieces from a costume house and just buy vintage pieces; we made so much of it,” she says. For the women’s clothing, the team mashed up fabrics, like denims and prints, with vintage silhouettes, like smaller waists and full A-line skirts. An equestrian outfit Smollett wears in one episode, for example, mixes contemporary fabrics with an older silhouette. “That shirt would have never existed at that time.”
Finding the right attire required a mix of online shopping and scouring vintage stores. There were “Etsy and eBay boxes at our office and stacked to the ceiling,” Pink recalls. (Keep in mind, there were thousands of extras to dress too.) They combed through stores in L.A.; Chicago, where the pilot was filmed; and Atlanta, where production continued.
“We would go to places where there were just piles and piles, and we had to weed through damp, disgusting mold,” Pink says. “We were wearing garbage bags. I mean, things happened along the way that you would never believe. But we would find one belt that would be amazing. It would be a lot of online ordering. It was gathering from every place, and sometimes we would take a piece and change it, and obviously do a different fabric but use it as just the inspiration, because some of those pieces were so beautiful but were threadbare.”
Leti never repeats a look.
Showrunner Green told Pink from the start that she didn’t want characters to repeat outfits, which surprised her. The costume designer, who has a film background, thought that in the TV space, characters would have personal closets that they’d revisit throughout the season. “We did not do this. In this show, Leti did not repeat an outfit. The entire 10 episodes, you will not see an outfit twice. That was a little work, but I was so down for it.”
Dressing the cast was a character study over the course of nine or 10 months. “It was really cool, because we could evolve the people and what they were doing at the time,” Pink says.
Christina’s formal wardrobe contributes to her ominous air.
Christina Braithwhite’s presence in Lovecraft is minimal in the pilot, just a mysterious road encounter in a silver Bentley, really, but we do know from HBO that Abbey Lee’s character is “the daughter of a leader of a cult-like secret organization, who has mysterious abilities and a fixation on achieving unmitigated power.” She has a vampiric appearance with pale skin, perfect blonde hair, and piercing eyes, and wears ladylike silk blouses and fascinators.
“There’s a real formality to her character that other people didn’t have,” Pink says. “She had a cape on the horse that was really dramatic, and we did big, billowy pants on her, like palazzo pants and silk blouses that had a drape to them.”
Jonathan Majors is a natural in his vintage threads.
Atticus’s signature wire glasses were written in the script, but actor Jonathan Majors and Pink “tried on a bunch” of options before finding the charming round frames he frequents in the show. It also helped that he was made for vintage attire.
“The pants were so high-waisted at that time and everything was belted, and he wore those clothes as if he wore them his whole life. He really was so natural in them. It was really cool. I imagine it’s like a woman putting on heels and how you walk differently. How he stood himself in those period pieces was really something to watch.”
As a Korean War vet, Atticus also wears an old-fashioned military uniform in some scenes, which consists of authentic pieces.
Outfits were duplicated because they’d easily get dirty.
As a horror series, Lovecraft is loaded with blood, guts, and dirt, so Pink and her team couldn’t be too precious with a particular piece of clothing if it was just going to be gored up after a day of shooting. “I could rent a beautiful vintage dress, or buy a vintage dress, but there’s [only] one,” Pink says. The solution? Making multiples. The challenge there then became making sure bloodstains didn’t create any continuity errors.
“You’re not shooting everything in order, so it’s bloody and then you’re shooting it over a matter of days,” she adds. “There’s continuity on, ‘Where’s the blood?’ And then the next shirt, like, ‘This is the least bloody shirt,’ ‘This one has a little bit of blood,’ ‘This one has the mud because then they fell in the dirt.’ You would see the wraps on the trailer and some of the wraps would be just filled with the same outfit from beginning to end. You always keep one of the outfits that’s perfect in case you have to go back and shoot, like, the beginning of a scene.”
But other pieces were left bloodied as is for continuity. “[They] would photograph exactly where it is and sometimes you have to re-create it. … But sometimes you literally are like, ‘Okay, take that off, hang it up, let it dry. We’ll start again tomorrow, because it has the dirt and the blood and the hole in the exact place.’ We don’t start from scratch.”
New episodes of Lovecraft Country arrive Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Max.
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