Costume designers are the heart of any film or television show. A character's clothing ties everything together and defines who they are. Take Issa Rae’s playful yet relatable clothing in the first few seasons of the HBO Max series Insecure. Her onscreen wardrobe helped define her character as broke, messy and lovable. The power suits Molly (Yvonne Orji) wore and the sensual looks she served while with her friends and suitors complimented her empowered attitude. A good costume designer helps shape the persona of a character and takes it to another level. 

For Women's History Month, EBONY is celebrating five accomplished Black female costume designers who have created costumes for the big and small screens that speak to our cultural history and relevancy. Here, they share the secrets to their inspiration and their research processes. They also reveal their impact on culture and the film industry and how costume design elevates the movies and TV series we love to watch.

QueenSylvia Akuchie

Costume designer : Bel-Air

Image: courtesy of QueenSylvia Akuchie.

My background: My background in costume design ranges from music, commercials, film and television. The beginning of my costume career started in music where I was styling album covers and magazine spreads and touring with artists in the music industry. I decided to take a deep dive into costume design; studying fashion history and design helped shape my career in film and television. Storytelling has always been a part of my artistry and being able to tell stories using different platforms and mediums really is a chance to showcase so much range. Being able to create costumes and tell stories through my own lens is amazing.

Inspiration for the clothing in Bel-Air, Season 2: My overall inspiration for season 2 is culture-driven. Beyond the beautiful fashion that we were able to execute this season, it was important to us to give a platform for new brands, and new designers and to collaborate with artists of color. Being a Nigerian American, I started this journey with a goal and drive to work with designers in and outside of the diaspora. We sourced some beautiful pieces from all over Africa. I wanted to give an opportunity to those who sometimes would not have the opportunity to showcase their craftsmanship and artistry. I worked with many designers outside of the United States, some of which were in the U.K. and West Africa. We also worked closely collaborating with local Los Angeles fashion designers.

How design has shaped some of the movies and TV series we watch today: I have had a chance to design or be a part of the design team on numerous shows that have shaped many shows we watch today. Working on Coming 2 America with Ruth Carter provided a stepping stone to having an open door to African fashion. This show created a shift from African fashion to global fashion. Many African designers have runway shows during Paris and Milan's fashion weeks and have spreads in magazines all over the world.

Jaclyn Banner

Costume designer: Kindred

costume designers
Image: courtesy of Jaclyn Banner.

My background: I was working as a wardrobe stylist in Atlanta at a time when there weren't a lot of opportunities yet. A friend of mine who was working as a costume designer in the TV/film industry asked me to come shop for him and that’s how I got my start in the industry. I enjoyed being a costume buyer and sometimes worked different roles within the costume department, from dressing the background extras and being a set costumer. But I thrive in the creative, so I networked to get more buying jobs which led me to become an assistant costume designer and eventually a costume designer. Most of my work has been in television, with my most recent work being the first adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred for FX; the BET+ series Kingdom Business, season one; The Ms. Pat Show season one; and the first three seasons of Creepshow for AMC/Shudder.

The research process for Kindred: Designing the costumes for Kindred required a lot of research. We filmed in Atlanta and I had a good deal of prep time so the first couple of weeks. Along with reading the book several times, I immersed myself in that time period: the fabrics, colors and silhouettes, along with men’s, women's and children’s clothing and what the enslaved wore. I did a lot of research online, ordered lots of books and read and highlighted pertinent information. I spent a month between Los Angeles and New York City doing more research, visiting and pulling from the costume houses and shopping at multiple fabric stores and vintage shops on each coast. I also had access to two historians that production hired to confirm our knowledge and to teach myself and other department heads things that we didn’t know. We would share anything we found in our research that pertained to each other, so it was a real collaborative effort and ongoing throughout filming.

The impact of culture and fashion in the film industry: As costume designers, we contribute to society and culture through our storytelling. The costumes really help tell the story and bring it to life. Just like style, it’s individualized based on the story and on the character. We create and recreate moments on screen that will live forever and often inspire the audience. We show new and different ways of wearing clothes that the audience can identify with and oftentimes pieces that they have never seen before. Using new and upcoming fashion designers gives the designer exposure and influences the audience’s decision to try something new. So many times I get messages in my inbox asking about what someone wore and where it came from.

Marci Rodgers

Costume designer: Till and BlacKkKlansman

Image: courtesy of Marci Rodgers.

My background: I received my second master's in costume design from the University of Maryland College Park.

Inspiration for the clothing in Till and BlacKkKlansman: I found my inspiration for the clothing in Till and BlackKklansman in truth. My goal was to have the costume design feel authentic and real as these are real people and real stories. I went to the source: Chicago History Museum, Mamie Till Mobley and Simeon Wright biographies, the Library of Congress and lastly my beloved alma mater Howard University. Of course, I studied the silhouettes and fabrications of the eras to bring my designs to life.

How design has shaped some of the movies and TV series we watch today: When I design my goal is to make it feel real and relatable. It is a great honor to have people come to me and compliment me on the wardrobe I have designed for characters, to say they loved a certain look to the point where they want to replicate or own it. To me, that is the shaping of the visual language we've seen.

Deirdra Govan

Costume designer: Harlem and Devotion

Image: courtesy of Deirdra Govan.

Inspiration for the clothing in Harlem and Devotion: The inspiration for the characters' clothing and costumes that I design always starts with the script. Normally when I read a script, it serves as a blueprint for what decisions I’m going to make; it solidifies the when, the where, the why and the how. I’m inspired by what informs me and that becomes the bridge through which I start my research and design process. Inspiration is all around us. I’m the one you often find with my head in the clouds, but still with my feet planted on solid ground. It’s very important for me to take the time to use my senses and absorb as much as I can because it is everywhere!

The impact of culture and fashion in the film industry: As a multi-hyphenate creative, I feel that my impact on culture and fashion in the film industry is to work on projects that are substantive, culturally relevant and resonating. It’s important for me to seek out projects that have an interesting subject matter or characters that challenge me, which allows me to showcase my diverse abilities to design anything. I feel that some of the projects that I’ve had the privilege to work on are those that will stand the test of time. Be it films or television series, I feel that they are projects that folks will want to revisit time and time again. I hope that my work will be valued and leave a legacy that expresses a diverse body of work that inspires, is joyous and has a cultural and social impact to inform and better our society as a whole.

How design has shaped some of the movies and TV series we watch today: Honestly, I’m more than 20 years in and I feel that I’m really just getting started! But I feel that I’m just starting to thread the needle in connecting a common theme of working on projects with strong female leads or stories where the characters are so completely out of the box that you still think about them long after the film or series has ended.

Charlese Antoinette

Costume designer: I Wanna Dance With Somebody and Judas and the Black Messiah

Image: courtesy of Charlese Antoinette.

My background: I came to costume design through fashion. I was living in New York City as a stylist and was a recent graduate with a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Marketing. I saw movie trucks and trailers everywhere and began to inquire about how I could work on a film. I landed my first internship and started costume designing for films five years later.

Inspiration for the clothing in I Wanna Dance With Somebody and Judas and the Black Messiah: The inspiration for me is always in the research and I dive in heavily. I watched a lot of documentaries and press interviews, did a lot of photo research on Getty Images and utilized libraries like the Western Costume Library. Fashion magazines and catalogs from those decades and eras are also super for research.