Best of 2023: “The Color Purple” Costume Designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s Stunning Creations
*It’s our annual “Best of the Year” look back at some of our favorite interviews from the year. This interview works doubly well as “The Color Purple” is in theaters today. Merry Christmas!
There’s a famous line in Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple that goes: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” It’s a message that even God can become annoyed when people overlook the wonderful things he creates. One such creation is what the character of Celie represents. “She’s a beautiful flower and a beautiful person that’s being trampled on,” costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck tells The Credits. “Alice’s novel is about how none of us should feel unworthy or made to feel that way.”
Director Blitz Bazawule (Black is King) reimagines the iconic story about self-realization and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood in the rural South that was once a Spielberg film (1985) and a Tony Award-winning musical. For its costumes, Jamison-Tanchuck curated an ensemble of handmade garments, vibrant jazz club attire, and traditional African garb spun from Kente cloth, details of which span multiple decades beginning in the early 1900s. Her previous work includes Coming to America, Glory, The Negotiator, Roman J. Israel, Esq. as well as the original The Color Purple, but this project is the apotheosis of her sensibilities, blending tactile textures, stirring colors, and bespoke silhouettes in illustrious style.
“Blitz and I were constantly speaking of the color and how we would like to start it for this journey,” she says. The designer began dressing a young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) in crisp white cotton dresses as a display of innocence. The color reappears when the two make their way back to each other as adults. Separating their lives is a controlling, curmudgeon of a man named Mister (Colman Domingo), who makes Celie (portrayed by Fantasia Barrino as an adult) his wife and pushes Nettie away from her.
Period, tattered clothing in muted colors dot Celie’s marriage with Mister, but the subdued palette becomes more colorful through the eras, making an entrance when Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), a strong, unafraid singer, visits. It’s then the color red becomes an inspirational motif for Celie, first being introduced in an eye-popping dress Shug wears during her fiery Juke Joint performance.
Shug’s complete ensemble has a floor-length red coat with fur accents, red gloves, a feather headdress, and diamond-encrusted heels and is accessorized with a peacock hand fan. The dress itself has a fitted bodice drizzled in a delightful pattern of jewelry and three tiers of beads hanging along the bottom, reflecting a 1920s style. “I call it the cocoon coat because Shug is almost wrapped around in it like the cocoon of a butterfly. It’s another statement before we see the dress,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “Then she takes it off, exploding with this outfit. To me, it was a special moment. That’s Shug in her glory.”
Researching the Roaring Twenties was key to the dazzling look. “I ended up seeing how entertainers dressed in the early and mid-20s, and some of them wore see-through outfits and were pretty risqué in that era. So it wasn’t a far leap for me to have the slit on Shug’s dress go so high up,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “She was able to move freely as she was dancing, and the outfit was able to shine in the darkness.”
Celie begins to step out from her shell thanks to Shug, a growing bond that permeates throughout the film. “Shug is the spark of life for Celie,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “When Shug gives her a dress to wear at the Juke Joint as her guest, that opens up a world of loving feelings and something in Celie that she was worth something to someone and to herself.” The color purple is introduced into her wardrobe when she’s finally had enough of Mister. When Celie becomes a shop owner, red returns as a nod to Shug’s influence during a musical number inside the store.
It’s here we see Mister, a man who took his insecurities out on someone else, turn a page, offering a few kind words, and purchasing a pair of flamboyant pants Celie cannot sell. “When Celie left, Mister realized that she was a really intricate part of his life,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “When he visits her to be friends or to resume the relationship, he thinks he was doing Celie a good turn by buying the trousers she couldn’t sell. My idea was to make the trousers shorter in length and a little bit flooded. Blitz and I liked this shiny, scaly-looking fabric. It’s very reptilian.”
When Celie reunites with Nettie (portrayed by Ciara as an adult) in the glowing backdrop of a majestic tree surrounded by tables, the actors wore white and cream colors with nods to African culture. “Blitz was an amazing inspiration because he is Ghanaian, and he has a wonderful friend who is also from Ghana who I conferred with and had meetings about how this would work in this particular era,” she continues. “Of course, the Kente cloth has been around for thousands of years, so you cannot go past that. We used that in the wraps and kept it simple and natural and less color so we could show off the beautiful quilt Celie worked on all those decades.” Besides the cultural significance of the costume design, whites were chosen to recall when Celie and Nettie were young women playing on a beach. “It was a moment for Celie to be united again with her beloved sister. They are back, almost with that pure love that they had, and it never ended,” says Jamison-Tanchuck.
The Color Purple arrives in theaters on December 25.
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Featured image: TARAJI P. HENSON as Shug Avery in Warner Bros. Pictures’ bold new take on a classic, “THE COLOR PURPLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures