The Art Of Craft: ‘The United States Vs. Billie Holiday’ Costume Designer Paolo Nieddu Sculpts His Own Version Of Legendary Blues Singer
“[Bille Holiday] was such an avant-garde [figure], so it was trying to pull things that seemed new. There are so many pictures of her, it’s wild. She has so many looks within all these different times, so I just went towards images that drew me in, and stayed on the line of the year that we were working in. There would be times where we were coming directly from a moment, and matching to a moment in time, and then there were moments where we could take liberty. And that was where I got to create more.” — Paolo Nieddu
On The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Paolo Nieddu crafted period-accurate looks for Holiday (played by singer-songwriter Andra Day), showcasing the “Black glamour and excellence” she represented.
With script in hand, his first step was to create a timeline of historical images, charting her style trajectory from 1947 to 1959.
His lookbook featured materials from the Library of Congress, as well as Pinterest, Instagram and eBay.
The pictured gown, made from crêpe black silk, silk chiffon and bugle beads, was worn for a comeback performance at Carnegie Hall.
The look was inspired by the work of Adrian, the iconic costumer behind The Wizard of Oz.
It was sewn by hand in LA by Old Hollywood cutter/fitter John Hale, who worked on the iconic Some Like It Hot.
Nieddu collaborated with the “timeless, elegant” House of Prada on nine other looks for Holiday.
For more from our conversation with the Billie Holiday costume designer—who previously collaborated with director Lee Daniels on the Fox series, Empire—read on.
DEADLINE: What were your first impressions of the script for Billie Holiday, when Lee Daniels approached you? And what excited you about telling this story?
PAOLO NIEDDU: It was an amazing story because most people are familiar with Billie’s music and iconic images of her, but I don’t think the story that’s told in the movie is something that most people know, or have thought about, in terms of civil rights and protesting, in a certain time period, expressing herself through her music to do what she did.
So, when I read that, I thought, wow. What an incredible story to get to tell visually. And it wasn’t your usual biopic. It was very specific to a certain point in history and in her life, and what was going on, so it was really interesting and exciting to be a part of.
DEADLINE: How did you come to work with House of Prada on the film? And what did that collaboration entail?
NIEDDU: Lee had a personal relationship with Ms. Prada, and they had discussions [early on] about perhaps her and Prada producing some gowns for the film. So, when [we got] close to a production date, he put me in touch. I worked directly with two people—Verde Visconti and Antonella Lapetina—and we did everything, back and forth over email. The House of Prada, they were such a good fit, aesthetically. Their style works so well in the era that we were doing. So, Lee partnered me with them, and we had gone through and came up with eight moments in the movie that we were going to ask them to produce the garments [for].
I had sent them direct research and my sketch of what I wanted to do, and then they interpreted that. Then, I also had go through their archive. We used pieces that existed from Prada, from collections past—some, going into 2007—saying, “Can we take the shape of this dress, from this look on this runway, and then make it longer, or make it fuller? And can you make it white?” So, that was how I worked with them. I would send them those images, with my images of Billie, and then they would come back. It was sort of like this Frankensteined collaboration.
DEADLINE: Where did you source the vintage clothing worn by Day and other principals?
NIEDDU: I did Palace [Costume & Prop], Western [Costume], Motion Picture Costume Company, also in LA. Those were probably our top three, and beyond Andra, we [sourced there] for Trevante [Rhodes] and for Natasha Lyonne, who played Tallulah Bankhead, and Garrett Hedlund. Then, it would be a mix. I found a few great pieces and great jewelry on 1stDibs, and I got a lot of random earrings, and bracelets, and pieces, and shoes on eBay. I would literally order things at night as we were going, trying to get things in to clear customs in time. Edwards Lowell also loaned us some vintage furs.
DEADLINE: What more can you tell us about the inspiration for, and the creation of Holiday’s Carnegie Hall gown?
NIEDDU: We see this in the film after Billie comes out of jail. She’s clean, she’s sober, she’s at her best. We see it kind of in the middle of the movie, and this was one that I sketched early on, based on a really grainy, tiny photo I found online of her at her Carnegie Hall performance. This one kind of morphed [over time] into what it was. I had one fitting, and it was a muslin fitting, which is when you fit it in a cotton, just to get the base and kind of see where we’re going. We tried that on; we scrapped it. I went back to the drawing board, and came up with this. I exaggerated the shoulder, and created this dramatic center-front piece. I wanted it to have some kind of a drama, when she walked out onto stage.
I drew it in black, and [then] I discussed it with Lee, about did we want to make it a color, or did we not. The curtains for the set that we were doing were red, and the band was going to be in tuxedos. We decided to put them in a white tuxedo, and so we decided to go with black for the dress.
I took the interpretation from this photo and glamorized it using elements of the time, like the strong shoulders from the ’40s. The waist piece gives a nod to Adrian, an amazing, fabulous costume designer from the MGM Golden Era, and this is sort of like my tribute to Adrian on Billie.
And the jewelry was vintage. Eisenberg is the maker. [There was] a vintage bracelet and necklace set that I found on eBay [that accompanied] it. Then, she had vintage shoes that came from Motion Picture Costume Company. The gloves on her, she often wore those to cover up the track marks, and the scars on her arms from her drug use. These were a white silk jersey. At that time, there wouldn’t have been a stretch—like, elastic to make a glove stay up—so they’re tricky. That actually was a challenge. We were literally sewing them tighter on her, on the day, because she would put them on, and then they start to stretch out, and they won’t stay up. So, the set costumer was sort of taking them in, as we would go. We made four pairs of them because they were white, and they were going to get ruined otherwise, and just as backup.
We had to rush this dress because we fit it in LA. Andra had to go to Canada, and I was in LA for a little bit, so [John Hale] finished it and I met him. I picked it up and took it on the plane with me, because we didn’t want to risk any customs issues, and then we fit her again in Canada. So, I think she had four fittings on this dress—two in LA and two in Canada.
DEADLINE: From what I understand, the white gown you made for Holiday’s performance at the Earl Theater was one of the most challenging to work with. What was the story there?
NIEDDU: We were fitting this in California. I basically saw this fabric in the store, and it comes in these big sheets, almost. It was glass, bugle beaded fabric, so it probably weighed 20 or 25 pounds, this dress, if you just had the fabric in a bag. I would say we had about eight yards, and I bought the fabric and thought, “Oh, I want to make something,” and I didn’t know what. So, Andra was in. I think it was her second fitting, and I just held the fabric up and draped it on her. We had another piece of it cut, and I wrapped it around her waist like a towel, and we were just playing and taking pictures, and then I drew it out. Then, when I came back to Montreal, I sent Lee this picture of us. He was on a location scout, and he was like, “I love that.” And I was like, “Well, it’s not exactly that. This is just held up to her.” It was all smoke and mirrors.
So, we sort of built it off of that personal draping in the fitting. The fabric was [given to] Susana [Vera], my tailor in Montreal, and I would say this dress probably took 72 hours, or maybe more, of just handwork. They would have to smash the glass, to sew it. They’d have to remove the beads, so they were taking a rubber mallet, and they would break the beads. Then, after she patterned it all out, based on how we drew it, it was [made] into two pieces that swoop across her bust.
In the scene, the cops raid the performance, and she has to run down the stairs. Her band members grab her, and she gets into a car. So, she does all this action, and it was a difficult dress to do all these things in. But it was also so fitting. Because one thing I love to do with characters is, she didn’t put this dress on, knowing that she’s going to have to run off stage and run down a stairwell. So, it kind of added to the action, in terms of making it much more of a scene.
But this dress, Oh my God, it went through the ringer. The leather gloves were Carolina Amato, this beautiful glove maker based out of New York, and the gloves were covered with the lipstick from her cigarettes. We went through probably five pairs of these gloves. Beads were coming off in little strands, on the dress. After the third or fourth day that this thing worked, it looked like it had been run over by a car. So, we did a little restoring on it. It was one of my favorites, but it was probably the most heavy, and a dress that had to be reset more than any other in the movie.
DEADLINE: How did you handle the challenge of dressing so many background actors in period attire?
NIEDDU: Basically, we were prepping as we were shooting, balancing that with fitting people in period clothes. We had a really huge team. We had an amazing woman, Monika Heredi, who was in charge of background. We basically had, within our Montreal office, an assembly line set-up, and they were just coming in for fittings. She told me on the extras breakdown, as of the first week of October, there was 3,200 background scheduled. It was just all these huge scenes that were constant. So, her team really handled all of the background coming in.
I had a team in LA that I worked with, early on in prep, just getting our general stock of vintage that we could use, and all the vintage clothes for the background were sourced. Then, I had a team in Montreal that was pulling from the rental houses there, and we combined it all together. It was an insane amount of work. I mean, we had storage [racks], with just hats, color coded, and muslins, and women’s gloves in the colors of the rainbow. It was like a store.
DEADLINE: What were the highlights of your time on Billie Holiday? And what are you most proud of, with the film now behind you?
NIEDDU: It was a real passion project, and working with Lee is always such an amazing experience. He pushes me, and gives me the liberty to create and step into his world, and tell such amazing stories. So, just being a part of this project was incredible. Telling this historical story, but also getting to do it through an artistic lens, was really incredible, and of course the collaboration with Prada. Getting to reach out to them and show them what I’m thinking, and have them actually put it together, was something that I never imagined I would be doing.
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