The World-Building, Character-Defining Costumes of Lovecraft Country

Posted on August 19, 2020

The first thing we noticed about Lovecraft Country was the costume design. Not since Janie Bryant’s masterful work on Mad Men have we seen period mid-Century costumes that manage the trick of feeling like real clothes that real people wore while also having a highly visual and telegenic component that cause them to pop onscreen like the best fashion photography. We were smitten from the first frame. We weren’t planning on doing a post about them, but we realized late yesterday that we’d been talking about the costumes for three straight days.

 

Costume designer Dayna Pink is doing top-shelf work here, maintaining a tightly consistent feel and aesthetic for the show while establishing motifs and specific looks for its main characters – largely by playing to their strengths in terms of what’s most likely to make them look great (much in the same way Mad Men‘s Bryant did for series stars like Jon Hamm, January Jones and Christina Hendricks). We ended the episode feeling like we knew some things about some of these characters and a good deal of that feeling came down to the way they were presented to us visually.

 

We’ll get to her character work in a second, but we wanted to highlight that first part; about maintaining a consistent look and feel for the show. A signifier of great high-level prestige television costume design is when the background characters are as well-costumed and eye-catching as any of the main characters:

 

Everyone in every scene is so well-presented; so defined in such a shorthanded but eye-catching way. You can see who’s taking a break from work or who’s single and ready to mingle. You can see who the moms are and who the elders are. You can guess who’s a church-goer and who loves a party. Even if you have no relationship with African-American life on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, these costumes make you feel like you know these people. At the same time, everyone is saturated with color and loaded with print and pattern without overwhelming the scenes or taking focus away from the main characters. Just really beautiful, subtle but eye-catching work. As much fun as it is when the monsters start chasing them, the show is at its best when it’s depicting the richness of Black American family and social life and a big part of that – the biggest part aside from the amazing soundtrack, we’d say – is the costume design on all the background players.

Now about that character work. Let’s start here, with Tic’s introduction:


From the jump, we’re told that Atticus loves stories, especially tales of high adventure with traditional hero figures at the center of them. We see him first in a tight white shirt that shows off his body, then in a pair of glasses that underline his slightly nerdy side. We immediately get that he’s our hero figure. He’s smart, thoughtful, and looks like he can kick ass. More importantly, he’s sensitive and respectful of women and his elders. His rapport with his fellow traveler is underlined by the similarity of their costumes as they journey side by side, recognizing each other along the way: both in brown with white shirts and white stripe details. Like seeing like.

For most of the episode, however, Atticus’ look is basic and simple; the way hero costumes tend to be:

Let’s face it: Jonathan Majors looks spectacular in a tight shirt and can more than handle those high-waisted pants. This is, as we said, like putting Jon Hamm in a skinny suit or Christina Hendricks in a pencil skirt for Mad Men. It defines him and makes him stand out, but it also just looks fucking spectacular on him. It remains to be seen where his costume design will go as the story moves forward, but as an introduction, he’s getting the standard hero treatment. Hot, masculine, and largely affectation-free.

And speaking of looking fucking spectacular…

Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku) is introduced to us using the visual shorthand for Black cultural figures and historical touchstones the show is already becoming famous for, by serving up a more glamorous take on the woman whose song (“Tall Skinny Papa”) she was singing: the guitar-slinging Sister Rosetta Tharpe, largely considered one of a small handful of Black Americans who created rock and roll.

 

For all her trailblazing ways and sick guitar work, Tharpe’s stage style was traditional and respectable in a lot of ways; a cross between church clothes and cocktail dresses. Her style wasn’t youthful onstage, is what we’re saying, and there’s a bit of that in Ruby’s dress. It looks gorgeous on her, but there’s a stark difference drawn when her sister Leti jumps onstage with her:

 

The performances and dialogue tell us that these sisters have a contentious relationship, but the physical differences and the style differences are also illuminating. Leti’s outfit is more of-the-minute, with it’s nipped waist and full skirt, which helps underline her sister’s view of her as flighty, immature and untrustworthy as opposed to the more maturely dressed and presumably responsible Ruby, who is still angry that her sister didn’t attend their mother’s funeral. Leti is also model-skinny and light-skinned in comparison to her sister and while we’re not the right guys to explore the implications of that, we think the costume and the casting are deliberate and combine to help explain some of their enmity. But before we dive deeper into Letitia Fucking Lewis’ style, a quick aside to mention the less showy work of Uncle George’s costumes, which are no less illuminating and defining.

 

Unlike Tic and Leti, George has presumably spent his adult life traveling the country attempting to divine which spaces and places weren’t dangerous for a Black man to travel to, as the publisher and co-author a Green Book-style motorist guide for Black people. His traveling style, unlike theirs, is respectable, and softly avuncular, so as to be non-threatening to any white people he encounters in his travels. Ties and suspenders, no matter where he is. In 1955, it’s the defining “I’m not here to cause any trouble” look. This is literally survival gear.

 

As for Leti F. Lewis, she is the most stylish and most fun to look at by far. If Tic is getting that classic sort of Indiana Jones/John McClane-esque masculine minimalist look, then Leti, played spectacularly by Jurnee Smollett, is getting the classic heroine wardrobe. It’s stylish, pretty, eye-catching as hell, but it also defines her extremely well.

 

Just wanted to call attention to the gorgeous little details of this look, like the striped pleat in the skirt and the row of buttons down the bodice. Note the red-and-blue color story, which is a pretty consistently applied motif with her, underlining a sort of all-American girl kind of signaling:

 

She’s stylish, she’s pretty, she’s got a camera and she can sing. You’re feeling her within seconds of meeting her. Note that she wears a skirt here when she clearly showed up to talk her sister into putting her up for the night. Note also that she spends the car trip wearing pants and shorts in a succession of cutely sexy, slightly showy outfits.

Now note how she dressed when her brother put them up for the night:

 

Back in a skirt, much more modestly dressed. Dressed to match the wallpaper, in fact. Like George’s suspenders and ties, like the cute little skirt she wore to ask Ruby for a favor, this is a form of respectability drag. It would have done her no good to show up at her brother’s with two men in tow, sporting heels and a pair of short-shorts.

 

Her hair is wrapped, the details are daintily feminine and the overall tone of the look is conservative and non-threatening. This is also survival gear of a sort. Leti is clearly adept at using clothing to promote whatever side of herself she’s in need of promoting, and like a lot of Black people in this and many other eras of American history, she and George have an unspoken understanding of how to use their clothes to navigate in and out of the world, whether that’s entering the world of white people or subjecting yourself to the judgments of family members.

 

This is why her road trip choices stand out so boldly. She understands respectability and how to wield it, but she’s also clearly one of our hero characters and meant to be seen as strongly self-declarative. She’ll dress like a good girl for family, but she’s not going to do it for white people – or for the men on this trip with her. And it’s why this look in particular feels extremely calculated on her part:

 

Above all else, Leti comes off extremely aware of how beautiful she is and how to use her style choices to make herself appealing in different ways. Her reunion with Tic (in tight pink pants, no less) tells us that either she has some history with him or she knows it’s to her benefit to play on some imagined history on his part.

 

She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s smart, she’s bold, she knows men find her beautiful and women find her threatening and she plays with fashion like it was a set of master tools designed just for her. The costume design gives you the sense that Tic is a sensitive hero and George is a wise elder, but with Leti, it’s hard not to get the impression that she’s both a hellion and a very savvy manipulator.

 

 

[Photo/Still Credit: HBO]

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