Paul Tazewell is no stranger to historical period pieces, having won a Tony for his costumes in “Hamilton.” When he joined “Harriet,” he buried himself in research of a bygone era when photography was in its nascent years and ended up finding a recently unearthed new photo of Harriet Tubman.
“There are maybe four [photographs] of her of when she was a little older, more mature … that most of us, that I’m familiar with from high school or junior high. There was a newly found photograph that now resides at the Smithsonian of her actually at the age that we were focusing on in the story of Harriet when she was in her 20s,” Tazewell told Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Costume Design panel, moderated by this writer (watch above). “It’s a lovely photograph. [She’s] very elegantly dressed in a way, simply but elegantly dressed. And it’s a way you don’t normally see her, but seeing that photograph inspired me to realize her in a deeper way, to give her a broader quality that was more than the modest, matronly view of her that we have had to this point.”
Co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, the biopic — the first about the slave-turned-abolitionist who freed 300 slaves via the Underground Railrod and . 700 slaves as the first woman to lead a raid — was conceived as a story for the contemporary audience. In that vein, Lemmons aimed to present Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) as a superhero. “I think [Lemmons] wanted the message of Harriet to play to modern people, modern women and to put forward the extraordinary power that she had in helping to free as many slaves as she did,” Tazewell shared. “For a woman of 5-foot-1, it was really out of the box and for everything that she had gone through and to continue to go back to the same plantation or to plantations in that area to help to free so many people was really that of a superhero.”
Tazewell mostly had black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs and daguerreotypes to work off of, but Harriet’s costumes in the movie are loaded with color, especially after she escapes to freedom in Philadelphia. “Some of the daguerreotypes that had been tinted … and the way the color sits on the neutral tone, I decided that in some ways it was reflective of Harriet as a figure in this sea of sepia — to get her resonate as this extraordinary human being that her color would be bumped up and sit outside of the world of the sepia tone,” he explained.
SEE ‘Harriet’ reviews: Cynthia Erivo is ‘powerful’ and ‘riotously crowd-pleasing’
Tazewell, who also won an Emmy for “The Wiz Live!”, custom-made all of Tubman’s clothing, carefully communicating her character journey through three distinct segments in her life portrayed in the film. As a slave, she wears a washed-out blue linen dress, which deteriorates as she makes her way to Philadelphia, so her wardrobe starts at “ground zero” again. Once in Philadelphia and under the care of the well-dressed and well-off Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), who puts up Harriet in her boarding house, Harriet is outfitted in more refined clothing. A green dress Marie gives Harriet for her first trip back to the plantation to save her family is meant to reflect her “connection to the earth and her connection to nature,” Tazewell said.
During her rescue missions, Tazewell put her in “bandit” outfits so she could blend into the night. These costumes had more of a masculine silhouette as Harriet becomes a “shapeshifter” to disguise herself for whatever the situation called for and clothing became more of a functional necessity.
“Her first bandit look is a marriage of both feminine clothing and male clothing. That gives her almost a modern swagger,” Tazewell said. “She’s got a broad brim hat that she wears with the pin scarf and the skirt and a coat that gives her this really great strong presence. Then she goes through a period where she becomes a shapeshifter. We see her as a blackjack, which is a black sailor, we see her as a dandy and we see her as an old woman. And there are a couple other disguises that she has, all so that she is riding under the radar of the slave capturers and the police force.”
It all builds to what Tazewell calls her “power outfit,” a striking red dress and coat she dons at the end of the film when she faces off with her former owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). Keep a close eye and you’ll see that red is a recurring color throughout in Harriet’s clothing. “It’s her life essence, it’s her power,” Tazewell stated. “I have that an accent all the way through and the payoff is her superhero red outfit.”
Video by Andrew Merrill.
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