For the National Geographic anthology series “Genius: Aretha,” showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks and star Cynthia Erivo didn’t just have to capture legendary singer Aretha Franklin’s voice and stage presence, but her inimitable style. Not that it was so easy.
“The research was quite intense and had to be very authentic and really span a long era because her career was exceptionally long and we also go back to her childhood,” costume designer Jennifer Bryan explains during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Costume Designers panel. “So in the 1960s and up to the early 1970s, the main source of research for me for Aretha’s life and her style and her concerts and her recordings was really through print. It was through old Jet magazines, Ebony magazines because that was really the main outlet for entertainers for bringing their fans into their world. There wasn’t the internet, talk shows came along a little bit later. But it was really about digging up old magazines and magazines that catered to the African-American community in particular.”
Bryan, whose early credits include costume and wardrobe department work on such classic films as “Coming to America” and “Goodfellas” as well as being the costume designer for shows ranging from “The Vampire Diaries” to “Breaking Bad,” was often forced to translate the limited images available to her into actual clothing.
“Often those photos were in black and white, they weren’t in color,” she explains. “For the costumes that I had to duplicate or replicate, it was a bit of a challenge.”
Bryan cites one particular costume — the silver dress Erivo wears as Franklin when she’s officially crowned the Queen of Soul — as being especially difficult to replicate.
“There are only two photographs that exist in the moment when she’s crowned,” she says. “We had to decipher [what color it was]. … We knew it was metallic, we knew it was reflective, you could see that in the photo, but what color was it? We finally decided it was silver and we went forward with that.”
Making those decisions was a huge part of Bryan’s work on “Genius: Aretha,” which involved making sure countless period-appropriate costumes were available not just for the show’s star but every background actor, even those not in focus. Through it all, Bryan says, fidelity to the era and Franklin’s essence was key.
“Eventually, I narrowed it down to what I thought was an accurate representation of some of the dresses that she wore,” she explains.
Watch the full Meet the Experts: Costume Designers interview with Bryan above.
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