“I wasn’t aware of this full story,” admits “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” costume designer Paolo Nieddu about how the legendary singer was hounded by the FBI after the release of her anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit.” “I knew the iconic image of Billie Holiday with the white gardenia singing into the chrome microphone, and that was really it. I hadn’t really explored her life story.” We talked with Nieddu as part of our “Meet the Experts” costume designers panel. Watch our interview above.
Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day plays Holiday, whose struggle with drug addiction was used against her by the federal government. “The first thing I did actually was read her autobiography, ‘Lady Sings the Blues,'” Nieddu explains. “I heard her voice through this book. It was a great way to hear her story from her point of view, and then it was just nonstop poring over images of her from the ’30s to the ’40s to the ’50s, up until her death in 1959 on Google, on Library of Congress, eBay-ing vintage magazines.”
But this isn’t Nieddu’s first time designing costumes for a story set in the music business. He previously worked with “Billie Holiday” director Lee Daniels on the FOX series “Empire,” for which Nieddu received four consecutive Emmy nominations (2015-2018). With a fictional series like that, “you get to kind of create something as you’re going … and anything is possible,” he says.
Despite Billie Holiday being a well-known historical figure, though, there was still room for creativity, especially when it came to her private attire, which of course are less well known than her public and performance looks. “The private version was probably the biggest challenge and the most creatively free-flowing aspect of it,” he reveals. “For me it was more about looking into all these other photos of her and then taking the essence … going off of the things that she wore and that were going on at the time, and sort of creating my version. If I were to style this musical artist at the time, what would I have put her in?” With 70 costume changes in the film, “you could literally run through the rainbow.”
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