Clothes and Character: ‘12 Years a Slave’

December 12, 2013 3:05 PM

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Clothes and Character: ‘12 Years a Slave’

At 82, with several decades of work as a costume designer and art director, five Oscar nominations (beginning with the 1978 film “Days of Heaven”), an Emmy (for “Twin Peaks”) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Guild, Patricia Norris knows Hollywood and its vanities.

“Actors used to pick up the phone,” she said. But now “you call the number you’re given and they don’t call you back and their agent says, what do you want to talk to him about?” She replies, “The fact that he won’t be naked when he’s in this movie.”

While the director Steve McQueen grappled with the emotional, social and political struggles that went into “12 Years a Slave,” the story of a free black man (Solomon Northup) kidnapped into slavery in the antebellum South, Ms. Norris, the film’s costume designer, was simply working to get clothes on the actors.

“We made so many shirts on this, it was unbelievable,” Ms. Norris said. The film has actors laboring in cane and cotton fields. “You’d have to have maybe five or six of each piece because of what happened to them. It was a magical moment of shirt-making,” she said.

Ms. Norris’s direct manner, gravelly voice and wry cackle make it clear that she doesn’t go in for a lot of nonsense, nor does she take herself too seriously. She’s there to get the job done, even if it means going to some dark places.

“Well, cheery looking slaves don’t cut it,” she said. “A designer friend of mine called me up and asked why I used so much beige in this film. It’s like, I don’t know. It seemed right.”

As a history buff, period films are her passion. “I can’t do a modern movie unless it’s sort of twisted,” she said, to which her long working relationship with the director David Lynch attests. (Her Oscar nominations include one for his “Elephant Man.”) “Other than that, they’re very boring to me. I’m not a shopper, if you know what I mean.”

The process: “Research was very difficult because there are no photographs of slaves. And if there are etchings from the period, you’d think they were done by a white guy in New York because it’s always the happy slave leaning against a tree eating his lunch. So I just went to reading. And when you figure out how people were brought there and how they tried to take their identity from them, you kind of understand the picture. If you died, you were buried naked and your clothes went to the next slave. It’s just a matter of early Goodwill, so to speak. I figured, well, if I back-dated like 20 years for the slaves, we’d be O.K. So, that’s what happened.”

Dressing Patsey: “Those salmon-colored dresses Patsey wore that are kind of empire, I figured Mommy Epps got tired of them and gave them to her. And Patsey’s nightgown is really a slip. It’s very simple and she had to have some clothes on her for those scenes. But other than that, they would probably sleep almost naked.”

Solomon Northup in Syracuse “Free black men dressed like free white men. The styles were pretty simple. It was the fabrics that were better.”

Edwin Epps as Fabio: “Steve said he wanted Epps to be romantic, so I just made his sleeves longer and floppier. And I kept thinking of Fabio, which I shared with Michael and we laughed a lot. You know, the Eppses are real nutcases in their own happy way. She’s so uptight and he’s this, ugh, well, what was there to do on plantations in those days?”

Seeking out the strange: “The party scene was a way to do something over the top for the rich and juxtapose these poor slaves. Mardi Gras had been going on since the 1700s, and that’s what that was about. The masks, some we found at Western Costumes [in Los Angeles], and some we found at the Metropolitan Opera [in New York]. I go anywhere. They are some wonderful, strange pieces and that’s what I was looking for.”

Preening kidnappers: Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy, who played Solomon Northup’s kidnappers “loved their clothes. They’d really peacock around. And you could make them really kind of strange. At the time suits had not come in yet, so you had trousers and a waistcoat and a coat and none of it quite matched.”

The Brad Pitt Gamble: “I’ve worked with Brad [whose character befriends Solomon] three or four times. You’d better guess right, because you’re not going to see him until an hour before the fitting. And he changes sizes, so you just cross your fingers.”

Steve McQueen’s faith: “We would discuss an overall picture, but he actually thought you knew what you were doing and that’s why he hired you. You’d be amazed how many people don’t think that. You get, ‘Well, my wife buys her clothes at — name a place — you should go there and look.’ And she’s a 2, and the actress is a 12 and it’s like, no. Fortunately, he liked what I did, which was my lucky day. He just wanted it to look as real as possible.”

On her Oscar chances: “You never know. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is there, and the Academy just loves its sequins.”


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