Legendary Billie Holiday was brought to life in Lee Daniel’s latest film, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and her fashion was front and center.
Set in 1940s New York, Andra Day (in her film debut) portrays one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time in all her glory — flaws and all. The movie follows Holiday’s tumultuous life and career as not only a trailblazing artist who used music to usher in a civil rights movement, but also a struggling drug addict, who is targeted by the federal government — in the midst of their racist war on drugs — for singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, “Strange Fruit.”
On screen, Day embodies Holiday’s signature style, complete with silk gloves, embellished gowns and gardenia-adorned updos.
Costume designer Paolo Nieddu had the task of helping Day transform into the singer and one of the biggest challenges was finding her heels.
“The size scale is insanely different than it is today. And when you go into these period rental places, the shoes that have survived are so delicate, the leather is dried out or they are just in bad shape,” Nieddu told FN.
Luckily, he found one vintage 1940s pair from eBay that fit Day perfectly.
“There’s this really amazing shoe shot with the vintage shoes where she is crowd surfing. They were black with a snakeskin at first and we had them painted orange to match the costume to make them look new again,” Nieddu said about the footwear. “Even if the gown covers the shoes, I wanted to make sure that they felt authentic to the look and be something that she would have really worn. It also helps the actor feel true [to the character].”
Outside of eBay, Prada was another key source for the costumes.
After director Daniels spoke to Miuccia Prada at an event in New York one evening, the two agreed to collaborate on nine costumes for Day. The ensembles ranged from silk satin evening gowns in a 1950s silhouette, with feather ends and fringe embellishments, to a column dress in double ivory silk satin with a sweetheart neckline and precious crystal embroidery.
Nieddu said he worked closely with the Prada design team by digging through archives and pulling inspiration from multiple collections in order to match real-life imagery of Holiday. In one of his favorite looks, for instance, the costumer used Prada’s icy blue floral brocade fabric from a 2010s-era collection that matched a garment that Holiday wore in 1956.
Holiday was always known for her glamour and extravagant style, Nieddu said. “She wore a lot of accessories and was kind of an excessive, more is more sort of gal. She definitely played with fashion a lot. And I think she looked like she had fun while she dressed. Her style was totally avant-garde, but looking at it now, it’s completely timeless.”
Overall, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” used nearly 250 costumes from custom dress makers, tailors and rental houses for the principal cast, which was also comprised of actors Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Miss Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Evan Ross, Tyler James Williams, Tone Bell, and Erik LaRay Harvey.