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The Story Behind Tessa Thompson’s Radical ‘Sorry To Bother You’ Earrings

Fashion

“Murder, Murder, Murder” “Kill, Kill, Kill”

Costume designers don’t get enough credit for their roles in contributing to a film's final, cohesive aesthetic; it's a daunting task, involving lots of detail-oriented work, but it's one that Deirdra Govan, costume designer for Sorry to Bother You, has been tackling for years now. She says of her role: “You have to be a little bit of a detective, and be anthropologists, and archaeologists, and psychologists, and everything you can imagine to articulate and put this all together for these characters,” she says. While Govan has previously worked on projects like Roxanne, Roxanne and Boardwalk Empire among others, but Sorry to Bother You felt different than anything else on which she's worked: The script was visually rich and layered and exciting; this was something special.

There’s a lot to marvel at in Sorry To Bother You: the cinematography, the acting, the bizarre-as-fuck plot. But among the most memorable aspects of the movie are the clothes and accessories, which serve as a necessary glimpse into each character’s personality. “There are many layers [to each character], but they’re all very intentional and very well thought out,” Govan says. “I really want people to understand that this is a very carefully planned and designed project. It was not happenstance.”

So, where do you start when planning a movie as trippy as this? Oakland, California—which also happens to be where the movie is set. “For me, Oakland is such a rich environment, both historically as well as culturally… and I really wanted to pay tribute and use the resources because that’s what made sense, and that’s what I felt was really real and true.” Govan did a lot of research into the area's politics, dating back from the ‘60s to present day, encompassing everything from the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter and the more recent #MeToo movement. She wanted to look at “how all of that bridges into what’s happening now, which I think is somewhat articulated throughout the film.” Govan also scoured the Bay Area to find vintage, one-of-a-kind pieces that she then redesigned for the film, giving then a new, unique twist.

Ahead, we chat with Govan about her intentions with specific characters in the film, both minor and major, all as fully realized as the next.


Mr. _______
In the film, Mr. _______, played by Omari Hardwick, is everything the protagonist, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), wants to be. “The bowler hat and all of his style and swag, [Cassius is] like, my god, I want that, how do I get that, who do I have to be to get there?” Govan says. Her research for these particular style cues came from surrealistic art. His signature piece is a black structured bowler hat, which was all Govan’s idea. “I loved this idea of his character having something that is familiar yet turning it on its head,” he says. The eye patch came from a friend who owns a leather shop; Govan says, “It gave him a complete look that was unlike anything we had seen in the past.”



Steve Lift
“Armie [Hammer] and I talked at length about how we we’re gonna make this character someone that we knew we couldn't stand, but at the same time, is like God,” Govan says. They decided to go the "guru" route. “We took a risk, and I wanted to do something different,” she says. “That's how he ended up in the caftan, and a linen wrap skirt, and an equestrian jacket in a riding crop and his boots, because he is the embodiment of entitlement and wrongful cultural appropriation. That's the world where Steve lives.”


Squeeze
Played by Steven Yeun, Squeeze's vibe is very minimalistic and utilitarian. Govan says Steve has this “very unfettered, very clear direction of ‘I have bigger things on my mind besides what I'm wearing today.“ She explains, he is "still fashionable in his mind, but it's unwavering. His palette is very simple of grays, greens, and rich navy [blue]s and indigos.”



Cassius Green
Lakeith Stanfield’s character evolves throughout this film and so does his wardrobe. Govan describes his look at the beginning of the movie as being “like he’s been borrowing from his father’s closet." It’s as though he watched the older men in his life get dressed in the ‘80s and never updated his wardrobe to fit into today’s times. His closet is full of “vintage ties, coupled with short-sleeve, three-quarter shirts, and sweater vests,” Govan say, adding, “and he probably borrowed his uncle's shoes.” Perhaps not the most exciting look, but it is authentic to who he is. “There's a line in the film: ‘Why is Detroit [Tessa Thompson's character] with Cassius?’” Govan recalls. “She's with Cassius because he's not of that pretentious world. He is real; he is who he is; what you see is what you get. And that is the beauty.”

When Cassius' wardrobe starts to change is when he starts achieving success, and his “muted talent” transforms into “a high definition of technicolor style.” Govan says, “In the script, there was no base at all for what his world would look like when he obtained money. So, I had to articulate it in such a way that shows his transition into a 'power caller.' I did that by exercising the use of color—jewel tones, rich reds, blues, purples, yellows, greens—all of those things to show that heightened sense of reality, that intensity of chasing the almighty dollar.”

She points to a montage scene where Cassius is wearing a green plaid suit and a pink shirt as his exact turning point. Another central sartorial moment is when he meets with Hammer’s character and wears a gray three-piece suit. “He's trying to impress the boss, but he's playing in an area of gray because you don't really know if it's black, if it's white, what's up, what's down,” Govan says.

 



Detroit
Saving the best for last, we have Tessa Thompson’s radical character Detroit, with whom Govan says she had a special connection. “I went to school in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s with girls like this,” she says. “A little bit of Detroit was a part of me.” Like her friends, Thompson’s character experiments with fabric and clothes and color, all things very familiar to Govan. “The base of Detroit was that she was a self-assured woman, she was a very tuned-in artist, she was all about her work because she was not a sell-out,” she says. “She achieved success on her own terms.” There are obvious feminist leanings, but Govan also borrowed from Afro-Punk and Afro-Futurism. “All of these characters were visually rich, but the way women dress, there’s a certain levity that we have where we are able to take risk.”

But perhaps the biggest fashion risk in the film are Detroit's striking graphic earrings, a sartorial choice which writer-director Boots Riley specifically called for in the script. But while Govan knew she had to come up with statement earrings, the parameters were initially undefined, so she had to ask herself: What is this gonna be made out of? How am I gonna fabricate it? What’s the weight? What are the dimensions? She enlisted a friend who worked on typography for the film to create the accessories that included text (notably, the “Murder, Murder, Murder; Kill, Kill, Kill” pair which you can buy on the Sorry to Bother You merchandise website). Then, they created a mockup—something that wouldn’t be too heavy for Thompson to wear—and had a 3D team bring them to life. The electric chair and penis earrings were also done in-house.

Also memorable are Detroit's graphic T-shirts, including one that reads: “The future is female ejaculation” which Govan sourced from a New York boutique called Otherwild. Thompson was actually the one to bring the brand to Govan's attention. “I definitely wanted Detroit to have [graphic T-shirts] appear somewhere throughout the film, we just weren’t really sure what we wanted them to say,” she says. “I set about picking out the ones that would make the most sense for the character, and the ones that would be plotted specifically for those scenes where they appear.” The aim was to take a familiar slogan, and turn it on its head.

Another stand-out moment is the black two-piece Thompson wears during her performance art piece. This, Govan says, she built from scratch. “That came about in a less-than-72-hour period of time, a day before we were supposed to go on camera,” she explains. In the script, Detroit was initially supposed to appear nude, but Govan says she and Thompson didn’t want to “have nudity for nudity’s sake, it needed to have a purpose and meaning behind it.” They didn’t believe it served the story or her character, so they went to Riley, who suggested using gloves, “just something out of the box and arbitrary,” Govan says. “And as I thought about it, I got more excited because it took me to a place of being a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I remember having a T-shirt that had handprints on it. I remember those handprints that I did as a kid with paint that you bring home and your parents hang up on the wall.”

So, she found some gloves at an army surplus store and started experimenting with weight and fabrication and sewing them so that they would almost formulate like a bra cup. The bikini bottom and the big middle finger symbol and the overall look was, what Govan calls, “a stroke of genius.” She adds: “And what I didn't realize was that I was creating an even bigger statement on feminism, which is: My body is my own. I own this.”

Sorry to Bother You is in select theaters starting July 6.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.