Photograph courtesy of Focus Features.

BlacKkKlansman’s Costume Designer Channeled the Best and Most Monstrous of ’70s Fashion

Marci Rodgers researched what made black detective Ron Stallworth look cool, and KKK leader David Duke look evil.

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Aug 17 2018, 3:04pm

Photograph courtesy of Focus Features.

Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman tells the story of Colorado’s first black detective Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) and his infiltration into the Klu Klux Klan, during which he helped to expose their dud mission and racist roots. But it’s also about jackets: a suede one lined with fur; a denim one that stands in for a traditional suit jacket; a leather one that nods to Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis; a blazer finishing off a three piece suit to underscore David Duke’s obsession with being taken seriously.

Like Lee’s previous films (Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, School Daze) the message is loud, clear, and in your face. And like his other films, what his characters wear helps not only to define them, but also amplifies what that character is trying to say even more. The costumes are just important and memorable as the dialogue. And in this case, Ron Stallworth is one bad motherfucker.

We spoke with BlacKkKlansman costume designer Marci Rodgers about her ’70s research, working with the legendary costume designer Ruth Carter, and why costume designers are visual historians.

So far, you’ve worked with Ruth Carter on movies like Spike Lee’s Chiraq and the action film Keeping Up With The Joneses, and you’ve been the lead costume designer on the TV spinoff of Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It and now BlacKkKlansman. How did you get your start?

I have to attribute how I fell into costume design to really what it was and what it is, which was God. I had a career as an assistant director of admissions at Howard Law School and I was laid off. Right after I was laid off, I transitioned to working with my mentor, Broadway costume designer and Howard University professor Reggie Ray. I assisted him on his Broadway shows.

Shortly after that, I visited University of Maryland in College Park, where I met my academic mentor, Heather Wong, who invited me in to sit in a talk back with her students and take a tour of the campus. After, she emailed me and said she had an assistant-ship available for me. It was a full scholarship for me to attend University of Maryland to get my MSA in costume design.

Photograph courtesy of Focus Features.

Ruth Carter is this legendary costume designer. She’s worked on almost every major Spike Lee film, she did the costumes for Black Panther, and she’s the first black costume designer to be nominated for an Academy Award. And, on a personal level for you, she’s the first person you worked with for onscreen projects. What was it like working with her?

Ruth is awesome. She's a visionary and an artist at heart. It was an honor to be in her presence and see how she thinks and to see how when she sees research or she sees a piece of fabric or a costume, she gets excited about it. I do the same thing, and I understand it now from the other side looking back.

One thing I can say about Ruth is that’s she’s more of a historian. People see us as costume designers, but we're visual historians. We have to continue to stay up on the latest trends and those trends that happen in different eras and learn about why people wore what they wore and what informed the final result.

BlackKklansman is your first onscreen period piece as a costume designer, or visual historian, if you will. What was your research process like for that?

The moment I saw the script, I went and watched the movie Birth of a Nation, just to re-acclimate myself with why it was so important to the script. So I started with broader research, and then I zoned in to the era. I actually went back to my alma mater Howard University at the Moorland Springarn Research Center to look through old Ebony magazines, Jet magazines—piles of them to get a feel of the era and how they were advertising the styles at the time and the little nuances that were displayed in the pictures. Then I went to the Library of Congress, and I did the other side of it. I tried to dig a little deeper into Colorado, what pictures I could find during that era. Then, thankfully, you have YouTube videos where you can watch old interviews in that era of Mr. Duke and the organization.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie was when Ron Stallworth gets his first assignment as a detective and he comes to work in his street clothes, which included this amazing suede jacket. You can just tell he feels more like himself. What were you trying to portray about Ron Stallworth through his clothing? Because it's very different from even the people who he works with;.

I actually had a chance to have a conversation with Ron Stallworth, and I asked him questions like, "What made you feel stylish?" Or, "What elements did you put on or accoutrements did you put on that made you feel cool?" He said sometimes it was accessories or sometimes it would be the way that he had his shirt buttoned. It was just pretty much, to sum it up, whatever made him feel good at the time. And then that made me translate it to Ron Stallworth's costumes in the movie being stylish. And obviously he's the number one, so he should be stylish. I know that was something that was needed, especially to separate him from the college kids and obviously to separate him from the organization.

There’s the one scene where he’s forced to be security for David Duke when he comes to Colorado to meet with the Klan, and instead of wearing a traditional suit, Ron Stallworth is in this amazing denim version of a suit.

For that particular scene, we didn't want him to have on a suit per se. We wanted him to still be cool and stylish, but his version of his suit because he still was undercover, and he still needed to be able to run in case something unfortunate happened.

Photograph courtesy of Focus Features.

You created these very stylish characters based on historical black figures like Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Kwame Toure, and Ron Stallworth, but you also had to create the other side of history and create costumes for members of the Klu Klux Klan and David Duke. What was the emotional toll of having to research and be on both sides of that?

I will never forget the scene that we did when they burn the cross—to actually see that live and even to see the hood, it's still symbolic. For me, when designing it, I had to just stay true to the artistry of it and let the costumes help tell the story. My costumes just added to the emotion of what Spike wanted or what ended up on screen.

David Duke dressed drastically different from other members in the movie. He wore three piece suits and kept himself in tip-top shape. Aside from this based on your research, what do you think his character is trying to portray in the film?

In doing research, if I remember correctly, David Duke purposefully decided to wear suits because that was an image that he wanted to portray at the time. For me, taking an artistic standpoint, again I just stayed true to my research and I noticed that there were little certain nuances that he had, like he had stripes in his tie, he never wore patterns, he never wore patterned blazers, he always had on something solid or muted.I think he was trying to portray professionalism. He wanted to be taken seriously. That was his uniform in that respect.

What about Ron Stallworth?

In the ’70s, if you go back to any pictures that you see, be it in your family's home, my family's home, or a friend's family's home, African Americans took pride in how they dressed. So you walk out of the house, you put your best foot forward. If anything, he was trying to exude some type of confidence. He had to fit in, he couldn't go in dressed like a typical detective. If he came into the Kwame Toure event or was hanging out with Patrice and her friends in a suit they would have automatically known. And during that time, the African American community wasn't receptive to police. [Stallworth] had to represent himself first; he had to represent the police department; and then in this story, he became a part of a world where he subsequently fit in because the college students were dressed at their very best based off of what they could afford at the time.

Another thing about this film, particularly with Ron Stallworth, is that it’s a period piece but that costumes don’t feel costume-y. I think part of that is because the ’70s wasn’t too long ago and is definitely still influencing our style, and also because of the clothing you picked.

I think it goes back to when I was in prep and I was pulling costumes and I was creating closets. I actually went and hand-picked the costumes—well the ones that didn’t come from LA—instead of having a shopper or someone pull for me. I did vintage shopping. I did a costume house or a vintage costume rental place here in New York. So I was able translated my own research. I made a contract to myself by saying these clothes should be as close to ’70s as possible because I didn't live through that era and I know most of the audience, most of the viewers who are going to go see this movie, did.

And you don't want them to be like, "We never wore that."

I would just die.

This interview has been edited and condensed.