Aretha Franklin’s genius isn’t limited to her powerhouse voice. Her fierce personality, activism and style were all key elements of her artistry. She unapologetically infused every aspect of herself into her music and fashion. From her obsession with fur and fringe to sequins and hair that also told a story, Aretha Franklin left an indelible mark on fashion and the culture.
Jennifer L. Bryan, CDGA nominated costume designer, was tasked with transforming Academy Award nominated performer Cynthia Erivo into the icon for National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha. Bryan was able to live up to the challenge by recreating some of Aretha’s most iconic fashion moments throughout the miniseries.
With the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences currently deciding who should score nominations at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, we spoke to the famed costume designer about the impeccable fashion on the show. Here’s a reminder why Genius: Aretha should be nominated for several Emmys.
“At the start of filming, Cynthia and I discussed the style direction of Aretha’s look,” Bryan explained while briefly discussing what it was like working behind the seams. “Cynthia like myself, did a lot of research into all the facets of Ms. Franklin’s life, so it was a seamless collaboration.”
In an interview with Entertainment.ie, Erivo revealed she felt an “overwhelming sense of responsibility” to “make Aretha proud.” And that meant embodying her music and style.
“We’re not just paying homage to her music, but also to the choices and the style choices that she made. I feel like they weren’t just ways to look but we’re her making statements about how she felt about herself in those times,” she said.
Like Aretha’s music, her style was constantly changing. Throughout it all, she used her lyrics and wardrobe to make strong statements.
“During her amazingly long career, Aretha’s style evolved along with her rise to the top pf the charts, her personal ups and downs, and her political activism. By the clothing choices Aretha wore on and off stage, you can literally track a timeline of her life, and what was important to her at any given time,” said Bryan.
Fans and critics all praised the styling on Genius: Aretha. According to Bryan, two of her favorite looks were the “lime green column dress with the matching ostrich feathers and Aretha’s concert dress for her first European concert.” She continued, “For the lime green dress, we literally re-created the fabric and hand dyed yards and yards of ostrich feathers. Feathers were everywhere!”
Bryan’s other favorite look to recreate was “the gown for Aretha’s first European concert. A replica she called, “a labor of love.”
“We hand appliquéd hundreds of beads, pearls, and layered crystals, to emulate the one-of-a-kind custom dress that Aretha wore. Many hours of work went into that gown, and I was very happy with the results. It’s the one you see on the poster.”
Bryan worked closely with Cynthia’s hair and makeup artist Coree Moreno and Terrell Mullins to create cohesive looks that captured the vibe of the era.
“All of the hairstyles, makeup, and even nail color and eyeshadow had to be in sync with my designs. That went for everyone on screen- the extras, our main actors, every look had to be in the right period,” she said.
Despite facing certain challenges, like finding specific fabrics that were popular in the 60s and a small remainder of vintage men’s clothing (“They don’t survive over the years and when you find them, the sizes are tiny”), Bryan and Erivo were able to capture Aretha’s essence through fashion.
Just hand over the Emmy please.