By Fawnia Soo Hoo | January 16, 2024
Full Circle With The Color Purple
Career Achievement:Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
“Costume design tells everything,” says 2023 Career Achievement Award honoree Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. “It’s what you see at first and just opens up the whole story.”
2023’s The Color Purple holds special personal resonance for Jamison-Tanchuck, who served as costume supervisor on the original 1985 version, directed by Steven Spielberg—who co-produced the recent adaptation with Oprah Winfrey. It was a homecoming of sorts, as she considers the movie’s costume designer, Aggie Rodgers, also a CDG Career Achievement Award honoree, a mentor.
Jamison-Tanchuck got her foot in the door in the ’70s through an apprenticeship program, leading to a full-time stock clerk job at Universal Studios under Vincent Dee. Working from the ground up, she met esteemed predecessors including Yvonne Wood, Donfeld, and Grady Hunt. She even joined Edith Head’s team on The Sting. “I had two satchels of vintage shoes, and my job was to try and change out shoes that were falling apart (to dress) the background,” she says with a laugh. “It was just horrendous with the rain, birds, and the cold. But what an experience to be around the legendary Edith Head!”
Jamison-Tanchuck found a network and support group with fellow trailblazers Ruth E. Carter, Michelle R. Cole, and Sharen Davis. After nearly five decades, with a staggering number of awards and nominations among them, the four remain close. “We wanted to support one another because we are women, and also women of color,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “Hopefully how we handled it helps others who are coming into the industry.” Additionally, her husband, Earl Tanchuck, serves as a key costumer on all of her shows, providing support and giving her more space to focus on the creative.
While paving the way for future generations, Jamison-Tanchuck helped create characters and stories that continue to impact greater culture-at-large. In 1992, White Men Can’t Jump popularized colorful Venice Beach-style tank tops and cycling caps. In Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry, Jamison-Tanchuck exhibited the innovative fashion sensibilities of a Black-run Manhattan ad agency. “They had to be creative, and they had to be stylish, so why not with themselves?” says Jamison-Tanchuck, recalling outfitting Eartha Kitt in corsets and Grace Jones in avant-garde patent leather. “The takeaway is that style and class know no color or creed. That’s the wall that has to be broken down.”
For the small screen, Jamison-Tanchuck also costume designed the 2002 pilot of David Simon’s HBO show The Wire, widely considered “the greatest TV series of the 21st century.” She helped establish iconic characters, including Dominic West’s Detective Jimmy McNulty and Idris Elba’s Russell “Stringer” Bell. Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes encouraged the actors to organically inhabit their characters and to then evolve with compelling plotlines. “They were coming through with their own characteristics,” she says. “We should just let them be who they are.”
Jamison-Tanchuck’s extensive portfolio runs the gamut from comedy to the fantastical adventure thriller They Cloned Tyrone to historical drama, such as Regina King’s triple-Oscar-nominated One Night in Miami and Michael B. Jordan’s Just Mercy, about civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. “Glory is still closest to my heart,” says the costume designer, about her second department head job on the 1989 Civil War epic. The film, about the first all-Black regiment in the Union Army, won three Oscars, including Denzel Washington’s first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Working with Civil War reenactors, whose emphasis on accuracy rival that of any fandom, was a daunting prospect, but she won them over with her expertise. Her son, Michael, himself an Otis-Parsons Art Institute student, worked as an illustrator on the film. “It really did something to launch my career,” says Jamison-Tanchuck, “because Glory also catapulted me into the Costume Designers Guild.”
She recalls additional hurdles, like amassing troves of period uniforms and wardrobe on a small budget. “Many of the Bostonian costumes were either refurbished or repurposed things that were falling apart,” she says. But Jamison-Tanchuck treasures the experience, especially the collaboration with the entire filmmaking team and actors. She later reunited with Zwick and Washington for the 1996 Gulf War thriller Courage Under Fire and revisited Civil War-era costumes in 2016’s Birth of a Nation, based on the story of Nat Turner, who led an 1831 slave rebellion.
In Blitz Bazawule’s adaptation of the beloved musical The Color Purple, the near-50-year industry veteran has an expansive story to chronicle. Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, the sweeping narrative covers four decades and two continents. “The research was extensive,” says Jamison-Tanchuck, who enthusiastically dove into library materials, Pinterest, and her own comprehensive archive to authentically portray 1909 into the 1940s.
At the start, 14-year-old Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey), enjoy a rare carefree childhood moment in rural Georgia. Celie, who learned dressmaking from her late mother, wears a delicately ruffled but faded puff-sleeve dress, and a straw-hatted Nettie coordinates with intricate ruching and cutwork detailing.
To evoke springtime on the Southern coast, Bazawule envisioned a light pastel palette, exploding into the opening musical number. Jamison-Tanchuck wanted to communicate the practicality of Celie’s grueling day-to-day routine and the limited resources, explaining, “A lot of those fabrics, like cotton and homespun textures, were the dry goods that came out of the general store.” Reuniting with head ager-dyer Darren Manzari after Will Smith’s 1860s-set Emancipation, the duo demonstrated the small-town country terrain and socioeconomic constraints through distressed clothing, grime-soaked hemlines, and muddy, worn-in boots. “We envisioned someone walking back and forth on a dirt road, dealing with shrubbery and the forest,” says Jamison-Tanchuck.
The costumes also illustrate the close bond between Celie and older Nettie, each serving as the other’s beacon of hope, while living with abusive father Alphonso (Deon Cole). “Nettie loved different outfits and dresses,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “Celie found joy making those garments for her sister, as well as sewing things for herself.”
Celie’s creations illustrate how aspiring teacher Nettie shared her extensive learnings. “They would read and (venture) away into other worlds looking at certain styles, like different collar shapes, indicative of that particular era,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. The costume design team ensured period authenticity by hand top-stitching the dresses, like Celie would have.
Celie is forced to marry Mister (Colman Domingo), whom Nettie calls “the Devil,” propelling the teenager into excruciatingly bleak years. “Her life was getting more and more complicated and abusive, so her somber clothing reflected that,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. She dressed adult Celie (Fantasia Barrino) in functional late-1910s dresses in muted grays and the occasional pastel blue. “She wouldn’t be in frilly and colorful things because she’s not really feeling that.” But Celie still expresses her connection with Nettie and her mother using subtle flourishes like contrasting Peter Pan collars and cuffs or light floral prints.
As 1922 hits, Celie’s style, like that of many of the townsfolk, remains in the previous decade. But then the pastor’s—and community’s—prodigal daughter, Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), makes her splashy return. “She got out and saw places that they would never see,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “She wanted to bring that influence back to her town.” Sipping from a Prohibition era-flask, the glamorous blues singer arrives in full flapper gear—a chunky white fur-lined bolero over a low-cut, knee-length poppy red dress. Later, Shug dances at the local juke joint in a scarlet red crystal-encrusted and bead-fringed dress, topped with a spectacular feather headpiece. “Shug is a lot more flamboyant in her attitude, which reflects in her dress and everything about her,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “But she also has a handle on what love truly is.”
Shug takes Celie under her arm, and influences her sartorially. “Celie’s garments begin getting brighter and more colorful,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. Shug even lends an elated Celie a black and gold-beaded flapper dress, with chic accessories, for the evening. “Even Fantasia, after wearing all these little cotton dresses, said, ‘Oh, I could wear this all the time.’”
Relishing another challenge and the chance to work with renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson, Jamison-Tanchuck specifically designed for the energetic dancing. She attended rehearsals to coordinate costumes with the dynamic movement, right down to the underwear for the juke joint bacchanalia sequence. “I love the idea of the ruffled bloomers from the ‘20s [exposed] when the dancers kick up their legs and fly off the tables,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “We can have both creativity and stay in the period.” She also expertly hid stretchy gussets in Roaring Twenties wool trousers to avoid any incidents during the high kicks, zealous jumps, and spins.
In collaboration with Bazuwale’s friend, Sir Ozwald Boateng, Jamison-Tanchuck also interprets Celie’s active imagination as she reads Nettie’s evocative letters from West Africa. The Ghanaian-British fashion designer and bespoke tailor helped Jamison-Tanchuck source the vibrant Kente cloth hues and prints, which would be worn by royalty receiving missionaries upon the shore, but with a little creative leeway. “We went over the wonderful fabrics and headdresses [over Zoom] that they would actually have worn at that time in that period,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “But this is how Celie imagined they would have looked like.”
In the 1940s, Celie opens a dress shop in Alphonso’s old general store, taking control of her own narrative. For the showstopping Shug-red look, Jamison-Tanchuck based Celie’s trousers on authentic silhouettes with full legs and high waists. She depicted what Celie would have stocked in her store. “I recreated styles in fabrics that Shug was able to help Celie obtain,” she says. “They had access to a lot more influences and materials.” In discussions with Bazuwale, Jamison-Tanchuck developed the idea for Celie’s quick-change reveal into brilliant red sequin pants to further enhance her gleaming polka dot top and the moment. “We wanted her dress shop to just sparkle,” says Jamison-Tanchuck. “Celie has a new life, a new beginning. She’s like, ‘Look at me now! Who’s wearing the pants now?”