How Lovecraft Country Costume Designer Dayna Pink Makes Clothes That Transcend Era

Culture

Genre isn’t exactly known for its fashion. Audiences usually remember the gore, the monsters—both real and metaphorical—or that creepy old house with a horrifying history. But HBO’s Lovecraft Country, which reimagines Jim Crow America through a horror lens, is different. It has all those things and pushes the boundaries of style without tearing us from the narrative. That’s thanks to costume designer Dayna Pink, whose impeccable eye for clothing and reverence for the era slayed showrunner Misha Green and director Yann Demange.

“If you want to hire somebody who’s going to do it, like, the letter of the law, it’s probably not me,” Pink told Green and Demange in their first meeting. “But if you want somebody who’s going to have the spirit of this, then create my own vision and make it fashion-y…”

That vision includes the now-iconic fringed dress Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) wears as she shatters her racist neighbors’ car windows, and the simple yet ridiculously sexy T-shirt worn by her Korean War vet lover Atticus, aka Tic (Jonathan Majors). “I wanted to do it with a twist,” Pink says. “I wanted to ground it in the period, then add sass and my own little sauce to it.”

That bold combination of visual elements piggybacks off the show’s most interesting hat trick: delivering a period tale through a modern lens. Just as the Lovecraft Country soundtrack borrows from eras outside the show’s ‘50s setting—including Ja’Net Dubois and Jeff Barry’s theme song for The Jeffersons from the ‘70s and Naomi Wadler’s 2018 speech at the March for Our Lives Rally—Pink appropriates pieces that underscore how the series’ themes of racial oppression and Black resilience remain relevant throughout time.

It’s a risky move that obviously paid off, with the costumes captivating viewers week after week. Pink and her team worked tirelessly for a year, creating most of the items on their own but also finding rare vintage pieces or aging newer ones purchased from around the globe, all with the goal of immortalizing a horror series seeped in historical context. It’s an impressive feat, especially for a costume designer who’s only ever worked on movies. “We were evolving with those characters the whole time,” Pink says.

After spending nearly seven months of quarantine cooking and online shopping from her Los Angeles home, the now-liberated Pink is back at work in a hazmat suit. But she took time out of her busy schedule to discuss what the costumes say about the people of Lovecraft Country, creating luxury items the characters could actually afford, and the importance of being aligned with art that has a message.

Has Lovecraft Country taken on more significance during this era of Black Lives Matter versus when you were working on it?

Completely. Even though we didn’t know what was coming, what we did know is how important that message is. We knew we were telling the stories of real shit that happened, even through another lens. That’s a gift as a costume designer, or as any person working on a film: To create your art in alignment with a message.

How did you strike a balance between highlighting the main characters without taking them outside their socioeconomic bracket?

We wanted everybody to look fantastic. Just because they don’t have money doesn’t mean they don’t look great. It doesn’t take money to look great, necessarily. What it does take is a little bit of an eye. So, who are you? Who do we want to make you portray yourself as? Also, it can’t look brand-new. Even though we’re making stuff, we’re aging it before we shoot it because not everything Ruby’s [Leti’s sister, played by Wunmi Mosaku] wearing [was] bought at a store. She’s looking for a job, so even the dress she’s wearing to apply for that job wasn’t brand new. It’s something that looks amazing on her because she has a great eye, but she’s worn this dress 50 times before. And I think that’s part of it: To ground those [clothes] as they belong to the character. They’ve worn them and loved them.

That makes sense. I often wonder how characters own certain clothes without having a lot of money.

Ruby’s outfits aren’t necessarily designers, but they fit her beautifully [and] perfectly. Her fabrics, maybe, aren’t the same. But when she’s on stage, she knows she has beautiful fabrics and that’s when she’s at her shiniest, brightest—when she’s singing. Like, in the pilot episode, the blue dress we made for her was really one of my favorite dresses of the whole season, because it made her feel the way I wanted us to see her. She was sexy and shiny and bright. She could move in it. Nobody wasn’t looking at Ruby on that stage. It was a combination of who she was in that dress and that dress.

lovecraft country

Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby Baptiste in Lovecraft Country episode 1, “Sundown.”

HBO

As well as her femininity and confidence, which I would also apply to everything Leti wears.

Yep, completely. Leti’s a little different because [she] would figure it out. If Leti wants something, she’s going to get it. So, her stuff might be a little more elevated and her fabrics a little richer. But that doesn’t mean Ruby doesn’t look fantastic. Where you are getting your clothes is part of my job. What are you wearing and where did you get it? But with Leti, I took out the “Where did you get it?” Because I was like, “Oh, she just got it.”

I’m curious about how you dressed the men, who seem to be in contrast to that fantastical element you see with the female characters. There’s a simplicity with Tic’s clothes. He and his father, Montrose [Michael Kenneth Williams], seem to exude different types of masculinity.

Completely. For [Tic], the first piece I pulled for the whole show was this vintage seafoam T-shirt you first see him in. It was real and it was old and aged, and it was so beautiful. It was worn perfectly. There was this amazing history in that T-shirt, and I knew that was going to be amazing on him. When he came in for the first fitting, I put it on him for the first time [and] was like this, this is it. Because you see his body, you see there’s a little bit of color [in the shirt]. It’s the simplicity of all the details, and yet, it says everything you want to say. Then you put it on with this pair of jeans that are up to the belly button, totally fitted, look amazing front and back, and that’s all you need. It just complimented who he was.

Really, my theme, my mantra, is the difference between “I noticed your shirt” and “I like your shirt,” or “I noticed your dress” and “I like your dress.” Because sometimes people will see somebody wearing something crazy, like, “Oh, I really like a dress.” But what they mean is, “I noticed your dress.” There’s nothing to that T-shirt and yet I like your T-shirt. It’s simple and it’s beautiful and it’s elegant. There’s nothing to it and there’s everything to it.

jonathan majors as atticus "tic" freeman in lovecraft country episode 1, "sundown"

Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman in Lovecraft Country episode 1, “Sundown.”

HBO

What was your vision for Montrose, whose clothes are a bit of the inverse of Tic’s?

Everybody you dress as the costume designer, you try to find who they are. Like, I could go shopping in a store today and go “Oh, that’s Leti today,” “Oh, that would be Ruby today,” “Oh, that’s a Montrose.” Because they have their personalities and their color story and what you think they wear. Montrose has a lot of swagger. His clothes are old, and they’re worn. We made so many of those pieces out of some vintage fabrics. But we made sure they were really aged by the time he wore them. His pants were drippy, drape-y fabric. He had belts that were actually vintage [and] falling apart that we had to remake. But the buckles were real vintage pieces. There are pieces from the ‘40s that we said he had forever and ever. They were old and beautiful and worn and totally made sense.

Can you talk a little more about a color story as it pertains to your vision of this show?

It’s funny because I was really convinced that I used all these really soft and beautiful colors, and now when I am watching the show, I see all these pops we did, like the gold and red on Leti. The background was all very soft and pastel-y and creamy—it had coffee colors. If you [had] walked into our office, [you’d see] the racks and racks and racks of clothes of this beautiful palette. It was not a palette of pop at all. Then our main characters could carry that pop. You really are looking at them because everybody behind them is softer.

lovecraft country episode 2

HBO

About how much of the costuming is vintage and how much did you make?

We made a lot of the main characters’ things. Partly because we wanted to make exactly what we wanted and partly [because it] was like, “Oh, they’re getting bloody. There’s a stunt.” You need eight of them. But we didn’t make the clothes for the background. We bought [from] every eBay, vintage store in the country and then some. There are a lot of little touches. You can’t replicate everything, [like Leti’s] ribbon pieces from the ’40s. I couldn’t make it like that. We just used them because they were perfect, and they have a place in the show. Putting something on from that period, you really feel something. It just has to do something for the character as well.

How did that factor into how you costumed the Braithwhites, who are these powerful white necromancers? On one end, their clothes are so self-indulgent, yet on the other, they’re quite stealthy.

There was a little film noir for Christina [Abbey Lee]. Her stuff leans toward the ‘40s and is stiffer. It’s less touchable on purpose. You know, [with] Ruby, Leti, and everybody, you really want to touch their clothes and feel them, whereas Christina, you don’t necessarily want that. She’s a little crispier, harder. William [Jordan Patrick Smith] is like the female Christina. His suits are crispy. He can wear a suit all day long. He’s got an ascot, so it’s a little bit less approachable.

What type of research did you do, or consultation did you have, to help authenticate the costuming in the Korea flashback episode?

We definitely researched the period and had a lot of reference pictures to start with. Then we had a consultant for authenticity. There were parts of it, with the war, that you can’t play with, all the uniforms and everything. But then the hanboks we were making were our own; we based [them] on authentic hanboks. We bought some vintage ones and used those as our inspiration. The consultant was okay with it all, like the jumpsuits and the pieces on Ji-Ah [Jamie Chung, who plays Tic’s ex]. We definitely use our own eye, but we grounded it in what was really happening.

Jamie Chung in episode 6, “Meet Me in Daegu.”

HBO

How did you go about creating beautiful, colorful, feminine costumes that also have to move in physical situations—like when Leti has to dive underwater or Ruby attacks her boss and they’re splattered with blood?

It’s like, well, what do you want them to wear? And, by the way, what are they doing when that happens? Is there going to be a bunch of blood? We want to see that blood, so is she wearing a white shirt or light-colored shirt? The episode when Leti’s wearing the dress and she takes a baseball bat to the car, all these things happen: She’s dancing, she’s being sexy, then she’s in the bathroom with Atticus. That has to be accommodated. Then she storms out swinging this baseball bat and she’s on the ground underneath when the police come, so she can’t be wearing a tight dress. The bottom of that skirt was a wrap and the inside of the skirt was lined with red, so when you see it, it’s a bright pop of something. There’s a lot of components to it and that’s part of the fun of our job. It’s all a puzzle; putting the puzzle together and then seeing it at the end is really satisfying.

jurnee smollett in lovecraft country episode 3, "holy ghost"

Jurnee Smollett in episode 3, “Holy Ghost.”

HBO

Especially because it’s also a genre show. It’s pretty and fun yet also horrific.

Exactly. This job was such a blessing and a gift because we got to be creative in so many different ways. I’m really grateful to have been able to tell the story, to have had that experience with the actors and Misha. It’s such a cool thing to be involved in and aligned with it because I’m not a painter. This is my painting. I paint through my costumes.

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