What made Franklin’s style unique, compared to other performers at the time?
There were human decisions that ultimately affected Aretha’s mode of dress. She wasn’t like her contemporaries who were mannequins; she was an independent dresser and she telegraphed her state of being through her clothes. Aretha was married twice, and she had distinct looks between those marriages; she was a free person and a free person takes risks.
Did you listen to any favorite Aretha Franklin tracks as you designed?
I listened to her whole catalogue throughout the process, as I was sketching and researching. From her squeaky clean beginnings, to her hits when she was less constrained and found her groove, through to her more political years when she started singing “Young, Gifted and Black.” “Respect” was, of course, always on my mind, as was “Think”; she recorded this track as her marriage to her manager Ted White was coming to an end, so there’s this dramaturgical and serendipitous sense to why she’s singing those lyrics.
What’s your favorite story behind the clothes and accessories Franklin wore?
I love that she always brought a purse on stage. She had a few bad experiences with promoters and so for a period of time she insisted on being paid in cash, which she’d put in her purse and keep with her at all times. She’d tell the promoters they wouldn’t get a single note out of her until she was paid.
What was the best part about working with Jennifer Hudson?
Jennifer was deeply committed to this role and she prepared for months before shooting; we did what seemed like hundreds of hours of fittings and she was tireless and egoless throughout. There’s a scene in the film where Jennifer is playing Aretha at her lowest and she’s dressed in a slip; the bravery with which she played that part was remarkable. That’s where she really showed her understanding of Aretha, because there’s no way of knowing that through photographic research.