‘Respect’ Costume Designer Says Soul Queen’s Dress Choices Showed Her Humanity | Entertainment
Ending a Zoom-in discussion on his costume design work for “Respect”, Clint Ramos asks a hypothetical question: After learning everything he did about the late Queen of Soul for the project, would he have liked to work in real life for Aretha Franklin?
Tony winner, who reimagined some of Franklin’s iconic looks for the film’s opening Friday, responds with a firm yes.
“She understood his sensuality, she understood his body and she didn’t apologize for it,” Ramos says. “For me it would have been such an honor to create something for a woman who actually understands this (about) herself. It would have been amazing, a life changing experience.”
Starring Jennifer Hudson (who was Franklin’s choice for the role), “Respect” chronicles the rise of the iconic diva from a backing vocalist to his father – the Reverend CL Franklin (Forest Whitaker), a legend in his own right. – to a superstar with a deep voice in terms of music and social activism.
As a figure loved and admired by fans around the world, Franklin used fashion as a form of personal expression. She wasn’t always perfect, but she dressed in a way that was true to herself and her own emotional landscape.
“More than any other music icon, Aretha really exemplified how the clothes really expressed what she felt. … what she experienced as a human being, what she experienced on the plane spiritual and what she was going through politically, ”says Ramos.
“And I say this because in every photo you see of Aretha, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. It doesn’t matter who she’s wearing. There is always a humanity that you see.”
Ramos is still a bit new to the world of cinema, but he brings an impressive theater experience to it. A five-time Tony nominee, he made Broadway history in 2016 when he became the first person of color to win costume design for his work in “Eclipsed,” the acclaimed drama starring Lupita Nyong’o and written by her “Black Panther” co-star Danai Gurira.
His Broadway credits include “Slave Play,” the provocative drama by Jeremy O. Harris (who also co-wrote the movie “Zola”); the musical “Once on This Island”; “Sunday in the Park with George” with Jake Gyllenhaal; “Burn This” with Adam Driver and Keri Russell; “Six Degrees of Separation” starring Allison Janney and many other prominent plays.
Ramos is currently nominated for two Tonys for the 2019-2020 season: one for the set design for “Slave Play” and one for the costume design for “The Rose Tattoo”. The ceremony, delayed by the pandemic, will air September 26 on CBS.
Ramos caused a stir as the costumer and co-production designer for 2019’s “Lingua Franca,” a film by director Isabel Sandoval about an undocumented Filipino trans woman in New York City. Her next big project is a Whitney Houston biopic, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.
The multitasking, who is also a design professor at Fordham University and a committed activist for inclusion and equity in the arts, was born in the Philippines and moved to New York to earn his MA at the Tisch School of the Arts. from New York University. .
His first awareness of Franklin was as a child listening to his songs at home. “My mom, she’s 80 years old, so it was really her music day. We’ve played a lot of Aretha over the years.”
Ramos never met Franklin before her death in 2018 in Detroit or saw her perform in concert.
“The closest (I got) was the inauguration, but I was so far away. I was just watching a big screen,” said Ramos, who was in Washington, DC, for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and saw Franklin’s moving performance “My Country is You.”
He joined the “Respect” team after previously working with film director Liesl Tommy on “Eclipsed”.
Ramos did an intensive amount of research for the movie and read “all the biographies of not just Aretha but the whole family, CL and all, and really got into it.”
He also studied the styles that were popular in the eras described in “Respect”, particularly in black communities. He went to African-American churches and combed through their photo archives, paying special attention to such things as specific fabric shades, as much of Franklin’s youth was documented by black and white photos and film clips.
After absorbing the texts and visual information about Franklin, Ramos says it then became a matter of “finding out what was not in the words or the pictures.”
He thinks Franklin spoke of his clothes in a different way than his glamorous contemporaries like Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. Whether she’s wearing a chic dress or dressed casually without makeup, she’s let her humanity and keen sense of self shine through her designer brands.
“In everything, you saw the human being behind the clothes,” Ramos explains, noting that Franklin could reveal both a vulnerability and a sense of distrust with his clothes.
According to Ramos, Franklin conveyed a reality, or, as he puts it, a certain “I will move as I move and you will capture me. The photograph will be what it will be, but I will not be posed.”
As a famous consumer of designer clothes, Franklin has also championed curvy women, who have been mostly overlooked in recent decades by the biggest fashion houses.
Said Ramos: “Long before we were all aware of sizeism, she went after Calvin Klein and Valentino and said to them, ‘You have to make clothes bigger.’ And I loved it, and it was … in the 70s or early 80s. “
Franklin’s commitment to civil rights is also expressed through his style. “You can tell when she started wearing the Afro with her decision to say, ‘Hey, dad, I’m going to go further than you in terms of social justice activism, I’m going to take it further to the left,’ Ramos said.
He thinks people need to know more about his activism because “more than (any) other person in her post and a woman in her post during this period, Aretha was the most militant of them all.”
Ramos describes two of Franklin’s favorite props as the protective gear of someone who suffered trauma as a child and achieved a hard-won level of artistic control – a creative power often denied to female artists, especially women. colored.
“The fur and the handbag, they were all armor.… Part of what the fur meant was that she surrounded herself with the success that she had and she protected herself with it. That. She was paid cash and it all went into that purse. So this purse will go on stage with her. “
Ramos remembers Franklin’s performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors with his handbag on the piano. “The President of the United States is right there. The Secret Service is all around you. No one is going to take that (purse) away from you,” he said. “But she needed it. And through the movie you understand where it came from.”
According to Ramos, he prepared around 85 costumes for Hudson to wear as Franklin, following the original script. More than 50 have been used. For some scenes, like the one that recreates his 1968 concert at Madison Square Garden, he was responsible for making more than a thousand people seem fit for the time.
Some outfits in the movie are his take on what Franklin would wear. Others pay homage to well-known looks from his life which “had taken on an iconic and semiotic meaning”.
One of them was the green and white paisley kaftan that Franklin wore in 1972 when recording his brilliant album “Amazing Grace” in a church in Los Angeles. Ramos designed and created his own cashmere fabric for Hudson’s costume and made it a deeper green.
“Of all the costumes, this is the one that made me the most anxious,” he admits, noting that today’s moviegoers may remember this look from the documentary “Amazing Grace” shot in 1972. and finally released in 2018.
Ramos says his approach to cinema is similar to his philosophy of the stage. It’s never just style for the sake of style. Her goal is to convey the character and contribute to the story with her costumes.
“For me, a costume is not just a garment, but it is literally a container for human life,” he says.
Working on large theater productions has helped Ramos figure out how to “roll out the show”, as he puts it. This skill has been found to be useful for “Respect”.
“When we do these big concert stages or when we do something that requires the audience to gasp, my work in both opera and theater has prepared me for that,” he says.
And if anyone had any breathtaking talent, it was Aretha Franklin.
Until the end of August, the Detroit Historical Museum is holding a temporary exhibit commemorating Aretha Franklin which includes “Respect” costumes.