The 'Hidden Figures' Costume Designer on Dressing Taraji P. Henson as an Early-'60s, Barrier-Busting NASA Mathematician

"She was practically peeling off her long nails from being on the ['Empire'] set as Cookie and going, ‘I can't wait to get into this story,'" says CDGA-nominated Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.
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"She was practically peeling off her long nails from being on the ['Empire'] set as Cookie and going, ‘I can't wait to get into this story,'" says CDGA-nominated Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) schooling the men of NASA. Photo: Hopper Stone/20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) schooling the men of NASA. Photo: Hopper Stone/20th Century Fox Film Corp.

"Hidden Figures" continued to rule the box office for the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, after pulling in higher numbers than the latest "Star Wars" installment for its debut. The film, which tells the previously little-known story of three pioneering African-American women who played instrumental roles in advancing the NASA space program — and breaking race and gender barriers during the civil rights era — has also been recognized for its early '60s costumes. Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus just received a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for Excellence in Period Film.

"In many ways it's not a flashy picture, so the costumes have a fresh reality in a period way that's not... flashy," says Ehrlich Kalfus, over the phone on a break from dressing Idris Elba and Kate Winslet on the set of "Mountain Between Us" in Vancouver. "So that's great that [my peers] all noticed." 

The costume designer poured over historical archives, actual NASA footage, vintage issues of Ebony magazine and personal photos to create the wardrobes of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), math genius; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, nominated for a Golden Globe for the role), NASA's first African-American female supervisor; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), the agency's first African-American female engineer. 

Through her research, Ehrlich Kalfus discovered that the modest-by-nature Katherine sewed her own dresses, which had to meet the strict and conservative NASA dress code. But this also gave the costume designer an opportunity to exercise creativity. "There was some liberty in terms of colors, styles and shapes [of Katherine's dresses] because she did make her own clothes and I took advantage of that," Ehrlich Kalfus says.

Queen. Photo: Hopper Stone.

Queen. Photo: Hopper Stone.

Katherine's jewel tone-infused work wardrobe, which seamlessly (and intentionally) meshed with the rich hues and soft prints worn by Dorothy and Mary, is also, in a way, a symbolic statement. On the NASA task force team, she's the only woman and person of color amidst her all-white and all-male colleagues uniformly dressed in stark white button-down shirts, grey pants and skinny black ties. "When she enters into that place, they don't want her. They think she's the janitor. The guy hands her a trash can," explains Ehrich Kalfus. "Subliminally, here she is in this powerful color amongst all these guys who are all just the same." 

Katherine's wardrobe also evolves as her exceptional skills and inclusion on the team become recognized as integral to the advancement of the space program. "The arc in her costumes gets stronger. They get more bold and a little more extreme," Erhlich Kalfus says. Henson, who regularly wears Fendi furs and piles of designer jewelry as the Lyon family matriarch on "Empire," was anxious to jump into the real-life role of the modest Katherine. "I flew to Chicago to meet Taraji and she was practically peeling off her long nails from being on the set as Cookie and going, ‘I can't wait to get into this story. It's so amazing,'" the costume designer laughs. "It was so funny. You couldn't have more of a contrast."

Katherine (Henson) and Mary (Janelle Monáe). Photo: Hopper Stone

Katherine (Henson) and Mary (Janelle Monáe). Photo: Hopper Stone

Henson also used her '60s-era dresses and skirt suits to immerse herself into her role during the more physically taxing scenes that depicted the oppressive segregation practices at the space agency, namely the bathrooms. Katherine, now working in the all-white campus, had to make daily half-mile runs — in a dress and heels — just to use the "colored" ladies restroom. And the costume department didn't, say, make Katherine's skirt slits higher, remove the corset and girdle from the outfit (the three actresses all wore authentic constricting vintage undergarments) or give Henson some flats.

"[Henson] wanted to [do the running scenes] in the conditions that Katherine really had done it in," Ehrlich Kalfus explains. "She was restricted in her clothes, she was in heels, she was in stockings — in the whole thing — and she did it. That was one of the real tensions and she didn't really want anything to help with that discomfort. She really wanted to feel it. That was a combination of Taraji wanting to do it real and we just didn't make any [costume] allowances for it."

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) in her signature suiting. Photo: Hopper Stone

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) in her signature suiting. Photo: Hopper Stone

For Dorothy, Ehrich Kalfus continued with the earthy and jewel-toned hues, but expressed the team leader's supervisory ambitions through more authoritative and polished suit silhouettes and thoughtful accessories, like tasteful brooches and elegant earrings and necklace sets. "[Dorothy] was super middle class and could buy these beautiful clothes, all of which I had made," she says. "She was strong from the beginning — just not recognized — and dressed the part and then finally got that promotion." 

For Mary, the youngest of the trio, just aspiring to and fighting for the opportunity to apply for a NASA engineering position was a brave and groundbreaking move. So Ehrlich Kalfus created Mary's wardrobe of cardigan sweaters and less structured, but still feminine silhouettes to represent "a counterpoint to convention." 

Mary, Katherine and Dorothy relax on the weekend. Photo: Hopper Stone.

Mary, Katherine and Dorothy relax on the weekend. Photo: Hopper Stone.

"[Mary] was a renegade, but she still had to play within the lines," the costume designer continues. "There was a dress code for NASA, but I wanted to show when she was out of there that she was the future. She was doing her own thing and expressing herself in a more youthful way." For instance, she's the only one out of the three to wear pants

She custom built all of Spencer's costumes and about "90 percent" of Henson's, but Ehrlich Kalfus sourced mostly dead stock vintage for off-screen fashion innovator Monáe to wear as Mary — and they both enjoyed the vintage fitting process. "I just wish I could show everybody the fitting photos," she says. "Honestly each one of Janelle could be in a Vogue spread."

While the costume designer was honored with a CDGA nomination last week, she had already received what may be the most meaningful nod for her work on the film.

"They brought the movie down to the real Katherine G. Johnson, who's 98 years old, and she walked out and says, 'I wore those clothes!'" Ehrlich Kalfus says. "That was a high compliment that she felt that she saw herself up on the screen, which was wonderful. That's sweet, right?"

John Glenn (Glenn Powell) greets Katherine. Photo: Hopper Stone

John Glenn (Glenn Powell) greets Katherine. Photo: Hopper Stone

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