Francine Jamison-Tanchuck is completing a full circle in her career. The costume designer behind Glory, White Men Can’t Jump, and this year’s They Cloned Tyrone, worked on the original adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel as a costume supervisor and was the costume designer for the most recent musical adaptation helmed by Blitz Bazawule.
For Jamison-Tanchuck, it’s a moment of celebration. “I think it is an amazing piece and I’m just so happy for everyone involved,” she told Below the Line. “It is just an iconic film that continues to be iconic. It’s timeless. Alice Walker’s novel reaches so many different time periods, because we’re all human beings and all these things that go on with us as humans.”
It was just announced Jamison-Tanchuck will receive the career achievement award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards. It’s a more than well-deserved achievement for the costume designer, who recently spoke to Below the Line about her work on The Color Purple and why artists should enjoy themselves.
Below the Line: For the original film, Spielberg was adamant everyone read or reread the book. Did you again go back to the book for the latest adaptation? How’d you look at it differently today?
Francine Jamison-Tanchuck: Well, going back to the book, it just gave me still a sense of, what is The Color Purple? Why is this book and this movie so important? I think it’s important because it continues to remind us that we have to be kind to one another. We have to treat each other right and try to, anyway, if that is at all possible.
I think by revisiting the book and trying to tell the story for 2023, it gives me an opportunity to do something with the costumes, how they can carry Celie’s (Fantasia Barrino) impression of herself and her feelings through the different eras and through the different costumes and how she eventually comes back around to her beautiful white dress, when she felt the love and she ends up with the loving feelings again.
What Blitz and I were going for is to show that growth, to show characters through the years. And that’s all of them, including Albert (Colman Domingo). I mean, look at how he ended up. It just tells a story on what this movie is about, and it’s about having the humanity for one another, having the growing humanity. Something happens to you that you can reflect back to having that humanity. So, it’s all of those things in the inspiration of it. I think just by continuing to read the book, it gives me that.
BTL: The scale of it is awe-inspiring. When Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) comes to town, the frame is just packed with dancers. For that musical number, even for the extras, how’d you want their costumes to tell a story?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Well, it’s also collaborating with the wonderful Fatima Robinson, the choreographer, just to see where that the choreography is going and what the style is in that, and how much movement the dancers needed in order to really kick up their heels and do what they needed to do without the costume being restricted. I wanted to start there first, especially for the dancers.
And then of course, the street scene, what was going on in the street? It was a night scene, so the outfits had to come alive as they’re coming alive. The whole point is they’re going into their closet getting out their Sunday best or the best that they can do in this little small town because Shug Avery is coming to town, and of course, the ladies want to be a little bit more than her, and the guys are trying to dress themselves up.
It has all of those little ideas and nuances in it to get us going for that number, to build it for that, and the color and the texture of them moving had to really do something about the frivolity of the scene. Just the whole idea that it’s a fun time and just really going wild with it.
BTL: Working with the dancers, what materials made them the most comfortable?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Well, in some ways, the guys had to put gusset or something with stretch in it so they can stretch with the movement and for it not to be seen as much. There can be a subtlety with it, because a lot of those things weren’t in those eras. I had to make sure that it was something that looked cotton, but could give the stretch, but at the same time, that it stayed within a certain era or timeframe of that particular period.
BTL: Since it is often a stylized musical, do you feel like you could some leeway in departing from time? Or do you still want to be as accurate as possible?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Well, I think you have to have a little bit of leeway of breaking out a compromise a bit, especially if dance numbers have to really flow. The costumes have to work with them being able to do the number and to do the choreography the way it was rehearsed.
I mean, look at Taraji doing her own dancing, every movement in the juke joint and those outfits too, because I’m thinking, okay, they’re going to fly in the air, so it has to be period underwear. What were they wearing underneath then when they were kicking their heels up?
And so, I go into the research, especially looking at the old Busby [Berkeley] musicals where they did a lot of kicking and saw the ruffled bloomers that they had on. So, that was wonderful to do that for the dancers, especially when they were on the tables and just dancing in the juke.
It’s important that to stay as close into the era as we possibly can, because I mean, it’s historical, but at the same time, you want things to be able to compliment the actor as well. So, there’s a fine dance there. It has to do both.
BTL: I’ll tell you my favorite costume from 2023, and you can probably guess which one…
Jamison-Tanchuck: Oh my goodness…
BTL: [Laughs] Shug’s red dress. Please, tell me all about it.
Jamison-Tanchuck: I think it’s everyone’s favorite costume. Blitz and I just said, “Red has got to be the color; she has to break out in red.” I saw the inspiration in some ’20s pics online, and I said, “I’ve got to do the Cocoon coat, because there is something about it that is just so iconic of the ’20s.” She throws it off and then she goes into the number.
One of the things, too, that I love is I borrowed from the 1985 film that Aggie Rogers was the designer on. I borrowed the pearls going around her headdress, and I wanted to have that going too. So, it was a nice moment.
BTL: That’s wonderful. As a costume designer, too, you must’ve been thrilled with how Dan Laustsen shot it. Beautiful, right?
Jamison-Tanchuck: It really is. Taraji, oh my goodness, she was just going for it. She went with it. I thought, “Oh, do I dare split her dress all the way up to the hip? Yes.” She’s moving, it’s sexy, and they were doing that in the ’20s, which is really amazing to see that online.
BTL: The musical number in the juke joint, it reminded me so much of Bob Fosse. It’s so much fun. It’s very sexy. It’s great. How’d you want to help Blitz make those sillhoutes of the dancers really pop?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Well, there again, you have something bright like maybe fuchsia pinks or turquoise or brilliant blues that would come out of that darkness. When the ladies are in their bloomers, the colors of those greens. I think all of these different colors are working together because it is in the dark, but not overtaking Shug’s color red until we see it on Celie in the “Miss Celie’s Pants.” I want to reuse that idea that she had taken that inspiration from Shug.
BTL: I had tears of joy when she gave Celie that dress.
Jamison-Tanchuck: It is something to remind us all, Jack, that we’re all on this planet is called the act of kindness. To be something, to have humanity toward one another because hey, we’re all on this journey together.
BTL: We’re all getting off at the same train stop.
Jamison-Tanchuck: [laughs] Right?
BTL: Who’d you mentor on The Color Purple?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Rashad Corey, who was the assistant costume designer with me. He was one that was mentoring on this one; he just is so excited about the film. I’m proudly excited about mentoring him as well as other costumers or people that worked with me on the film. So, it is a nice moment. It really is a nice moment.
BTL: I’m sure you get asked for advice a lot. For anyone starting out or hoping to get into costume design, do you have go-to advice?
Jamison-Tanchuck: Main advice I give them: love what you do. If you’re going into costume design, go into the art of it. Don’t really take it on thinking that, “Oh, it’s going to give me the accolades, it’s going to give me this award, or it’s going to do this for me.” No.
For me, it’s about the art. At the end of the day, you have to be satisfied with what that is. And you may not get the recognition. You may not get it at first. But for me, telling young costume designers, just really be proud of your art. Be proud of how you’re carrying it in the industry.
No matter if it’s the film industry or theater, wherever you take your costume design or your art, it has to be [about the] art first. Carry yourself in that way, be proud of it, and just know that it’s a very respected position and profession. It’s just about the creativity of it all, that’s what I tell people. Just go with the creativity of it all.
BTL: Enjoy yourself.
Jamison-Tanchuck: Enjoy it, because we’re in the incredibly rare industry where you can have fun and have your work reflect that fondness. It can get crazy, yes, but in the end, you can still have fun with it. What is the old iconic saying? If you’re doing what you love, you never work a day in your life. It’s very true. It really is.
The Color Purple is now playing in theaters.