Die-hard Whitney Houston fans will instantly recognize the opening frame of director Kasi Lemmons and writer Anthony McCarten’s Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It shows Houston (played by Naomi Ackie) from behind, dressed in a black velvet turtleneck gown with a shimmering capelike train and an updo, about to begin her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. Known today as “the Impossible Medley” (she sang a mix of show tunes like “I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going” and her hit “I Have Nothing” over 10 minutes), it’s a defining moment in the singer’s 30-year career. The outfit only emphasizes her indelible performance and talent. She’s a star, through and through.
Immediately after this shot, viewers are transported back to 1983. Houston meets Robyn Crawford, played by Nafessa Williams, who would become Houston’s lover, and then assistant and creative director. The scene takes liberties by having the pair meet serendipitously in their neighborhood just before Houston’s big break, and sets the tone for what’s to come. (They actually met as counselors at a summer camp.) The late icon’s accolades include some six Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards, and 16 Billboard Awards. But as these humanizing scenes let on, this isn’t a film primarily about Whitney Houston, the pop star. This is a film about Whitney Houston, the human.
Charlese Antoinette, the costume designer behind the project, explains that this distinction was one of the most important points to convey. The talent behind the costumes in Judas and the Black Messiah, Somebody, Antoinette has experience at bringing real people to life onscreen. However, retelling the singer’s story on film had its own complexities—especially in terms of capturing the lesser known, rawest form of Houston, whom loved ones called Nippy. “I watched a documentary [that] talked about how [Whitney] was Whitney Houston on stage, and Nippy at home,” Antoinette says. “So I really tried to show that in the costume.”
Below, Antoinette walks Vogue through some of Ackie’s looks, as they visually chart Houston’s ascent to the top before her untimely death.
Some of the most compelling scenes show Houston in casualwear, before she became a global sensation. “There’s a lot of footage of [Houston] actually in the white sweatsuits, just chilling and watching TV,” Antoinette says. “[Similarly], when she went out on a daily basis, especially in the ’90s, she was from New Jersey, so she wore a lot of streetwear.” Following an impromptu solo performance at Sweetwater’s nightclub in New York, where Arista Records CEO Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) is in attendance, the young vocal sensation takes a meeting with the star-grooming mogul, and signs on with him. Houston is depicted in jeans and a crewneck for the life-changing moment—a choice she is later criticized for in the elevator with her parents.
As with almost any biopic featuring a career as prolific as Houston’s, Somebody has a few montages, largely centered around the many hours Houston, Davis, and often Crawford spent at the Arista Record’s HQ demoing potential records. These moments communicate Houston’s rise, and the costumes become bolder, sparklier, and more formal as a result. When Davis first plays “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” for his talent, Houston wears a sequined gold skirt suit with a powerful silhouette that is undeniably ’80s. Antoinette says she treated the wardrobe shift like a natural progression as the young talent became the Whitney Houston. “Also, there was a note given to me that [said] she always dressed up when she went to see Clive, no matter what,” Antoinette says.
At one point, Ackie performs “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in a second-skin catsuit, a meticulously embellished military-style velvet jacket, and booties. The jacket, Antoinette says, is one of the many vintage pieces used in Ackie’s wardrobe, though it was embellished by Antoinette’s team. As one of the looks inspired by real-life footage, the costume designer says she took it upon herself to modify the jacket to speak more to Ackie’s silhouette, just as Houston’s jacket spoke to hers. “It was a lot of fun just piling on those embellishments and layering them to get it to that place, because it was for a stage,” Antoinette says. “So it needed to be pretty big in terms of needing to be able to see it. The jacket itself isn’t big, [but] the texture allows you to see it from afar.”
The reimagination of the 1988 Soul Train Awards stands out as a scene where a number of the film’s key players—not just Houston—come together to shine, style-wise. There’s America’s sweetheart herself in a crystal fringe gown; Houston wore a suit in real life, but Antoinette took creative liberty here to create more of a statement. Williams as Crawford dons a custom metallic power suit. Our intro to Bobby Brown (Ashton Bradworth) comes with a hand-studded look. Houston’s mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) wears a contemporary Halston style, which was selected after Tunie found footage of Cissy wearing a similar archival dress.
Antoinette joined forces with Houston’s longtime real-life collaborator, designer Mark Bauer, on a few looks for the film, one of them being a recreation of the singer’s 1993 Billboard Awards red-lace sequined look. “He remembers everything he’s made and what the fabrics were,” Antoinette says.
Brown’s proposal to Houston was a private affair in the back seat of a limousine, and thus, Antoinette dreamed up the wardrobe for the moment. This time, the job came with the added complexity of working with the low lighting of the scene in mind. Antoinette costumed Bradworth in ASOS, in a way that embodies the cool cat that was Bobby Brown at the time in every way. “We were shooting at night, so we needed something that was a little metallic, or had a bit of sheen to it,” Antoinette said. “That was one of the first [scenes] we were shooting of him. [He had] just come in, and we had to think quickly on our feet.” Houston’s sparkly dress with a custom jacket inspired by a Mugler silhouette mirrored Brown’s in essence.
Rebuilding the costuming for Houston’s “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” video was a surprising test. The bustier and skirt set had already been completed before she came on board, but the costume designer spent time analyzing the music video (replaying, zooming, screen-grabbing, sketching) to perfect the hard-to-see accessories. “The shoes were so challenging,” she says. “It was so odd that I remember when those shoes were super popular, and we just couldn’t find them vintage or contemporary.” In the end, Antoinette ended up having a contemporary pair modified—one of the many pieces of footwear in the film that came with custom touches in an effort to get everything just right.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com
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