How to bring the Queen of Soul to the big screen with the right amount of glamour and, well, respect? Enter Clint Ramos, who is behind the costumes for the new film about Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson in the lead role. Ramos has a relatively short list of film work but is well-rooted in the stage world. He became the first person of color to win a Tony Award when he took home the trophy for 2016’s “Eclipsed,” and is currently a double nominee for the 2021 Tonys, for scenic design for “Slave Play” and costume design for “The Rose Tattoo.” He was previously nominated for a Tony for his work on “Once on This Island” and “Torch Song.”
Here, Ramos talks with WWD about how he put together the sumptuous, dazzling costumes, mostly all bespoke, for the new film, out today.
WWD: What interested you about “Respect” from a costume perspective?
Clint Ramos: Aretha and her music has been sort of a staple in my household. My mother is Aretha’s generation, and so I heard the music and she followed her career, love and her life. So I’ve always been fascinated [by her], particularly in how she’s transformed over the years. But I think as Liesl [Tommy, the film’s director] and Tracey [Scott Wilson, the screenwriter] started reformulating the script for the movie, I got more and more excited about the possibility of showing a really serious window into this legendary psyche. It’s sort of easy to just follow the trajectory of her career because it’s documented. But I think what, to me, was the most interesting part was how she was being presented when she wasn’t onstage, when she wasn’t performing, and sort of creating a more holistic picture of the woman.
WWD: What were the ways you went about sourcing these specific costumes? Were a lot of things custom?
C.R.: Yeah. I would say, 75 to 80 percent of what Jennifer wore in the movie was bespoke. For me, it was important that I needed to do all of her clothing bespoke: a), because of Jennifer’s proportions; Jennifer, actually, is a very tall woman and Aretha wasn’t. And I didn’t want to be subject to only vintage clothing. There’s a color story that I’m trying to go for, and I want it to be really deliberate in terms of how particular costumes were being deployed by Aretha to convey her emotional, mental and political state.
WWD: What was your research process like?
C.R.: The research started really with a lot of reading biographies and magazines of that period. But not only her biography, but her father’s biography [and] Clara Ward’s biography. Particularly also how [her father] C.L.’s church was actually a really big influence on what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
I plunged into all the photographs that were available. Our movie, although it spans three and a half decades, a lot of Aretha’s looks were not photographed. Right? Because she wasn’t famous then. So I had to cobble that together through archival stock or really old black-and-white photographs. Or in most of the cases, prior to the Columbia [Records] years, it was really just me conjuring up what she would’ve worn. We started the movie actually in the late ’40s, early ’50s, and then we ended in 1972 with the Amazing Grace concert. But a lot of the photographs that I was looking at, particularly in the early part of Aretha’s career, were in black and white. So I think most of what I did was, through research, reimagining what those colors could be.
A lot of my research really was going into African American churches. Because none of this is online. You go church by church by church. Atlanta, Detroit, New Jersey, which is very close to where I’m based in New York. So I went into these churches and said, “May I see your archives please?” And then I went in there and actually looked at what the choir looked like, what the soloists looked like. So a lot of what you see, particularly in the early, early years before the Columbia years, were really conjured up through those photographs, through those church-specific archival photographs.
WWD: How did you create personal touches that felt “Aretha?”
C.R.: Aretha, unlike what a lot of people think, actually came from a very upper, middle-class African American family. They had means. Her father, his shoes were always bespoke. He had a haberdasher. So I think part of what I was trying to convey was that she came from this kind of gospel nobility.
WWD: Given your background is mostly in theater, what were some differences with this project?
C.R. It’s scale. I think for me, a costume is a costume is a costume, whether we do it for film, dance or theater. A dress is a dress is a dress. Right? But when you multiply that by a thousand or 1,500 people. Like for instance, when we did Madison Square Garden, for that Respect concert, we dressed 1,000 people, at least. And then there were churches of like 300, 400 people dressed in 1950s, 1960s clothing. It’s really just about scale. And being smart about how you divide the labor, and being also smart about who is part of the team, so you can act as one cohesive organism.
WWD: Were there specific designers or runway shows that inspired you?
C.R.: I was looking at a lot of, in the early, early years, Bonnie Cashin. A lot of these American designers. And then in her ’70s period, I looked at a lot of Missoni. Particularly on the knits. And I looked at a lot of Yves Saint Laurent.
Aretha was an independent dresser. She did not have any loyalty to any designer. As a matter of fact, she’s famous for actually calling out the fashion industry for being sizeist. Even way before we thought that was appropriate. I remember, I think even in the ’70s, she said [in the pages of WWD], “Calvin Klein and Valentino should really pay attention to larger-framed ladies.” So a lot of the designers that I look at were just in terms of trends. All of the hand-beading is done bespoke. I looked at Yves Saint Laurent, a lot of the Dior stuff that was hand-beaded, particularly for the gowns. We open the film with this huge party: there’s a lot of Schiaparelli influences there, particularly in color and also Charles James stuff. I wanted it to look really lush because it was a sort of really beautiful, kind of heady party inside their house that they had almost every weekend.
And then Coach sent us a lot of their archival purses, which was really, really helpful. And also Roger Vivier did a collection, a 1960s collection, that was really appropriate. It was perfect timing.