‘Hidden Figures’ Costumes Highlight Art of Anti-Glamour

When Renee Ehrlich Kalfus signed on as costume designer for the Fox release “Hidden Figures,” she was excited to help tell this seldom-heard story of black, female math prodigies who assisted NASA’s early efforts to compete with the Russians in the space race of the early 1960s. Still, she recognized that, since the film was set before the bell-bottom explosion of the late ’60s, she was not just dealing with a more uptight aesthetic, but also one that reflected the strictly enforced dress codes of a government agency and the Jim Crow South.

To research the era, she not only pored through NASA archives, but dove into the wealth of photos taken in the South during a period of political and social upheaval, explored family albums, and scanned back-issues of Ebony magazine.

“It was a great way to see details, down to hairstyles and lipstick colors — even girdles,” says Kalfus.

Even undergarments were an important component for period accuracy. While her team did take a slight liberty with modern stockings to prevent on-camera shine, bras and girdles needed specific shapes to achieve the proper silhouettes. Kalfus and her team re-created bullet-shaped bras, and were able to source authentic girdles. Members of her department even tried on the garments to understand how they changed physical appearance.

“It makes you stand up straight,” Kalfus says. “When you put them on, you feel like you’re in a different time.”

Due to the pressure of their jobs and the general lifestyle of engineers, fashion wasn’t a priority for NASA workers, so there were no adornments or elaborate styles. Kalfus created an informal uniform for the men: gray suits, white shirts, and black ties. The women’s skirt hem had a specific guideline for placement on the knee. Women wore discreet jewelry, and shoes followed a set style.

Kalfus’ team did a lot of fabric dying to re-create specific colors of the period, including a wide range of grays. For clothing worn outside of the workplace, Kalfus and her team were able to create fashions with a slight bohemian edge, which both exhibited the protagonists’ progressive personalities as well as their activist leanings.

The greatest challenge came with the film’s crowd scenes. Working with a small budget, Kalfus had to squeeze out accuracy without relying on extensive builds. Sources included Western Costume, and vintage stores around the country sent boxes of period clothes that her team sorted and catalogued.

“It was a challenge,” Kalfus says. “We had two parades that required hundreds of extras, and we had to find, source, and make pieces for so many people. It was a real process, but was fun.”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Advanced Imaging Society Honors 10 Women

    AIS Honors 10 Women in Tech

    Celebrating 10 years of achievement in entertainment technology, the Advanced Imaging Society today named 10 female industry innovators who will receive the organization’s 2019 Distinguished Leadership Awards at the its 10th annual Entertainment Technology Awards ceremony on October 28 in Beverly Hills. The individuals were selected by an awards committee for being significant “entertainment industry [...]

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

  • Frozen 2

    How the 'Frozen II' Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

    “The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake [...]

  • Lucy in the Sky BTS

    'Lucy in the Sky' DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman's Astronaut

    What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey. “When things fall [...]


    How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave 'Joker' a New Look for Origin Story

    “We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.” In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a [...]

  • Exceptional Minds VFX Autism Training

    VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

    Most of those who have earned the honor of VES Fellow in the past decade have been recognized by the Visual Effects Society for on-screen innovation. But this year’s honoree, Susan Zwerman, is equally distinguished by her off-screen accomplishments. Zwerman is the studio executive producer for Exceptional Minds, a visual effects and animation school for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content