‘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.”

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