Finding the look for Netflix’s new four-part series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” was something costume designer Karyn Wagner describes as “being in heaven, and a smorgasbord of design.”
Set in 1908, the story follows the title character, born Sarah Breedlove and played by Octavia Spencer, who learns about caring for her hair and, against the odds, becomes the first female self-made millionaire as she invents a line of salon products for African American women.
Wagner created walls of fabric swatches: silks, cotton, wools and linens. There was also a “wall of inspiration,” she says. “I’d love going to the woods to find nuts and pine cones that I could turn into a hat,” she explains.
Reading the script, Wagner highlighted geographical, emotional and dialogue clues that could inform the costumes. She spoke to director Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) about who Madam C.J. was emotionally and what her arc was.
Wagner also found inspiration in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. She studied his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” which included pictures from an exhibit Du Bois had held at the Paris World’s Fair. “It showed photos of affluent African Americans,” Wagner says. “He wanted to get people’s minds away from the poor sharecropper image of the African American.”
Wagner chose to use bright colors when creating Madam C.J.’s costumes. “The new aniline dyes from the Victorian era were bright,” she points out.
As Madame C.J’s product line takes off and she lands more investors, she starts to travel. Her character shifts from wearing the plain cotton fabric that she would have bought in the general store, and colored with vegetable dye, to dressing more elegantly as she courts investors. “I wanted to show her wealth and sophistication because she becomes this worldly traveler,” Wagner says of the ribbon and trim that start to appear in her attire. “She might have brought that back from China or Paris.”
The “walking suit,” which includes a vest, hat and unusual footwear, showcases that look. At this point in her life, Madam C.J. has just started to turn a profit. She wants to launch her factory and needs money. “She’s a woman in a man’s world — a woman of color,” Wagner says. “She wants to speak to the fact that she has arrived. The vest is almost like a man’s jacket, but the fabric is hand-embroidered and very feminine. The huge hat and her two-toned shoes speak to her wealth — that she has enough shoes in her closet that can be cleaned or ruined.” Poor people would wear black shoes.
She meets investors and men who wear micromosaics brought back from travels to Italy, again to symbolize wealth. In contrast, men such as Sweetness (Bill Bellamy), her husband’s cousin never had an education, stakes claim on the neighborhood with loud colors.
Blair Underwood plays C.J., her husband, and since no photos of him exist, Wagner had creative license. C.J. was a man who would buy suits when needed but wasn’t eager to spend on his wardrobe. “He was careful with his money,” Wagner says. “He paid for his suits outright in cash and didn’t want to owe anyone.” The designer backdated the look of the three or four suits he owned. “He didn’t care if he was out of fashion,” she says. “He was going to wear them until they wore out.”
That concept illustrates the space between Madam C.J. and her husband; his dated suits were a reflection of this thinking. “She’s moving forward and staying current,” Wagner says. “The gap between the costumes grows further, as does their emotional state.”