Unlike the costumes found in most biographical films, the handmade pieces in Respect aren’t copycat recreations of Franklin’s real-life looks. Ramos took a more holistic approach, researching the Queen of Soul — studying black-and-white photos of her throughout life and reading biographies about those closest to her — and using that knowledge to design a wardrobe tailored to Hudson. “I initially looked at the dresses, observing the way Aretha wore them, and then kind of forgot about it,” he tells Refinery29. “I purposely set them aside and [instead] thought about Jennifer.”
Ramos, who started work on the film while the script was still being written, spent hours with Hudson, looking at research and sketches in order to understand how she was going to transform into her character. “How she was going to create Aretha was really important,” Ramos says. As the actress started to inhabit Franklin, Ramos gradually filled out Respect’s costume closet. “I did my work concurrently, and every now and then, we would meet,” he says. “So a lot of the clothing and the costumes that you see are really my interpretations of what Aretha wore, taking into account the way Jennifer was playing her.”
According to him, that was the only way to tackle this project, given the lack of photographs from the pre-Columbia Records years. (Franklin worked with the label from 1960 to 1965.) “Prior to , a lot of the costumes for Jennifer, and even for young, young Aretha, had to come from me,” Ramos says. “A lot of it was really just me imagining things, and making sure that the costumes fit with the time period in terms of colour and shapes.”
In addition, Ramos says he spent a lot of time trying to imagine what a young woman from a well-off Black family in one of the major American cities — Franklin grew up in Detroit — would wear day in and day out. “C.L. [Franklin, Aretha’s father,] was a rock star preacher," he says. "Aretha came from means." Her wardrobe in the film was to reflect that. Franklin can be seen on-screen in the most decadent of garb, draped in furs, diamonds, luxury handbags, and handmade gowns. “Fur reminded her of her affluence — it reminded her of her success,” Ramos says.
Her performance looks were equally lavish, from the feather-laden coat dress she donned to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at Cobo Hall in Detroit and her glowing white gowns worn at the 1968 Madison Square Garden and L’Olympia shows in New York and Paris, respectively, to her pearl-embellished, bell-sleeved number — hand-beaded for Hudson by Ramos’ go-to tailor Eric Winterling — that she wore at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
While the film is a celebration of Franklin's life, it doesn't stray away from the hardships that the performer went through. “There are some really dark moments,” Ramos says, referring to scenes that show Franklin losing her mother at age 10, having her first child at age 12, and struggling with alcohol. “So, one of the first questions I asked Jennifer was, ‘How far do you want to go?’” When she responded, “All the way,” he knew he had to make standout looks that aligned with her commitment level.
At her lows, “she would nosedive into a slip, no wig, no makeup, literally crying and completely down-and-out,” Ramos explains. For him, the beauty is in the duality. “In order for [viewers] to really appreciate her highs, we had to present the extremes of both,” he explains, talking about the spectrum of looks featured in the film.
Despite now being deemed a major fashion icon, according to Ramos, Franklin didn’t think about style in the same way that many of her contemporaries did. Ramos says that, unlike Diana Ross, Franklin wasn't loyal to certain brands, trends, or signature looks. “Aretha used clothing to express her emotions, her politics, her faith,” he says. She wore her clothes the way she wanted to, in a way that allowed her to express herself.” So it’s no wonder that Hudson, fully committed to this role, would use her costumes in Respect to tap into the icon’s greatest asset: a range without rival.
Respect premieres only in theatres on Friday, August 13.