When singer-actress Andra Day steps on stage to perform Billie Holiday’s “Them There Eyes” in Lee Daniels’ new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, she commands the scene. Her voice is tantalizing — scratchy and low — her buttery yellow gown a bright spot on the stage. The voice is all Day, who embodies the legendary jazz singer. Meanwhile, the dress is just one of many that costume designer Paolo Nieddu, who is also behind the looks in Empire and The Other Woman, crafted for the film.
Daniels has a personal relationship with Miuccia Prada, which allowed Nieddu to have free reign of Prada’s resources — from their archives to their seamstresses, designers, and fabric collection. After going through photos of the singer, Nieddu and Daniels chose a few ensembles to recreate. Others were originals cooked up by Nieddu.
The designer then went through the archives — looking at colors, silhouettes, fabrics, or even just scraps of a garment — from various Prada collections and used those as building blocks: “If we loved the shoulder, bodice, or skirt of something, we would then build off that, and say [to Prada], ‘Can we make this top be with this bottom?’” Nieddu tells Refinery29. "It was literally like Frankensteining the pieces together.” While the aforementioned yellow dress looks pulled straight from the '40s, it actually came from collections of the last decade. “It had a fall ‘17 shoulder,” Nieddu says, “and the body of the dress was from resort ‘11.”
The dress was based on a photo of Holiday that Nieddu found in Look magazine, which he proceeded to order off of eBay. “It was from the fall of 1946, and we used the dress in, I believe, [a scene set in] 1947. And I was like, Okay, she could still have it,” he says. Though the photo was in black-and-white, he insisted the dress be dyed a specific, opulent shade of yellow. “It was like the melted butter you get with lobster,” he says.
When asked about his goal for the film’s costumes, he says it mimicked Daniels’ intention for the entire film: to highlight Black excellence. The glamour that Holiday exuded in real life had to come through in the costumes Day wore. Part of making that happen was creating lavish ensembles with fur, satin, and jewels. “The thought was that, no matter how down Billie was in certain times, she always maintained this level of glamour and luxury, and her star status and essence that she was putting out into the world [always won]. So, I really tried to maintain that and maintain Lee's vision of her as this [utterly] glamorous woman,” Nieddu says.
Adding to the grandeur, Nieddu accessorized Day using Holiday’s signature gardenia headpieces and jewelry. “She definitely was an accessories queen,” Nieddu says. “Looking at every picture, it was never like, I won't do a necklace — I'm going to do just earrings. She piled it on. She was into her flowers, her headpieces, and she always wore hats.”
The film doesn't shy away from the racism Holiday experienced throughout her career. In one scene, while dressed in diamonds and fur, she is denied access to the elevator at a luxury hotel. “You’ll have to take the service elevator,” the attendant tells her. Adjusting her fur shawl — paired with large diamond earrings, a matching necklace, and a floral dress made custom by Nieddu — Holiday walks away. “You look at the way she looks, and think, This isn't the type of person you would stop from getting on an elevator,” Nieddu says about the scene. “It's only because of the color of her skin.”
Her reaction — pulling herself together at a moment’s notice by recentering her fur and walking out of the hotel lobby, head held high — is an example of how the clothing is meant to serve as armor. From her highest of highs — while performing at Carnegie Hall in black, satin Prada — to her lowest of lows — being arrested in lingerie custom-made by Nieddu — Day’s portrayal of Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday showcases the late singer’s resilience. All the while displaying style at its absolute best.
Watch The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu now.