The Color Purple’s Costumes Are a Detailed, Emotional Journey Through Time

“They’re all triple threats,” costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck says of The Color Purple’s all-star cast. Not only does the new musical adaptation’s IMDb page read like a who’s who of prima donnas—Fantasia Barrino, Ciara, Taraji P. Henson, and Halle Bailey among them—but all of the singers listed are known for their own love of fashion and excellent taste. That might be enough to intimidate many costume designers—but not Jamison-Tanchuck. As she tells Harper’s Bazaar, “They really allowed my design and judgment to come forth, and they trusted me to do it.”

That kind of rapport is a best-case scenario for any sort of creative collaboration, but especially this one. The film is an emotional, exuberant, powerful journey through one off the most iconic American stories—most obviously adapted from the award-winning 2005 Broadway musical, but also with nods to Steven Spielberg’s legendary 1985 original film adaptation and the beloved Pulitzer-winning 1982 novel by Alice Walker that started it all. And as we learned from our chat with Jamison-Tanchuck, she was more than up for the challenge. Here’s what the costume designer had to say.

This is an integral American story, which we know from the original novel, the 1985 film, and the musical. How did having that much source material influence your approach?

A lot of this was collaborating and having meetings with [director Blitz Bazawule] for us to really see how we could bring The Color Purple, the Steven Spielberg film, and of course the Broadway play together and combine those things. We thought about what we could do to bring it into 2023 for a generation that really may not know about The Color Purple. We had a vision to respect the original story and Alice Walker’s incredible novel, but also to tell a different story about the story itself. A huge part of that is about the hard, abusive things that Celie [the main character, played by Barrino] experiences. And in the very beginning, our two main girls have this innocence to their relationship and this love for each other, and that’s why we see them in these white dresses.

How do we see the characters’ interior journeys reflected through their costumes throughout the film?

We see it especially with Celie. When we see her in 1917, she is probably at the lowest point of her life. I wanted her costumes to be a little bit darker, to show where her spirit was at that moment. When she is introduced to [Henson’s character] Shug in person, Shug gives her this wonderful dress to wear to the Juke [nightclub]. That really spoke to Celie’s soul—that someone cared enough to give her something so beautiful. At that point, Celie starts to look at her inner self and more or less feel that she is somebody, she is beautiful, and as the film starts moving through different eras and years, the costumes reflect that.

Eli Adé

The idea of being presented with a dress being a turning point of the plot—I love that. I love when costumes get to be so explicitly symbolic, such a part of the plot.

I think for Blitz and I, it was important to show that. Blitz is an artistic director, especially with sets and visuals—and I think it was very important to show the arcs of our different times in our characters’ lives. When [Harpo, played by Corey Hawkins] introduces Celie to his father and grandfather, he still isn’t sure of his manhood, so we see him in breeches. But when time goes on and he gains the juke joint as his own place of business, I wanted him to be in a suit.

Are there any details you’re particularly proud of?

For me, it’s the hats. We’re going through so many different eras, from the 1900s to the 1940s, and they tell a story. People wore a lot of hats and gloves in those days, and I think a hat says something. When Shug comes into town, she wears hats, and those hats inspire Celie. It was important to get a lot of those particular details correct.

I also love the details of buttons on different outfits. We had these beautiful buttons on the 1930s and 1940s garments. I wanted to make sure that it was something that not necessarily stood out, but felt complete. Those are the things that complete period costumes. You just have to be careful about when did zippers come in, what kind of stitching was happening in those periods’ outfits. For me, in period films, you would be surprised how the audience really sees and focuses on those things—and how they can really interrupt a scene if they’re not right.

the color purple 2023

Warner Bros.

the color purple 2023

Warner Bros.

This cast is unique in that, not only are there multiple really fabulous women, but they are also really fabulous women who are all known for their fashion sense. Were they collaborative in their approach with you, or did they let you do their thing?

They allowed me to do the costumes and really have my say in what they wore. They all said that acting is what they do, and this is what I do. They trusted my judgment and my eye very well. They were supportive of where we were going for it. If a little detail for a dance or a movement needed to be changed, then we allowed for it—but as far as the style of different things, they really allowed my design and judgment to come forth, and they trusted me to do it.

That isn’t always the case, I understand.

No, it’s not! Even some shows I’ve done in the past, I’ve run into that. But in The Color Purple, the actors really trusted me and relied on us to do what we do. And I thank them for that. What an amazing cast of principals—they’re all triple threats who act, sing, and dance, and they were all amazing.

I ask every costume designer: Was there anything your actors tried to pilfer from set?

Yes, quite a few! Not only actors, but even some of the production. Blitz kept telling people, “Oh, maybe that one could fall off the truck!” I ran into a couple of actors at the premiere, and they wanted to know if certain costumes were still available for them to have—dresses, scarves, pieces of jewelry, and shoes! Some of the costumes were made in multiples, so maybe we can see. But I run into that in every show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Headshot of Todd Plummer

Todd Plummer is a Boston-based writer who covers style, entertainment, and travel. He is a graduate of McGill University and Saint John’s University School of Law.