To put it simply, Sorry To Bother You is visual candy, but only if candy had the ability to critique late-stage capitalism. It’s a movie that simultaneously plays with the creative freedom of magical realism and the earnest undertones of activism, all while Janelle Monae croons on the soundtrack. Even though the movie addresses issues that exist in our world, everything from the dystopian billboards to the vivid costuming exist in a space slightly out of reach. There’s a feeling of stepping through the looking glass.
As with any visually rich film, realizing director Boots Riley’s surrealist vision required immense attention to detail from the crew working behind the cameras. One could even say the costume designer Deirdra Govan served as a Great and Powerful Oz of sorts, pulling strings and piecing together looks that defined the movie’s visual palette.
If you’ve stumbled into conversations about this movie, odds are high that you’ve heard someone reference Tessa Thompson’s earrings, or LaKeith Stanfield’s many blazer combos, or how alarmingly convincing Armie Hammer appears in his evil genius ensemble.
Deirdra Govan: I could definitely see it unfolding as I read it. The script presented such a clear, yet surreal landscape. It felt very one-of-a-kind in that sense. Boots’s vision was to build something very true to Oakland but also very specific to the plot, and creating the costuming was such a detailed and intentional part of that vision. As I was reading the characters, I immediately started imagining what they’d wear. That’s a pretty natural part of my process, but this project felt special because of both the freedom and risks involved. I really wanted to make this world come to life in the movie, and that relies heavily on what people wear.
DG: Oh, definitely! Even just through the choices in landscape, the movie addresses Oakland’s current issues with gentrification and in turn how the boutiques and gourmet coffee shops are pushing out the mom and pop shops. We [the crew] were all very intentional about how the process of making the movie interacted with Oakland itself. I got most of the costume pieces from local thrift stores and vintage shops. It was a really great way to ground ourselves in the community, and what clothing people have been wearing. One of the shops didn’t even have prices, you’d just leave whatever money you could and grab a piece of clothing.
DG: Yes. As a costume designer I think it’s really important to communicate with the actors our vision for the character, and how that will manifest in outfit choices. They have to be comfortable with how I dress them, otherwise the costuming won’t deliver as well on screen. Since the characters in this movie are so distinct as personalities in the script, the actors were pretty on board with my vision for how they’d look. Tessa Thompson’s character, Detroit, was especially fun because she has such a distinct and evolved style. She knows herself very well. Both Thompson and I were able to really brainstorm how to build her style. But even with her more audacious style, it was really important her outfits felt natural for her and fit into the larger visuals of the movie without distracting from the plot itself.
DG: Yes, that was definitely intentional. At first, Cassius isn’t as aware of the image he’s putting forward. Fashion isn’t his priority, he’s dressed down and understated and that makes sense for him. He’s really just trying to get by, and a large aspect of his personality is the feeling of being inside his own head. It’s not really until Cassius meets Omari Hardwick’s character, Mr. Blank, that he sees an image of fashion he wants to emulate.
Everything from Hardwick’s bowler hat to his eye patch is daring and rich, and yet somehow really fits into the dystopian corporate environment. Even when Cassius starts to dress up, with his pink shirt and the suit jacket, it’s not what you’d call on-trend. It looks like something he found in his father’s closet. Perhaps his own idea of what it means to dress corporate, successful, and rich. His close friends see that and kind of tease his transformation, but in the context of the office of Power Callers, even his clumsy and vulnerable attempts at fashion make sense. When it comes to Detroit, she’s been and known herself the entire movie. She knows exactly what matters to her, as an artist, as a woman, and that really shows in the effortless way she wears her clothes.
DG: The earrings themselves were one of the only costume pieces written into the script. The words “Murder Murder Murder, Kill Kill Kill” and the image of the electric chair and penis were all thought up and written by Boots Riley. They were very real though; we made all of the earrings! The process was very in-depth because we needed to make sure the shape and detail was on point. But since Tessa Thompson had to wear them, we had to be careful they weren’t too heavy for her ears. The heaviest earrings — the electric chair earrings — were made partially with our 3D printer. They’ve definitely been making waves, I’ve received lots of questions about the earrings.
DG: The sarong definitely wasn’t in the script. Armie and I talked through the vision for his character and really wanted to capture the look of this entrepreneur billionaire villain. The sarong came about off-the-cuff, because it felt like a natural extension of his character. For Steve Lift, we were envisioning Elon Musk meets Steve Jobs. This is a guy with big money and a big platform who takes what he wants. He’s the kind of guy to go to another country to steal a design, an idea, even people. So, wearing a sarong is a no-brainer for his character.
We also wanted Armie’s brand of evil to be believable. Yes he’s absurd, but we’ve all heard of or met this guy in some capacity. He’s not self-aware because he can pay people to do that for him. He is about the bottom line at the end of the day. Armie was super great to work with, when I asked if he’d wear a sarong he was immediately on board.
DG: This question is hard! In private, I would definitely wear Tessa Thompson’s bikini from the performance scene, just because that design is so bold and I love it so much. In public, I would probably wear the painted jacket Thompson wears, the colors and flow of that outfit are so great. But really, I love all of them. When I think of myself, though, those are the outfits that stick out.
DG: It’s interesting, a lot of people have flattered me by mentioning the political aspect. I should say, I didn’t intend for the costumes to be inspired by current fashion designers or what’s on trend. Designing costumes and being a fashion designer are very different practices, so what’s most important to me is that the character themselves are represented, not that they fit into any existing trends. Obviously, there are always influences, and the political tone of the movie informed what the characters themselves would choose to wear.
I had a few people ask if Tessa Thompson’s bikini was inspired by Barbra Streisand in The Owl and The Pussycat, and that was HUGE compliment to me because Ann Roth is incredible. The trends at Afropunk definitely overlapped with Thompson’s look in particular, but in general, I try to let the character’s personality define what they’ll wear.
DG: Mainly, I want people to realize that costume design is an art form. Where I am now, the opportunity to work on Sorry to Bother You has only come to me after decades of hard work and dedication. I’m really passionate about putting together the details so that these stories can come to life, as are other costume designers, and I think the nuance of that position can often get lost in translation. It’s a lot more in-depth than figuring out what outfits look good. Costume design is about storytelling, which is why I love it so much.