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Costume Designer Renee Kalfus Discusses Her Work In “Hidden Figures”

Costume designer Renee Kalfus was able to expose the main characters’ progressive attitudes in their non-work outfits in “Hidden Figures.” Featured from left to right: Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film

After attending an early screening of “Hidden Figures”, Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film, paid costume designer Renee Ehrilich Kalfus a high compliment by exclaiming, “I wore those clothes!” Not only was Johnson one of the black mathematical geniuses enabling NASA to stay in the space race, she was the mother of three and made her own clothing.

Kalfus signed on to “Hidden Figures,” excited to share Johnson and her peers seldom heard story. Set in the early sixties before the bell-bottom style explosion, she recognized she was not just dealing with a more uptight, proper style aesthetic, but also reflecting the strictly enforced dress codes of a government agency and black life in the Jim Crow south.   During her research phase she not only dove into the wealth of photo images taken during political events in the South, she also went through NASA archives, looked through family albums and scanned back issues of Ebony magazine.

“It was a great way to see details, down to hair styles and lipstick colors, even girdles,” said Kalfus.

Undergarments were an important component for period accuracy. While her team did take a slight liberty with modern stockings to prevent on-camera shine, bras and girdles needed specific shapes to achieve the proper under-pinning and silhouettes.  The costume department created the bullet-shaped bras and were able to source authentic girdles.  Everyone on Kalfus’ team tried on the garments to understand how they changed the physical appearance.

“It makes you stand up straight; when you put them on you feel like you are in a different time,” said Kalfus.

Due to the pressure of their NASA jobs, fashion wasn’t a high focus, so there were no excessive adornments to the clothing, nor elaborate styles. Kalfus created an informal “uniform” for the men: grey suits, white shirts and black ties. The women’s skirt hem had a specific guideline of placement on the knee, with a dedicated lack of jewelry and proper shoe styles.  Costumes were built using period patterns with sourced fabric or new material that matched the textures for early 60s.  The NASA space suits worn by the astronauts, however, were sourced.

Kalfus’ team did a lot of fabric dying in order to obtain the period specific colors, including a wide range of greys. For the clothing worn outside of the workplace, Kalfus and her team were able to create fashions with a slight bohemian edge that both exhibited the characters’ progressive personalities as well as their activist leanings.

The greatest challenge for Kalfus and her team came in the film’s multiple, and large, crowd scenes. Working with a small indie budget, Kalfus had to get the most accuracy without relying on extensive builds.  Sources such as Western Costume and vintage stores country wide sent boxes of period cloths her team sorted and catalogued.

“It was a real challenge; we had two parades that would require hundreds of extras,” said Kalfus. “We had to find, source and make pieces for so many people. It was a real process but was a fun part of the drama.”