When Broadway costume veteran Clint Ramos was asked to work on Aretha Franklin’s biopic “Respect,” he soon found himself studying the late singer’s roles as a cultural and sartorial icon.
âShe was a fashion icon, but not in the traditional sense,â Ramos said on a call from her Manhattan home. âThe woman has never followed any trend. As she read through her life story, it seems obvious that her clothes simply followed her life. She wasn’t a fashion plate or a mannequin or anything like that – she telegraphed what she felt through clothes the same way she did with her music. She was not loyal to any house or designer; she had clothes from Detroit, literally ready-made clothes and things made to measure.
Perhaps more than anything, Aretha’s signature gift in fashion is her attitude: ‘And I don’t care. ” [Laughs.] She wore what she wanted, how she wanted, when she wanted. Take it or leave it. And that’s Aretha.
You mentioned how Aretha dresses for emotion and protection over style and trend. Is this something you knew before the project?
I don’t know for sure if this is true of course. But it seems to me, going through all the research over all the decades, that there was a subliminal ethic in the way she dressed. Firstly, in the photos where she posed amazingly, she looked so hardworking; there was a lot of psychological architecture holding her back. But there were also a lot of photographs with another essence that isn’t perfect – crooked hair or her somewhat smeared makeup. His humanity has always manifested itself.
What I liked about Aretha was that she didn’t care who liked or didn’t like what she was wearing. She dressed for herself. But she had real jacks; do you remember the ballerina tutu?
Yes! [Laughs.] Sometimes the scale would be really off. But it makes you look at how we are trained to see fashion. How we define aesthetics for women. It was a woman, after all, who told Valentino and Calvin Klein to make plus size clothes, and that was in the ’70s when size diversity was unacceptable. She was a maverick that way.
Jennifer Hudson and Aretha are very different women in terms of size and shape. How did this affect your design process?
It was a question of scale. Plus, a lot of the first conversations Jennifer and I had were about how Aretha walked. She had a very ingenious walk, something I think was not to take up too much space. We talked a lot about that. So for me, when I was trying to outfit Jennifer, I was really aware of the specific times when she was forced to take up a small space versus when she finally decided to occupy a large space.
Can you give an example?
Many of his early clothes in the 1950s were very tight – primitive and appropriate. The Columbia years, when her father peddled her and wanted her to be Black Judy Garland, her dresses were restrictive, very tight. And as her music and life changed, she would dress loosely and taller and just take up more space and bulk, with big furs and kaftans and all that.
Would you agree that a good percentage of Aretha fans didn’t know that she grew up in an upper-middle-class, fairly privileged home? She was not a child of poverty.
Yes. I find it fascinating how we are designed to view this. When you design African American divas, the media almost wants a model of a rags to rich thing. Ray. Tina. But Aretha’s family was not a tenant farmer. The important thing is that, whatever his economic means, the racial and sexual traumas inflicted on him always occur. It’s so deep; but it seems especially deep in a rich world.
Let’s talk about some of the most iconic pieces from the movie. What is the story behind the beautiful pearl dress?
I wanted a dress that Aretha liked to wear. I saw footage from his concert in Amsterdam, although I couldn’t find his original color and what it was made of. No one knows where the original dress is. A vintage merchant contacted me via Instagram saying: “I have an identical dress [to what] Aretha wore it during her concert in Amsterdam, can you use it? It turned out to be a ready-made dress in metallic gold and made of ribbons.
For our film, I wanted it more delicate, so I made it with pearls and champagne silk and bands of ribbons. It was very laborious, requiring a lot of hands. But thank goodness nothing was off and the details were perfect as they blew it up the size of a mammoth for the [filmâs] Sunset Boulevard massive billboard. When I first came to LA, I had to drive by to see it.
I noticed that on the famous green striped feathered outfit that Aretha wore with Martin Luther King Jr., as well as her âAmazing Graceâ cashmere dress, you changed the color from bright green to aqua. Why?
I’m still thinking about how we adapt things to the modern eye. And we wanted to help the scene. And you had to be careful because it can almost be cartoonish, a Dr. Seuss dress. For me, this lime green color loudly screams the ’60s – I just wanted to give them a little more elegance and modernity.
The furs were amazing. Were they vintage, fake, did you make them?
They were a combination of vintage and fakes; I didn’t have any new furs made because I didn’t want to cross that line. I thought it was important to understand what her motivation was for wearing all of her massive furs full length: she was trying to protect herself. It was an armor. The way she related to her furs, I believe, was directly proportional to her fear. I mean, who takes the stage with full length fur like she did at the Kennedy Center Honors? There must be a pretty big force inside of you that is saying, âHey guys, I can’t trust these people. Also, the furs were Aretha wrapping herself up in this great success.
You mentioned that your favorite piece is the panties worn by Aretha in the scene where she fights her alcoholic demons. This simple leaflet said a lot. Was it vintage? Where did you find it?
I loved this slip. It was a vintage piece that I found in Atlanta. The scene was harsh and moving, and Jennifer was not wearing makeup or wigs. No nothing. So for me, what could I give her? The underpants were a very pale green, not white, and he must have been talking vulnerable. There’s a scene right before that didn’t make the movie where she wears those panties, puts on a fur coat, wig, and sunglasses, and goes to a liquor store. He had a lot to do, that slip. It’s a great example of a costume giving an actor what they need to tell the story, and this slip of the tongue made it happen.
You started working on the movie before there was even a script, and you and Jennifer worked a lot together. What was it like working and collaborating with her?
Incredible. The best way to describe it is as a spiritual experience. She understood the mission perfectly and that it was not about vanity but about finding Aretha and none of that, “Do I look fabulous?” She was ready to put in hours and hours and hours of work. There were days when we took seven, eight of the hours to go through things, and there wasn’t a single day late. She was very serious about this role, and she gave us the gift of preparation. I’ll be working with Jennifer again in a minute.