Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (at right) as Solomon Northup in "12 Years A Slave." Costume Design by Patricia Norris. Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“12 Years A Slave”

October 18, 2013

Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a pre-Civil War free black man played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Executive produced by John Ridley and Tessa Ross, with a screenplay by Ridley, the drama is based on Northup’s account of his extraordinary fight for survival and freedom. The film goes into national release on November 1.

“12 Years a Slave” follows Northup as he is duped, abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty from slave owners, as well as unexpected kindnesses, Northrup struggles not only to stay alive, but also to retain his dignity. A chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (played by Brad Pitt) forever alters his life.

Costume Designer Patricia Norris developed nearly 1,000 costumes to dress a cast that also included Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alfre Woodard, as well as countless extras. Norris conducted research by reading books about the pre-Civil War era and slavery to capture the mood and historical details.

For Norris, the challenge was to create a wardrobe for a leading man that would show the passage of time, reflect his desperate circumstances and be historically accurate—but not make him stand out.

“There is very little research on this pictorially—you get a few bits and pieces from some etchings,” said Norris. From her understanding of the class structure, economics and materials available to the slaves and slave owners, Norris began to create a central look for Ejiofor.

Throughout most of the story, Ejiofor is dressed in a simple, loose shirt, button-front pants and sometimes a vest. As a slave, he is stripped of his identity and has only one set of clothes—so Norris had to make his simple costume count. The movie’s marketing shows Ejiofor running, his loose, lightweight and gauzy shirt backlit to appear translucent—an effect that heightens his vulnerability.

“The slaves were usually brought over here naked, and whoever bought them gave them clothes,” Norris said. “Then they would get more clothes from other slaves who had died or from the master when their clothes were worn, or they would make them, because everything was hand sewn then.”

Norris built every piece of Ejiofor’s slave costumes, with five to six multiples, using 100 percent cotton or linen fabrics that she could more precisely age. Buttonholes and some collars and details were hand sewn for authenticity. She assigned a wardrobe department member to carefully dye each piece, dry it in the sun and never let it see an iron. To reflect the passage of time, Norris would add patches, more wear and soil. Western Costume built the pants and vests (often without the benefit of a preliminary fitting), but Norris brought the shirt construction on location in Louisiana.

Even with a shortened preparation timeframe of eight weeks, actors often unavailable for fittings and a hard-to-research time period, Norris captured the era’s look, class differences and struggles and helped tell the amazing story of Solomon Northup.

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