12 Years a Slave_Chiwetel Ejiofor right shirt_Image credit Fox Searchlight Pictures © 2014 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

12 Years a Slave: Rags and Tatters

We may have to eat our words, but as it stands 12 Years a Slave is unlikely to win the Best Costume Design Oscar. It does tick some of the necessary boxes: it’s period (mid 19th century), features both crinolines and cravats, and is part of the popular ballot. Yet being as the protagonist spends most of his time in just an increasingly distressed tunic shirt, the Academy may just feel costume designer Patricia Norris has really not worked hard enough.

Flippancy toward the Academy aside, 12 Years a Slave remains a wonderfully rich costume experience. Every fibre leaps off the screen with detail and feeling. The cool weave of kidnapped carpenter Solomon Northup‘s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) linen shirt as it rests against his skin in the searing heat, and then later chaffing his open wounds like rusty sickle. It’s as though Solomon’s attire comes to reflect his oppression; at first he is fresh and strong, before tearing slowly apart amidst an ever deteriorating reality of filth and blood.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, or ‘Platt’ as his given slave name. Solomon would only have been given a bare minimum of clothes throughout his twelve year ordeal, to be replaced when they literally disintegrated.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, or ‘Platt’ as his given slave name. Solomon would only have been given a bare minimum of clothes throughout his twelve year ordeal, to be replaced when they literally disintegrated. Striving for authenticity, costume designer Patrica Norris covered his and the other slaves’ garments in dirt from the actual plantations used during shooting.

On occasion the film resembles something of a spot the fabric fest. There’s hessian, velvet, muslin, boiled wool, silk, lace, cotton – strands of which are so vivid you want to reach out and touch the screen. A lack of embellishment draws even further attention to the functional necessity of plantation slaves’ clothing. It has one function and one function only: to keep them alive to work. All those in held in bondage arrive, shipped from whoever they have been sold from, naked. What garments they have are hand-me-downs from their owners. As such most of what they wear does not fit correctly (Solomon’s trousers are often far too long) and already several years out of date. Not that fashion means much when you are forced into back breaking labour against your will and whipped like a disobedient dog. A slave’s ‘uniform’ was washed and worn, washed and worn, washed and worn, until it literally fell to pieces. Once again, the life parallel with Solomon is explicit.

Ms. Norris must have felt like most of the costumes’ distressing was out of her hands. As the cast had to wear the same ensembles day in day out, sweat and grime would have become a part of their constitution. Having such a rag-tag mix of separates for the male cast obviously affects continuity. Each outfit has to appear random, as it would have been under the circumstances, yet not vary in such a way as to confuse the timeline. 12 Years a Slave is tricky to follow in terms of how far into Solomon’s incarceration events are occurring. Costume helps significantly here as it helps keep track of his existence. By the end of the story Solomon’s loose open neck shirt resembles a grubby sack, just as contorted and close to breaking point as its wearer.

Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps. With Mary, life is all about keeping up appearances. She would wear nothing but the latest styles comprised of the most desirable fabrics, even if the only people who got to see her on a daily basis were dressed in rags.
Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps. With Mary, life is all about keeping up appearances. She would wear nothing but the latest styles comprised of the most desirable fabrics. Even if the only people who got to see her on a daily basis were dressed in rags.

Solomon is distinguished from the plantation owners and their wives in every way. Except perhaps Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender); his similarly wretched appearance is a desperate mirror image of the man he scolds. All overhead shirts of this era would be white, billowy and made of linen. There’s a romantic quality to them, as cruelly echoed by Edwin’s rampant libido. They are worn for comfort and nothing else. See how awkward Solomon looks buttoned up in a suffocating frock coat and cravat when he is finally reunited with his family. His unease is a wicked irony to liberation.

The female slaves are likewise attired in cast-offs from their owners. Dresses are dated via a complete lack of silhouette and decoration. Edwin’s spiteful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) wears tiers and leg-of-mutton and pagoda sleeves. She is spruced yet ugly like a wicked step-sister. Mary is unable to reconcile how Edwin could find beauty in someone as lowly and natural as plantation slave Patsey (Luptia Nyong’o) and so punishes her. At Mary’s behest, Patsey’s is repeatedly beaten and chastised simply for existing. Patsey owns nothing, not least the clothes on her back, but, as she begs Edwin with a bar of soap in her hand, she “will be clean”.

12 Years a Slave is perfect authentic costume design. Even if despite their, perhaps surprising, nomination the Academy are unlikely to reward Patricia Norris’ work (she is 82 so that might sway them), we can still appreciate how considered and disciplined her approach was. Especially for a challenging story such as this, there is much to be said for virtue of restraint.

12 Years a Slave is currently on general release.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.