Crafting the Costumes of Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ Anthology

Jazz Tangcay
·5 min read

Mangrove,” now streaming on Amazon Prime, is the first in the five-part anthology, “Small Axe” by director Steve McQueen. Spanning two decades, the films are standalones tracing the West Indian experience with reggae music and costume tying all five films together.

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran oversaw all five films, while individual designers worked on each installment. In “Mangrove,” Lisa Duncan created the looks for the film that tells the true story of the Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970.

Duncan breaks down her process and crafting the looks of the characters Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and the British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright).

What were some of the conversations you had with Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Durran about capturing the look for “Mangrove?”

Jacqueline approached my agency to get me to come in and talk to her about Mangrove and the trial. It’s dated from 1968-1971 and once I got the script, I started to research the area and started putting mood boards together. It was images for the main characters, background actors, artists and the community. I added images of the police and the march.

I did a ton of research, going through books, the news and anything I could find.

London at that time was a melting pot of so many looks from hippies to rockers, what styles spoke to you in that research?

I looked at people who lived in that community. I was looking at hundreds and hundreds of images. I went to libraries and archives. I was reading the script to see who the characters are.

I was matching the images that I found to each character. I had looks for teenagers and small children. These people were in the streets so I found photos of children playing in the streets. I looked at the markets and presented that to Steve. And from there, I shopped for the characters.

How did you want to dress Frank based on the photos and news images – from the blazers to the shirts?

There weren’t that many photos of him – probably three. I had one photo of him outside the court, and the rest were documentaries.

I wanted to be authentic to that period. So, I shopped from vintage sellers and vintage markets. It was thinking about his environment and work. I knew he worked in a kitchen, so he would roll his sleeves up. So, I worked on finding clothes that fit his lifestyle.

He didn’t have a huge wardrobe. He had that one coat and one blazer. I had the coat made from a photograph I found from that period. The fabric was the hardest thing because I had to look at the weight of the wool. I didn’t want it to look expensive. I wanted it to look believable – I was always looking at their budget.

How did you want to dress Leticia Wright as Altheia? What was her palette and style based on?

There is video footage. She looked very casual and she was always wearing dangling earrings. She was a Ph.D. student and would not have had a big wardrobe. I looked at her lifestyle – she went to trade union meetings at college – and it was about building up her small wardrobe.

I put her in a blue polo neck because I had an image for reference. I kept her simple in corduroy trousers. Her clothes were practical and heavily influenced by the 1960s.

My palette for her was brown, ochre and cinnamons. I bought almost all of her wardrobe. Most of it was copied from original pieces and then I had them fitted to the actor. There was this great pair of vintage jeans that I found for her which were just the right fit for her and in proportion to the character.

I loved the women of the community.

I loved doing the ladies. I loved doing Aunt Betty. We made a few things for her. Her clothes were practical. The fabric were old, but they don’t look old. She had house dresses because she was working in the kitchen. I had images and it’s what my grandmother used to wear. She had pop socks and that was a detail my grandmother wore so I put those on her.

The focus was that this was a working-class community of people. They were in the mangrove, but the best dressed were at the courts and at parties and when they went out.

For those moments, I wanted the women to dress with pride and dignity because they were dealing with so many prejudices. Their clothes were also their armor and so they had to be well presented. They were the backbone of the community, holding up their families.

The great thing about those fabrics were even though they were cheaper, the quality was much better. I rented some but I could also go out and buy a lot. I found amazing fabrics and they ended up looking so great. I had to remind my team we weren’t dressing them up for “Soul Train” and that it was for practice. But because the quality was so good, everyone just looked so great in them.

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