Lovecraft Country – Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett. Photograph by Elizabeth Morris/HBO
This year, costume designer Dayna Pink was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Television for her recent work on the hit HBO original television show, Lovecraft Country. Before Lovecraft Country, Dayna has enjoyed a widely successful career, designing costumes for film such as Bumblebee, Bad Boys For Life, Baywatch, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Fame, and Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny! I was honored with an opportunity to speak with Dayna about her career, inspiration, and her incredible work as costume designer on Lovecraft Country. Please enjoy!
Spencer: Hi, Dana! I’m so happy to finally meet you and congratulations on your nomination!
Dayna: Hi! It’s so nice to meet you as well.
Spencer: Thank you so much for joining me. Before we talk about Lovecraft Country and your recent Costume Designers Guild Award nomination, I would just love to hear a little bit about your journey to becoming a costume designer and what moved you in that direction?
Dayna: I started as a stylist. I grew up and lived in Detroit and I started styling bands and doing music videos. I then moved to L.A. to style for bands and I did a Tenacious D music video, it was called “Tribute”. (Editors Note: Since this interview, I have listened to this song one thousand times.) It was so funny and amazing. After the music video, they were going to do a movie, and they sent me the script, and the same director from the video was doing it. He sent me the script and I was doing a lot of commercials and at that time doing a million things at once. I asked myself, “do I want to do a movie and take myself out of being available for whatever it is, four months, five months, six months?”
Suddenly I’m sitting across the table from this producer and director, I realized that this wasn’t just about what they were wearing, but why they were wearing it and where they had gotten it. This was about being a storyteller as much as putting clothes on somebody and that it still makes the hair on my arms stand up. That idea of actually contributing to something and being a storyteller changed the way I looked at everything. So, you know, even if Jack Black shows up in a T-shirt off the bus coming across the country, what does it say about him? It changed the trajectory of my career. I continued in styling and I still style now actually. I still have some clients that I dress, but realizing that being a filmmaker, being a storyteller, what we do means something, that was a cool moment for me.
Spencer: That’s one of the reasons why I love working in costume design so much. Costume designers are storytellers. Our favorite films, television shows, plays, wouldn’t be possible without the costume designer’s vision.
Dayna: That’s amazing. I love that.
Spencer: Throughout the pandemic, a lot of people have had a hard time staying inspired, finding creativity. How do you stay inspired and connected to your creativity?
Dayna: For the first six months I did not work. I stayed home and I had come off of a year and a half on the road, then the pandemic hit. At first, it was terrible and scary, yet it was sort of restful and introspective. I read some books, watched things on television and I watched movies. We had time to sit and think about our lives. It was a time of kind of refilling for me. Then back in August, I started a little movie that Channing Tatum directed called Dog, Channing starred in it and directed it. It was such a gift because it was a controlled, beautiful little project. After that, I did a pilot and worked with Steve Carell for The Morning Show. I’ve managed to stay busy and stay home at the same time, which has been nice.
Spencer: You mentioned that during the pandemic you were indulging yourself in different books, films, and shows…I sense a bit of creative escapism. You reminded me of the character, Atticus (Played by Jonathan Majors), from Lovecraft Country. So, let’s talk about Lovecraft Country, shall we?
This show was a huge project. When I first started watching the show, I kind of chalked it up as a period drama. Lovecraft Country is SO much bigger than a period drama. There is science-fiction, horror, monsters, comic books, literature, America, France, Korea, space, drag queens, ghosts… just to name a few elements. It’s very impressive. I want you to first speak to what was your reaction was when you first started on this project if you could?
Dayna: I was brought in to have a meeting for the pilot first, and the pilot was cool. It was period and said really important things. I was drawn to it. My idea for it was to route everything in the period. Understand the period and that’s the place you start. But because there’s a fantasy aspect to this, you get to go different places that you wouldn’t normally go. So not everything was accurate. I loved doing the pilot so much that I just couldn’t imagine not doing the whole show after that. I never thought I would do a whole show. “Oh, I’m doing this, this is happening.”
Then reading every episode going forward, now there’s a drag ball, now we’re in Paris with dancers. It was overwhelming to read all the things you were going to have to do, but it was over a long period. It was like a hamster on a wheel. We just kept going and going and going. Next thing you know, we’re done with this episode and we are wondering what’s happening next?
Spencer: How long were you on this project? After finishing the show, I figured it must have taken a lifetime to costume this story.
Dayna: Probably 10 months, not including the pilot.
Spencer: It’s beautiful, it’s massive. It’s like every episode was its own, individual movie. Each episode could have lived completely on its own.
Dayna: Thank you for saying that. That’s how we thought of it. You know, we just made ten little movies.
Spencer: Lovecraft Country is based on a novel by Matt Ruff, and a combination of short stories by the author, H.P. Lovecraft. So much of it also references famous literature such as Dracula, A Princess of Mars, and The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s also a lot of photographic references which I thought were amazing, such as the Gordon Parks’s Department Store, Mobile, Alabama. What sort of research and references were you looking at as you were bringing this project together?
Dayna: Of course, we researched the period first. We did everything we could to find all the real photos and, of course, the photographers of the time such as Gordon Parks. Two things were happening at the same time. What was it really? And what do we want it to be? We were taking those two things and putting them together. There were moments where we absolutely honor the things that really happened, like those Gordon Parks photos that we created. We tried to be as close to those as we could. We looked at those and historical moments that happened. Emmett Till’s funeral, the Tulsa Race Massacre, those moments we tried to honor and step away from. We didn’t do an interpretation of them. We tried to recreate them.
Then there’s everything else. We had room to add our little special sauce. Both things are true, right? Some things happened that we wanted to honor and then there were things like, well shouldn’t Leti (Played by Jurnee Smollett) be wearing a crazy shirt with that outfit? When you first see Leti come to the block party, that was based on a Dior outfit that I had found from that time in my research. So there were things that were rooted and referenced and then some we just took it to our trajectory.
Spencer: It’s amazing to me how, in those moments where you were focused on recreating, how accurate and detailed you were. For example, the Gordon Parks photo side by side is uncanny.
Since we started talking about Leti, we have to talk about her wardrobe or the fans will be mad at me! *laughs* I love Leti. Her wardrobe is amazing. You could tell that she loves to just play dress-up. It feels as though her costumes aren’t always appropriate for the moment. But she doesn’t care and she’s just living.
Dayna: That’s exactly right. You know, with most characters, you ask yourself the questions, where did they get this, and how long have they had it? But with Leti, the sky is the limit because she would have gotten whatever she wanted, regardless of how she was going to get it. That’s what we kind of did with her. We didn’t put limits on what she could or couldn’t wear. We just had so much fun with the moment. What does she want to look like? Her wardrobe deconstructs as the show goes on, towards the end, she’s wearing Atticus’s clothes. She gets more casual. She’s in a sweatshirt. She’s in a t-shirt. But, the whole beginning of the series, she’s full-on wearing whatever she wants when she likes. Jurnee was amazing, and dressing her was awesome.
Spencer: She looked amazing in every episode. It’s like she takes your breath away every time she comes on screen. One thing I noticed and loved about the costuming was the vibrant colors. Was that intentional?
Dayna: It was intentional. We wanted certain characters to pop in certain moments. The background is softer and creamy, less primary colors. But our characters, our heroes have some brighter colors. And you’re going to notice them.
Spencer: There’s another character I want to talk about, Christina Braithwhite (Played by Abbey Lee Kershaw). You don’t trust her. You’re pretty positive she’s evil, but you can’t put your finger on it. She has that Glenn Close, Cruella De Vil feel, where you know you’re not supposed to like her, but her fashion is beyond so you can’t help it that you kind of want to hang out with her.
Dayna: She’s more forties inspired to me and darker in a way, crispier. I wanted to create closets and pieces for our characters that you want to show. Atticus is wearing a t-shirt, but you want to touch it. You want to feel it. What is it? It’s soft. I created costumes for Christina that you wouldn’t want to touch necessarily. You want to appreciate them from here. She has the hats and always in heels and you know, it’s a harder kind of vibe than Leti or Ruby Baptiste (Played by Wunmi Mosaku), who was also amazing and fun to dress and super sexy. We got to make all of her clothes. That was so much fun.
Spencer: Also, super colorful too! I loved all the prints that Ruby was in.
So you were nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence In Period Television, the credit was attributed to episode seven, “I Am”. We could probably do a whole interview around this episode. It’s amazing.
In this episode, Hippolyta (Played by Aunjanue Ellis) travels through the science-fiction realms of the multiverse. She meets an entity known as Beyond C’est (Played by Karen LeBlanc), and goes on an incredible journey of self-discovery, through many different realms! Hippolyta ends up in Paris, dancing with Josephine Baker, and partying with Frida Kahlo. We then travel to The Kingdom of Dahomey where Hippolyta is training and ends up leading the fight against a large army of soldiers. But wait, there is more! We end with Hippolyta traveling to the comic book world of Orithyia Blue where she’s wearing a terrific orrery dress with that blue hair. Let’s talk about this episode. There’s so much going happening here, it’s living art!
Dayna: What was cool was we did have a while to think about it because this was a later episode. So I got to think about that over a long period and come up with ideas like her astronaut outfit with the orrery, how could I turn that into a costume somehow?
Spencer: I love that dress and I love this retro view of the future.
Dayna: Because they were in a world inspired by a comic book! The cool thing about all those different looks was that they didn’t have to even be from one eye, even though it is my perspective. Then there’s just the rest of the episode, which is the 50s. There are all these different elements in that episode and the Beyond C’est character which was fantastical as we could make it fun. Then we gave a fresh perspective to the dancers. The dancer’s costumes were made in our costume department, we had people gluing on feathers, all the different pieces. We didn’t get finished until three o’clock in the morning…the night before.
Spencer: The night before? That is incredible!
Dayna: Yes! Then there it was. The girls were all on stage, these beautiful girls in the costumes. After all that work, it was such a beautiful moment for us to watch. Like, wow, look what we did!!
Spencer: It felt so real and authentic like you had been preparing for this scene with Josephine Baker and dancing costumes your entire life. It was amazing. Now, let’s talk about The Kingdom of Dahomey. Also, another really beautiful scene. Hippolyta had on what looked like Grecian-inspired armor at one point. I also LOVED the use of the traditional, African cowrie beading. Tell me about the research you did for this scene?
Dayna: Yeah, you’re right. All those things you said are exactly what we did. We researched all different places and we kind of combined them into one. Everything was also made in our offices. We molded the leather, beaded shell by shell, and bit by bit. Everybody was made to look different. We even made the helmet for Hippolyta, we made it all. That shell necklace for the queen I bought from an antique furniture store. It was a piece hanging on the wall that was kind of on a stand. And I looked at it and I said. The queen’s going to wear that.
Spencer: I am obsessed with that. I can’t imagine, your mind is amazing.
Dayna: Everyone was saying, you’re going to have to take it apart. It’s so heavy. There’s no way. It’s so big. I just kept saying, oh no, this is completely happening. I also wanted to respect those fabrics. Everything means something, and so I don’t want to dishonor any piece of history or any piece that means something to a culture. However, at this moment we had a cool opportunity to be creative. With full respect, I wanted to take those pieces and maybe do something a little different than what they’re normally worn for. For example, if a dress was traditionally for a wedding, maybe that’s not what we did with it. We gave it our own little twist.
Spencer: Well to your great credit, it was very beautiful and felt very true, and thoughtful. It was honestly one of my favorite episodes of a TV show I have watched in a long time. Not to sound too much like a fan, but I am thankful for you and this body of work.
Dayna: Wow. That’s amazing to me. Thank you. Well just after that episode, we all looked at each other because you’re nothing without your team and we all did this together. I mean, I don’t know how many people had a glue gun, but everybody’s paintbrush helped. Everybody brings their best self and everybody wanted it to look amazing. We just stood there looking at the stage with these people, looking at those warriors…the scene where Hippolyta is backstage with Frida Kahlo and all the extras. We just looked at that stage of all these people and thought, “Oh, I’d like to be at that party”.
Spencer: I thought the same thing. I don’t know what they’re drinking or what’s going on, but I know I want to be there!
Dayna: We knew that we were doing something magical. Then to take it one step further Misha Green (Showrunner and Executive Producer), whose mind gave birth to this, was saying something way bigger than, “oh, what are they wearing?” She was saying something so important and we were helping to tell that story, which is a way bigger story than these little pieces that we were doing. So not only were we excited about our work, but we were excited about being on a path, on a journey to say something that we all thought was so important. It was a very special job.
Spencer: I also have to mention the drag ball. You must have had the biggest team ever, everyone, grab a glue stick and glue gun. There’s so much to do.
Dayna: You should have seen it. Every single person on the crew was either in a boa or a turban. Everyone had some crazy accessories on! It’s a dream. I mean, these jobs do not come up very often. I don’t take it for granted. I’m super grateful for being able to do and create all the things that we did.
Spencer: I am excited to move on to this next topic! I am a big horror nerd. I love scary movies. This show fed my soul! There was lots of blood, lots of guts. I don’t know of many shows that had so much blood, perhaps The Walking Dead? It was excessive, and I LOVED it! What people don’t realize though is that this presents a unique challenge for the costume department. Can you talk about the aging process? You must have had fake blood everywhere.
Dayna: Oh we did, we definitely did. Sometimes we built things, we designed outfits because we knew that they were going to get bloody like Leti’s cream-colored outfit. We knew that it was going to be covered in blood. So we thought about where’s it going to end up, and how bloody is it going to be. This is also the time to think about multiples. That’s another reason that you make everything. You can’t go to a vintage store and say, oh, I need eight of that shirt. That doesn’t exist. So we had to make everything, and we had to make multiples of everything because of all the blood.
Spencer: This sounds exhausting, but I am living for it. You also had to create a lot of costumes for the ghosts and monsters. There was an episode where there was, eight different ghosts. Later on, we see the spirits of Topsy and Bopsy. I am still terrified. I just… wow.
Dayna: We did it all. The ghosts, Topsy and Bopsy… we made those, and those were actually made out of silk. They looked like potato sacks but really it was beautiful silk that we had printed on. Also, in episode four where the characters are in that shipwreck-like setting, we costumed the characters sitting around the table on the ship. We just made everything all the wardrobe that you see was us, everything.
Spencer: I am so amazed, just masterful work. I might not have been able to sleep afterward but it was well worth it.
The last topic I wanted to discuss with you, not only did you recreate a 1950’s America, you later have to recreate South Korea at the very beginning of the Korean War. It was tragic, but it was tragically beautiful in the sense that the costumes were just so lovely to look at. Actress Jamie Chung who played the Kumiho, Ji-Ah, I was obsessed with her coats and all of the nurse outfits.
Dayna: I love her. I loved dressing her. I loved that episode, I thought it was so beautiful. We definitely took a little liberty there and we did have somebody there who was guiding us through what was traditional, and what isn’t traditional. There were things that we knew were not traditional, but they were all in the spirit of what they did for the period and the setting. We took some liberties with the pants and similar things. We wanted to create in the same way, something grounded and based in the period in something that was our own. And so that’s what we did. I think that was one of the most beautiful episodes, I really do.
Spencer: I agree. The way it all came together was incredible.
Well, that’s it for Lovecraft country. I can launch thousands of questions at you…I’ll never stop. On a final note, The Art of Costume is followed by a lot of nerds like myself, but also aspiring costume designers and overall creatives. So I have to ask you the famous question, of course. What advice would you give to someone who’s reading this, who maybe wants to move into costuming, styling, or anything in a creative field?
Dayna: I think if you love something and you want to do it, then do it. I didn’t have a traditional path to get where I am. You know, I was a model when I was young and I loved clothes. People used to put clothes on me and I would say, maybe put this with that! I just loved clothes. That’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t do it the way that other people do it. I think that’s OK. Whatever path gets you there, is the right path.
If you love it then my best advice is to say yes to everything, figure out the details later. That’s my best advice. I said yes to everything in Detroit when I started. Sometimes you had to do costumes, makeup, and script. So I would sit on a set, first I would do the makeup, then I would do their hair, then I would get them dressed and then I would go out there and I would take script notes and I made one hundred dollars a day. That’s what I did because what I wanted to do was costumes. But to get there, that’s what I had to do. So someone would say, are you busy tomorrow? I would say I’m available. Yeah.
Spencer: What do you need me to do?
Dayna: Exactly. There are things that I do because I love what I do. I don’t think I will ever get to a place that I feel like I can just, you know, be so picky. I feel very honored to be able to have the opportunities that I do, I don’t take them for granted. But I got here by saying yes.
Spencer: Dayna that is such lovely advice. Thank you for saying that. That’s terrific advice. Thank you, Dayna, this was so fun and I’m very glad I got this opportunity to talk with you. Congratulations on the CDGA nomination. Your work on Lovecraft Country was amazing and I am just thankful we got to talk about it.
Dayna: Thank you for saying that. I can’t tell you how it feels to work on something and be creative and feel proud to have been part of something. It was such an important show for me and I’m super grateful to have had the opportunity to do it.