Embracing Latin Culture through Costumes: “In The Heights”

In The Heights (2021), directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, is a musical film adaptation from the groundbreaking Broadway musical written by Miranda and Hudes in 2008. The film tells the story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), Nina (Leslie Grace), Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) and Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) dreaming of a better life while living in the Latino neighbourhood in New York City: Washington Heights. It portrays the reality of living far away from home, of struggling to accomplish a dream, but mainly on the family that we choose to stick to and grow with. 

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

“In the Heights, I hang my flag up on display… It reminds me that I come from miles away… In the Heights, it gets more expensive every day, and tonight is so far away…” -In The Heights Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

With the use of vibrant colours, mixed textures, prints, and authenticity, “In The Heights” pictures the most incredible costumes that represent the diversity of the Latin culture. This year, Costume Designer Mitchell Travers received a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for Excellence in Contemporary Costume Design. By digging into the culture, music and moves, the designer brought these incredible characters to life and created a timeless aesthetic that feels real and magical at the same time.  

Mitchell Travers, who has been working in the costume design industry for over 10 years, has proven to be very versatile and talented. His most recent work in Hustlers (2020) gave him 4 nominations for the costume design, which involved referencing the Latin culture as well. In addition, Travers is a former Washington Heights resident, which reinforces the fact that he was undoubtedly the best fit for this film.

A very interesting idea in Travers’ designs was the way in which the music could be represented in the costumes for In The Heights. Lin-Manuel is always breaking rules and challenging the music industry, which is what makes his work incredibly groundbreaking. So, Travers decided to follow suit and defy these “Hollywood rules” of the use of colours and patterns on screen. At the end, the film needed to look the way it sound, and Travers did it way beyond what the audience expected. 

“And in the music, I found this really fun clash between the staccato — that rhythm of the spoken word — mixed in with these beautiful, more classic forms of music.” Mitchell Travers, Costume Designer shared with Vulture

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Travers first step to approach the designs consisted in going back to the Heights and watching everything with a new pair of lenses. Every detail mattered, every corner was packed with surprises, colors, textures and combinations that started blossoming into ideas. For the designer, it was about finding what made the neighbourhood authentic, and expressing it through costumes with complete transparency and respect. The designer and his team decided on sourcing costumes in the same neighbourhood in order to make it as authentic as possible. One of the most challenging parts of the project was the thousands of costumes needed and the balance they had to keep among the entire cast dancing in the neighbourhood.

“I know how to tell a lot of stories through clothes, but on this movie, the most important part of my job was to listen and to understand that experience, which is not my experience.”  – Mitchell Travers, Costume Designer shared with VOGUE

Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, is the owner of the bodega and who’s dream in the beginning of the film is to return to The Dominican Republic. He later discovers that home is where the heart is, which is in the Heights. His costumes are the solely expression of “home”. Everything he wears carries a little glimpse of the barrio. In order to achieve this, Travers not only included a “Nueva York” printed t-shirt in his wardrobe, but also gave him mostly earth tones and traditional garments that make him feel familiar, friendly and approachable. The cap he uses was a unique item incorporated by Paul Tazewell, costume designer of the Broadway musical. Travers’ choice of keeping this item helped the audience identify the character and kept the essence of Usnavi played by Lin-Manuel Miranda all those years ago. 

“I wanted them to know that this was still Usnavi,” Travers says. “It was always about acknowledging the work that came before me.” – Mitchell Travers, Costume Designer shared with Refinery

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Nina, played by Leslie Grace, is an A+ student at the Stratford University in California who has returned home for the summer. At this point in life, she is feeling insecure, anxious and tentative. Her costume choices are extremely clever, as Travers decided to use knits as the main base for all her outfits. “I became really attached to the idea of knits for her because I like the the sort of anxiety and repetition that goes into knits, like a bit of a knotted feeling to her” -Mitchell Travers shared with Fashionista 

As the film progresses, Nina gains the confidence which makes her empowered and loyal. She starts being more playful, expressive and honest with her outfits by wearing more color and more relaxed patterns. The transformation of her hairstyle also acknowledges her acceptance of who she really is.

Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Vanessa, played by Melissa Barrera, is an aspiring fashion designer working at the beauty salon. She is confident, extroverted, and bold. Her dream is to move downtown in order to have her fashion studio, but doesn’t realize until the very end that the barrio itself is where she can be herself and make her dreams come true. Regarding her costumes, she is always using lots of color, textures, layers and prints. Her personality is huge and her costumes really express how much is going on inside of her. One of her statement pieces is an 80’s bomber jacket, which was actually made from the lining of a vintage piece.

Vanessa definitely knows what to wear to every occasion. When meeting the real estate agent, she changes from her working attire to a navy-blue blazer, light pink top and tweed shorts. She keeps her hot pink necklace as a staple of her personality. “I wanted it to look like a Bank of America commercial — no texture, no color, no inspirations, super flat, greys, blues creams, just like nothing going on” – Mitchell Travers shared with FASHIONISTA. At the night club, she wears an emerald green dress with lace trim and ruffles. This gorgeous gown makes her shine above everyone else and compliments her salsa dance in a spectacular way. 

Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Then we have Daniela, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is the owner of the beauty salon which is closing soon and moving out of Washington Heights. Daniela and her gang Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco), known as the salon ladies, are always keeping an eye on what’s happening in the barrio. Their style is extravagant, colourful, and comfortable as they are hard working women who like to have fun. By portraying each of they different personalities, Travers was able to always make them look like a group. One of the main inspirations for Daniela’s costumes was Sex and the City designer, Patricia Field. Due to her fearless way of mixing up prints and transforming street pieces into statement costumes, she became a great influence when it came to design her wardrobe.

“Three women in jumpsuits — no dresses — just jumpsuits going out. I had such fun as a costume designer getting to express a similar idea through three very different sets of eyes.” Mitchell Travers, Costume Designer shared with VULTURE

Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

Benny, is played by Corey Hawkins. He is an employee at the taxi dispatch around the corner, and Nina’s love. His most remarkable costume is also a piece kept form the original Broadway play, his white shirt and black tie. This costume is a classic which is why Travers felt confident enough to use it again, and at the same time acknowledges the timeless character. Sonny, on the other side, played by Gregory Diaz IV, is just beginning to think about his future and adult life. He is always wearing some kind of print that differences him from Usnavi and Benny. Tie-Dye, paisley, abstract, you name it; Sonny is always wearing it, completing the look with his Beats headphones.

Finally we have Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, who is the glue of this family. Although she is not Usnavi’s grandmother by blood, she has been taking care of him and the entire barrio for many years. Abuela Claudia’s costumes are soft, motherly and comfortable. Her staple piece would be the bata, robe, worn through her song “Paciencia y Fe”. This piece is a typical Cuban costume mostly used indoors, but as she never went farther than five blocks form her house, the neighbourhood felt always like being at home.

Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures ⓒ

In the Heights enhances the beauty of the barrio and its people. Such an incredible story was only possible to bring to life with a brilliant team behind it. They brought everyday stories of Latin people to the big screen, and made the entire world feel connected and empowered with their dreams. Undoubtedly, much of the praise should go to Travers and his team amazing work. As a Latina living far away, watching this film brought the best memories and made me feel at home.


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