When I heard costume designer Gersha Phillips had navigated from her highly successful mission of designing costumes for the Star Trek universe and into the new film, The Woman King… I was ecstatic! The Woman King (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis) is a story about the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. Shortly after the release of the film, I was honored to have the opportunity to catch up with Gersha Phillips to discuss designing the costumes of The Woman King, and speak about her research, the process behind the armor, costume breakdown, personalization, and her collaboration with Viola Davis.
Spencer Williams: I was so excited when I heard about The Woman King and the opportunity to explore the history of the African Kingdom of Dahomey. With this story being based on historical events and taking place in the 1800s, how did you prepare for this project?
Gersha Phillips: The biggest thing is research! Whenever you’re doing period, it’s always about getting your mind into the world. I find that when doing pre-colonial Africa, there’s not a lot of research. And then when there is, you find it is mainly from a perspective of a white man, such as military or ship captains that wrote essays that were later published into books, etc.
We started working with an actual historian who was able to dispel what Agojie should wear in terms of chest plates. Because that was a big thing, understanding whether they were going to wear those cowries and chest plates. We found those pictures from around 1870 – 1890 that is on Google. But what we realized with the help of the historian was that those photos were a redress of the Agojie for the World’s Fair. I remember first seeing the pictures and thinking how amazing they looked. I couldn’t wait to do these costumes. But then, after I started reading the descriptions, nothing ever spoke about the look. I started looking at the pictures and thinking, “Wow, if you were a warrior, how would you be able to fight in that skirt? It comes down to the knee. It’s not adding up.” If you look at them, they don’t actually look like warriors. They don’t have muscle tone. They’re not strong. They don’t have any scarring.
Because of this realization, we had to pivot. We knew what the Agojie were going to wear underneath these breastplates, which was going to be the bandeau in the halter, so we were able to sort it all out.
We also found this other really great book that was from 1906, I believe. It was a French photographer that went to Dahomey and took pictures. There were pictures of some ceremonies that were happening and so on. I had to get somebody to translate all the headings on the photos for me, but it was really cool to look at and inspired how we came up with some of these elevated looks for test day and tribute day. It was really interesting to see those things and bring them into our story.
Spencer: You put forth an impressive amount of research. Now you have to design the costumes for the film lead. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, a fierce warrior, protector of Dahomey, and leader of the Agojie. What was your collaboration like with Viola?
Gersha: I have to say, it’ll be something that I’ll cherish forever. I loved working with Viola. She’s such a champion, and she’s so willing and accessible. She was willing to do whatever she needed to do. It was really interesting to go on that journey with her.
I don’t know how many fittings we had with her! We had to go to her house; we were just always bugging her about fittings, fittings, fittings! One of the things I love about Viola is whenever you fit her, and she’s really happy with something, her face lights up! There is a fitting photo of her where she’s just giving me the biggest smile, and I just said, “this is the one.” It was a great experience.
Spencer: This makes my heart happy! Viola, if you are reading this, you absolutely CRUSHED it. What was the idea behind Nanisca’s armor?
Gina (Gina Prince-Bythewood) wanted to keep Viola in something that gave her a general feel, something that felt different with a little higher echelon. So we decided that we would keep a breastplate for her. We would put a couple of cowries on it because the cowries were not only currency, but they also offered protection. We tried to implement little bits of cowie on everybody. More so on the higher-ranked soldiers because they would’ve gotten trinkets from the king when they’d done well in battle.
Spencer: While the Agojie costumes are inherently uniform, it seems like with each costume, there was a level of personalization. Was this a part of your process in helping this cast find their character?
Gersha: The Agojie were spiritual. They believed in being guided and protected when they fought. So they carried the bag on their belt that had their talismans. We also had this idea of personalizing their costumes. For instance, Izogie’s (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza’s (Sheila Atim) cross belts. They have particular signs that we created for them that we etched into the leather. For each person, when they came in for their first fitting, we had these “commandments.” Our builder came up with this presentation in which each symbol had a meaning, such as courage or valor. Each person was able to pick their own symbols and then put that onto their costume, which was very cool. It was interesting just to watch that because part of dressing actors and trying to create the characters is understanding how each individual actor approaches a character. So I really liked working with the actors to involve them. I like the idea of giving them freedom in that way, the ability to pick and choose for their character like they would in real life. I feel like that helps to inform the character just a little bit better.
Spencer: The level of world-building in The Woman King is really impressive, and it comes down to such minor, intricate details. Let’s talk about the king for a moment. John Boyega plays King Ghezo with such style. I specifically loved the use of fabrics and colors worn on the king.
Gersha: There was a line in the script that said something to the extent of “the Earth is blessed by the king’s feet.” I remember reading that and wondering, “wow, who’s going to play this King?” Then when I learned it was John Boyega, I was so excited as he just embodied that persona.
For the gold mustard costume, it was scripted that he was wearing that motif of the crocodile. The crocodile motif was a part of the tradition for Dahomey and was on their hats and embroidery pieces. Because we couldn’t block print everything, we actually printed this on silk. We embroidered on top of that with gold thread just to create more detail.
Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) brings fabric and gifts it to the king. That happened a lot. We found that a lot of traders would come, and they would bring things in. Apparently, they would unweave the threads and either re-weave them into their own fabrics or embroider with them. There were a lot of really great artisans that we worked with. They were mind-blowing, really. The cutters, the sewers, this team really put it all together.
Spencer: John Boyega looked fantastic. It was just such perfect casting.
One of my favorite elements of costume design comes with the breakdown process. The Woman King costume design had its fair share of blood, sweat, and plenty of dirt! Walk me through this challenge.
Gersha: We had a great team of breakdown artists, with some of them on set and with the cast. That red dirt was everywhere. I have to say, we had it in places that we didn’t need it to be. Production had to dye the dirt. Some of it was natural, but they did put some kind of coloring into the dirt to make it this color. If you leaned on the wall, you would end up with red on your clothes. If you sat on the stairs, it was on your bum and everything. The trainees were also wearing that off-white color. So that was… lots of fun! The breakdown is a huge element of the costume process.
I really love it too. I think it’s beautiful. When a costume is broken down, it goes on the journey that it needs to go on. The audience can see it in the film, and it works. It’s wonderful. For the recruits, we had up to three stages of costumes. Gina was also very particular that once they started working and training that their stuff started to look more broken down. The idea was that they would start the morning relatively clean, and then by the end of the day, they would be a mess. As we were building the leather pieces, we were breaking down and aging, so things didn’t look too new.
Spencers: Right! The white trainee looks against the red dirt. I was thinking about you and your team through those entire scenes! *laughs*
Let’s talk about the slave traders. These characters and their costumes, I was reminded me of a very textbook European coming over to Africa. What was your concept behind these characters?
Gersha: I really wanted them to look as textbook as possible, like you said. They had to have that very stark difference and that very European elegance just to show that different world.
The actors were also really cool about going on the journey and putting on the costumes. I don’t think Hero (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) had ever worn anything like that before in terms of period costuming. I remember the first couple of fittings we had, putting on the boots… I wanted them to look sexy and elegant. I know what it is… I was thinking of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice.
Spencer: *laughs* I know exactly what you are talking about!
Gersha: *laughs* You know what I mean? I just thought that was so sexy and elegant at the same time. That’s what I was going for.
Spencer: Well, it certainly came across that way!
Being an audience member, you could just feel how special this film was, and I loved learning afterwards about how Gina prioritized department heads who were women and people of color. What did this special project mean to you?
Gersha: I remember when I interviewed, and I said to Gina and Cathy (Cathy Schulman, producer) that I felt like I’d been working my whole career for this movie. Because that’s what it felt like. It was such a gift. My father is Nigerian, so I feel like I was telling the story of my ancestors. I think as a black woman telling the story, you have that connection. Getting the opportunity to tell the story, to do the research, to work with Gina, Kathy, Viola, and all of these other women… this was a dream project. There were good days, and there were bad days. There were days when we didn’t know if we were going to make it. But now, being on the other side of it, I feel incredibly proud. I’m still very honored that I got this opportunity and I got to work with these people. That’s something I’ll get to cherish forever. I watched the film again in London recently, and I just thought, “wow, we did that.”
Spencer: Gersha, I am endlessly happy for you. This was truly an incredible film and the costume design was top-tier. Congratulations!
Gersha: Terrific. Thanks a lot, Spencer. Thank you!
Featured Image: Viola Davis as Nanisca in The Woman King – Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment