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Recreating the essence of Billie Holiday’s iconic style

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Being tasked with recreating Billie Holidays ‘iconic looks in the United States against Billie Holiday was a challenge for costume designer Paolo Nieddu, both because director Lee Daniels’ biopic required so many costume changes and because he there was pressure for the story to be correct. Ultimately, Nieddu, who previously collaborated with Daniels on Empire, determined that the aesthetic of the film was an imaginary take on Holiday rather than a definitive reality.

I knew Billie has a lot of fans, and there are a lot of people who might say, that’s unrealistic, says Nieddu, who had eight weeks of prep time before production in Montreal at the end of 2019. But we created our Billie. This is not a documentary on A&E Biography. It’s Lee Daniels who does Billie Holiday, and that’s where I had to focus and focus. It has become our interpretation of that time.

Carnegie Hall costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu for

Carnegie Hall costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu for The United States vs Billie Holiday.

(Paolo Nieddu / Paramount Pictures)

The film focuses on a specific time in holiday life and career, as she comes under a US government investigation for drug use. Nieddu took dozens of Holiday photographs and researched what was going on both in Harlem and the general fashion scene in the late 1940s. He and Daniels put together a look-book of vacation photos from different times in her life to use as historical reference as well as inspiration for scenes that have not been documented.

Even if something wasn’t a direct reference to where we pulled it out of a photo, we would still make sure its essence was similar, Nieddu notes. For a montage look, we might not have time to create a dress based on a photo, but we would find something that gives that feeling.

Because the movie spans several years and includes a few cut-outs, Holiday, played by Andra Day, needed almost 70 different outfits. Some, like her performance dresses, were custom creations; other outfits were put together from existing vintage pieces from both rental homes and shops. Through a connection from Daniels, Prada came on board to create nine custom designs, including six dresses and a suit.

Andra Day in a performance scene from

Andra Day in a performance scene from USA vs. Billie Holiday.

(Takashi Seida / Hulu)

Alabama Juke Joint costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu.

Alabama Juke Joint costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu.

(Paolo Nieddu / Paramount Pictures)

It’s almost like how with Breakfast at Tiffanys Givenchy worked with the filmmakers, says Nieddu. The pieces we made were inspired by real historical images of Billie, and we were able to reinterpret them. I used Prada archival pieces. I find a picture of Billie and want to make this dress, and I go through the Prada archives to find similar pieces and it doesn’t matter if they’re from 2017 or the 2019 resort collection. It was the amazing thing I could. say, i want this sleeve of this dress in this collection, and can you put it on the body of this dress and make it go to the floor and make it yellow? It was literally a personalized Prada.

One of the key looks in the film is the sparkling black dress, long white gloves and white gardenia hairpin that Holiday wore during her performance at Carnegie Hall. Nieddu based the look on a grainy photograph of the actual night, but added beading and side panels to give the dress more movement. It’s an example of the iconic holiday style stemming from his drug addiction, giving the glitz a sense of sorrow.

Prada was a key source for many dresses in

Prada was a key source for many dresses in the United States against Billie Holiday.

(Takashi Seida / Hulu)

She wore gardenias, confirms Nieddu. There are speculations that she stabbed herself while putting them [her hair] because she was high then she continued to wear them. Same with the gloves she wore because of her [needle] track marks and to hide them. Those elements that became style were really out of the tragedy. They became those elements of her look based on something that wasn’t just for glamor.

Ebony club costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu for

Ebony club costume sketch by Paolo Nieddu for The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

(Paolo Nieddu / Paramount Pictures)

While the male characters are slightly less chic, Nieddu has also gone personalized for the characters of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) and Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), creating 30 costumes in all for them. The evolution of Rhodes’ character is evident in his looks, which become looser and fresher as he spends time with Holiday. To dress the members of the singing group, Nieddu sourced vintage pieces and gave each player their own unique personality, including high-end tuxedos for some musical numbers. In total, Nieddu designed, created and purchased 250 costumes for the main actors alone.

It was a challenge, Nieddu says, noting that West Side Story and Ratched were filming simultaneously and needed parts from a similar period. All these workshops and tailors were so inundated with remade period clothes. We received items from across the country and from different cities across Canada because we were so needed. The timing was wild.

And, he says, working with Daniels on the film was a reward in itself.

He’s involved in everything, every costume, every color of wall, every conversation, says Nieddu. He has a vision for it and really allows you to create in this world that he wants to run. We can try things. Sometimes things don’t work until you do them, and that’s what I love about working with Lee. We don’t force something if it’s wrong. You can do it and do it right. With Lee, you can talk about it and you can change it in the moment for the better.



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