“Mangrove,” now streaming on Amazon Prime, is the first of director Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology “Small Ax”. Spanning two decades, the films are standalone retracing the Caribbean experience with reggae music and costumes tying the five films together.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran oversaw all five films, while individual designers worked on each episode. In “Mangrove”, Lisa Duncan created the looks for the film which tells the true story of the Mangrove Nine, who faced the London police in 1970.
Duncan breaks down his process and creates the looks of characters Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and British Black Panther frontman Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright).
What are some of the conversations you had with Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Durran about capturing the look of “Mangrove”?
Jacqueline approached my agency to come and talk to her about Mangrove and the trial. It’s dated 1968-1971 and once I got the screenplay I started researching the area and creating mood boards. It was footage for the main characters, background actors, artists, and the community. I added pictures of the police and the march.
I did a ton of research, browsing through books, news, and whatever else 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 this research?
I looked at the people who lived in this 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 matched the images I found to each character. I looked for teenagers and young children. These people were in the streets so I found pictures of children playing in the streets. I looked at the markets and introduced it to Steve. And from there, I shopped for the characters.
How did you want to dress Frank based on the photos and the news footage – from blazers to shirts?
There weren’t many pictures of him – probably three. I had a photo of him outside the courtroom, and the others were documentaries.
I wanted to be authentic at that time. So I bought from vintage vendors and vintage markets. He was thinking about his environment and his work. I knew he worked in a kitchen, so he would roll up his sleeves. So I worked on finding clothes that matched his lifestyle.
He didn’t have a big wardrobe. He had a coat and a blazer. I had the coat made from a photograph I found from this period. The fabric was the hardest thing because I had to watch the weight of the wool. I didn’t want it to sound expensive. I wanted it to sound believable – I always looked at their budget.
How did you want to dress Leticia Wright in Altheia? What was his palette and style based on?
There are video footage. She looked very casual and always wore dangling earrings. She had a doctorate. student and would not have had a large wardrobe. I looked at her lifestyle – she went to union meetings at college – and it was about building her little wardrobe.
I put it in a blue polo neck because I had a picture for reference. I kept it simple in corduroy pants. Her clothes were practical and heavily influenced by the 1960s.
My palette for her was brown, ocher and cinnamon. I bought most of her wardrobe. Most of them were copied from original pieces, then I adapted them to the actor. There was this awesome pair of vintage jeans that I found for her that fit her perfectly and in proportion to the character.
I liked the women in the community.
I loved doing the ladies. I loved doing Aunt Bessie. We did a few things for her. His clothes were practical. The fabric was old, but it doesn’t look old. She had house dresses because she worked in the kitchen. I had pictures and that’s what my grandmother wore. She had pop socks on and that was a detail my grandma wore so I put them on her.
The emphasis was on the fact that it was a community of working class people. They were in the mangroves, but the best dressed were at courts and parties and when they went out.
For those moments, I wanted women to dress with pride and dignity because they faced so much prejudice. Their clothes were also their armor and so they had to be well presented. They were the backbone of the community, supporting their families.
The great advantage of these fabrics was that although they were cheaper, the quality was much better. I rented some but could also go out and buy a lot. I found some amazing fabrics and they ended up being so beautiful. I had to remind my team that we weren’t dressing them for “Soul Train” and that it was for practice. But because the quality was so good, everyone was so beautiful in them.
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