clothes on film

Paolo Nieddu on Creating the Looks for The United States Vs. Billie Holiday

Photos courtesy of Hulu. Photos by Takashi Seida.

It’s not every day that a former Interview intern becomes the costume designer for one of the years most talked-about biopics. From Canal Street to Hollywood, Paolo Nieddu is quickly making a name for himself in both film and television. As the costume designer for Lee Daniels‘ TV drama Empire, it only made sense for the duo to get back together for Daniels’ latest directorial venture. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday follows the musician as she’s continuously targeted by law enforcement in an attempt to stop her from performing the anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit.” The biopic stars Andra Day in a role that just made her the second Black woman in history to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama. To get a closer look at how Day became Holiday, Nieddu brought it all full circle and sat down with his alma mater to discuss ’40s fashion, achieving Holiday’s signature style, and the most challenging aspect of designing an era.


Andra Day as Billie Holiday

“Billie was cool because we weren’t doing your typical birth to adolescence to fame journey with her. We were starting with her at a point in her career where she was already established. So that was a really great jumping-off point for me in terms of figuring out how she was going to look. I just started gathering all of these different images and separating them. “Here’s Billie in shirts, here’s Billie in dresses, here’s Billie in pants,” and seeing what she looked like and how she wore her clothes and how she accessorized herself. That’s how I started to get my direction, whether I was sketching something pen to paper, or whether I was going into a vintage archival house, or looking online. I don’t have a singular favorite [costume], but I love the black gown in Carnegie Hall. That was one that I did. It was old Hollywood. It was so simple and yet so glamorous. I love the yellow gown that I worked with Prada on. She sings ‘Them There Eyes’ in that one. It has this really great sleeve, and I love the crystals on it, and I love the color. Billie wore gardenias. She wore orchids. We were finding no fresh orchids during that season in Canada. It was something I never thought about going in. You’d call places for gardenias, and they were like, ‘They’re not in season. We don’t have them.’ And then we were dealing with customs. Even if you could find a gardenia bush, it’s not flowering in November. So yeah, the flowers are cool. Total signature for her.”


Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher

“Jimmy was an interesting character because there’s like one image of him that exists. So you had to really think about what he did for a living and where he came from and who he was and how he found himself in Billie’s life to start to get the vibe going for how he should look. He’s posing as this post-World War II soldier to her, showing up to the clubs to watch her when he’s really there to spy on her. He’s this double agent. He wears a military uniform, and then he wears his CIA agency suits where he’s trying to impress his boss. Then you have this other element where he gets into Billie’s world and starts to loosen up and try to blend in with them. So for me, those were the three lanes that I was going with when I was coming up with his looks. The other thing with Trevante was that I really wanted to keep his FBI color palette to always be blue and very conservative. He was always in a white shirt. He was always in uniform. He’s a very clipped persona. That was something I really followed with him so that there would be a clear definition of him between that and when he would be casual backstage with Billie.”


Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead

“Oh, my god. Natasha as Tallulah Bankhead was such a fun person to design. Tallulah has her signature three-strand pearls and her red hair, and she’s just really timeless and chic. I kept saying that she looks like she’s wearing The Row. We did these really great black silk trousers and this white silk blouse when they’re in the jewelry store. I found vintage fur. It was really hard to find furs from the ’40s that are still intact. I kept her very neutral. She has cream, black, and her brown mink, or a little bit of a salt-and-pepper fox fur coat. I tried to keep her very in the moment of the late ’40s that we were in. She would just be the height of fashion for the time and look like a movie star. And that contrast of her next to Billie, too. I know when they’re walking through the park, Lee had wanted to see them both in black. He was like, ‘I want them to be in black against this idyllic Easter Sunday, Central Park in the spring, upper East Side crowd, and then have them walk through these chic New Yorkers in all black.’ I loved that theme.”


Leslie Jordan as Reginald Lord Devine

“So Leslie came in and Lee wanted him to be like tattered finery. He was like, ‘I want his clothes to look old.’ He wanted him to look like a relic of his past and like he just has this great suit from when he was young that he’s still wearing. So that was the direction. And then there were elements of Quentin Crisp that were inspired by his look. Leslie is sort of larger than life in himself, and so it didn’t take much. There was the pinky ring, and there was the pop of color with the salmon shirt and the chiffon scarf. And Lee actually on the day, ‘I don’t know. Can you just put a little mustard or a food stain on his shirt?’ He didn’t want him to be perfect. He wanted him to have this messy office. It was sort of this messy fabulous. And we literally grabbed a packet of mustard off of the little craft service table and finger-painted it onto Leslie’s shirt. That, his hair, and all of the elements came together. Tattered finery was the inspiration for him. That was Lee’s word.”


Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Roslyn

“Oh, my god, she was amazing. Another fun character to do. That was somebody who we got to create. Da’Vine being the actor who got to portray Roslyn lent so much to who and how she was going to look. She’s like the old version of a modern-day glam squad, right? Had Roslyn been around now, she would be Instagramming with Billie on the road. So I thought about that in terms of how she would be. She would always be put together. She is traveling with the star. She’s on the road. She’s got to look great, but she also is working. So I put her in all of these really great dresses, some of them with pockets, where they were practical, that she would have maybe her comb, or maybe she has some hair product in them that she could whip out at a moment’s notice for Billie and still look stylish and still look of the moment and not be taking away from Billie. When she’s sitting there in the sunglasses with the tan mink on her shoulders, and she does a little line in Italian, yeah, she was cool. To me, she was timeless. It was like she was that best friend, and I loved that. We did a lot of print on her. I also used reference photos. I found women of the time, especially Black women in the ’40s, and just sort of combined it together with dresses that I would find and I wanted to use as inspiration pieces.”


Tyler James Williams as Lester Young

“He’s so iconic in images with Billie. They are always together. I feel like they were such close friends and artists together. In so many of the research images of him, he’s wearing a very strong, double-breasted suit, and so that was where I went with him. And then his signature hat. There was a really cool article in Life Magazine about how he fashioned his hat and how he smashed down the crown of the hat that he had. It was an article called ‘How to Get His Hat.’ It was so cool. I custom-made a hat from Western Costume in the style of how he wore his hat, and that was his signature, and he always wore it throughout the film. When we would see him casual, he would have a polo or just a button-down shirt. But I loved him most in a suit. This Life Magazine article, too, talked about how he wore so much black, and it actually talked about how he loved to wear Hawaiian shirts. But there are no pictures of him. So I found this beautiful, actually, it was mine. I got it at the Rose Bowl the summer before we started filming the movie. It was a ’40s Hawaiian shirt, and I used that on him in the scene when they’re playing stickball. So I was like, ‘Oh, let’s incorporate this element in,’ because you do always see him performing. So it was interesting when you would get to see the character doing things that are clearly not documented, and you have to imagine what it is that he would be. What would he wear when he’s not on the road?”


Miss Lawrence as Miss Freddy

“Miss Freddy was challenging because there are a couple mentions of him in interviews and in books. Billie talks about Miss Freddy being arrested for running around in her dresses or furs. I feel like he’s a ball queen. He is the 1940s version of a gay black male. I don’t know if he did drag necessarily, or if he just wore women’s clothing, or if he was just super fem. It’s amazing to know that these aren’t just people that are only modern times. This was happening then. So I had to put a face and a look to him and use my own judgment. And Lee would always be like, ‘I don’t want to make him a parody of just wearing the jewelry or just being flamboyant.’ Then it was, ‘Well, how do we toe the line of not making this character flamboyant in his clothes just because he’s a gay male who is her stylist?’ But then he is unapologetic. And in one scene, I actually had him have a fur that Billie wears in the movie when he meets Trevante, just to be like he was pulling a stunt. So I would put brooches on him that could have been Billie’s, that he would have been like, ‘This is cute.’ And then maybe we would do a custom ascot that he would have had made for himself because he was in charge of her dresses. So he was probably the hardest to style, but also really cool because we really got to take a liberty and shape it for the story.”