Alex Wheatle


Alex Wheatle






Lovers Rock


Lovers Rock






Red White and Blue


Red White,and Blue

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Fill 1
February 18, 2021
Online Originals

Dressing the Past

The ambitious five-part anthology series Small Axe from director Steve McQueen required thousands of period costumes from its designers

Hillary Atkin

The Amazon original series Small Axe takes viewers back to a specific time in history in England for a specific group of people, those who traced their roots to West Africa and the West Indies.

Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education, each a feature-length film, dropped on five successive weeks on Amazon Prime beginning in November 2020. Each film tells separate stories set between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, woven together by their ties to the community.

The project was 10 years in the making and the vast majority was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic shut down production globally.

2020 was a banner year for the Academy Award-winning McQueen, director of films including 2008's Hunger, Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and 2018's Widows. As it began, he was awarded a knighthood in the Queen's New Year's Honours List for his services to the art and film industries.

McQueen's Small Axe project was too huge for one costume designer, so Jacqueline Durran, Sinéad Kidao and Lisa Duncan split the duties. Two-time Oscar winner Durran brought Kidao and Duncan on board. Both were talented up-and-comers who had been in the business for under a decade, and Kidao had previously worked as Durran's assistant designer.

Durran designed the costumes for Lovers Rock, which centers on a couple who meets at a reggae house party in 1980. She also designed those for Alex Wheatle, the story of a young man imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1981 riots in Brixton, an incarceration which planted the seeds of him becoming a successful novelist.

In addition to being the title of the episode, "Lovers Rock" is a genre of music based upon reggae but also derived from the influences of soul and R&B and is often cited as the UK's version of Motown. It was named by the owner of Dip Records, which released many of its singles and provided a soundtrack for young Black Brits of the era navigating the ups and downs of romance.

"Lovers Rock gave me the opportunity to recreate a part of the 70s and 80s music scene I had never seen represented in a drama. Most of the familiar photographs and any films have shown the wider world of the reggae sound system, so when I read the script and spoke to Steve, we saw an opportunity to do something new," says Durran.

"It was a female-centric scene, and for costume it was the women's style that made it so interesting. It was a modest but dressy, aspirational look. It's not a look that has been re-appropriated over time. Going back to it and recreating it was like a discovery."

The back story of Alex Wheatle is that the award-winning author was initially part of McQueen's writing room for the Small Axe series. When he shared his life story, including growing up in often-brutal circumstances supervised by social services and later finding his identity through music, McQueen has said he was heartbroken - and knew immediately that Wheatle's story had to be told.

For Durran, it didn't get much better than having the actual subject with whom to collaborate.

"The first step in working on the costumes was to meet Alex and find out as much as I could about his world and his style. He has an amazing memory and talked me through his story in music and clothes," she says.

"Tying this together with the script, we set about looking for the costumes. Everything that Alex wore was vintage and it was really important to be as accurate as possible as we were representing someone's personal story."

Yet there were some challenges due to the time frames depicted in the film.

"One of the tricky things was the length of time that passed in the script, from young childhood to adulthood," Durran says. "If he changed every time we saw him it would seem like he had an enormous wardrobe, so Steve and I made the decision to compact the story visually into three stages, three looks that showed how Alex's style transformed as he settled into Brixton in the late 1970s."

Mangrove tells the story of the trial of the Mangrove Nine, Black activists who were charged with inciting a riot at a landmark restaurant in West London that had become a well-known gathering spot for community leaders and notable public figures to strategize and socialize.

Although the case was initially dismissed due to a court ruling that statements of a dozen police officers were inadmissible because they made the claim that Black radicalism carries criminal intent, the charges were reinstated and the nine were rearrested.

The verdict came in after 55 days. All nine were acquitted on all charges - and the case marked a turning point in shifting the trajectory of race relations, discrimination and systemic oppression in London.

Duncan knew it was crucial that all of the costumes be authentic and worked with McQueen to create wardrobes for each of the main characters. She studied a trove of photographs from the era as well as books, films, television shows and archival material from libraries.

She also had a personal connection. Her family had emigrated from the Caribbean to England in the 1960s so not only did she have photographs from that time, she was able to speak to her parents and her grandparents about what they wore then. The two surviving women who had been defendants in the trial also provided valuable information.

"I worked with a lot of vintage dealers, and shopped in the local area around Notting Hill to find specific things I was looking for, not party or disco clothes. We found the fabrics and had things made that I designed," Duncan says. "Even though these were generally working people there were socialites who would come into the café with expensive clothes and even for the employees we would change their aprons or headscarves."

Mangrove encompasses a three-year period of the events surrounding the trial, including gatherings at the Mangrove restaurant, the uprising that precipitated the arrests and protest marches.

Literally thousands of costumes were required and one of the female defendants, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Letitia Wright), had 25 costumes. Designing for the men was a little bit simpler - because of a basic reality. "The men would wear the same trousers, and would have had just two jackets, not five or six," says Duncan.

"I vividly remember my Dad wearing a chambray denim trouser suit my mother made for him in the 1970s. It was similar to the one I had made for Darcus [Howe], which was a replica of the one he wore in some of the footage of the time."

Duncan says the most important thing in her designing process is speaking with the actors and getting their thoughts on each of their own characters.

"I really want them to be happy and we're all working toward one goal as a team," she says. "I am showing them mood boards, sketches and discussing with them and I'm so thrilled when they like the costumes. I have such respect for actors - their work is all there out front. Especially with period clothes, it's so great when they're in them and feel like that person.

"But it wasn't just wearing period clothes. We don't just hand out vintage clothes. We can't be giving the teenage jeans to an older person. I really obsess over the details. I check every one in the fitting photos and on the day of shooting. It was a big deal, this job, and I wanted to make sure I delivered."

Like the tale of the Mangrove Nine, Red White and Blue is a true story which stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a brilliant forensic scientist and an athlete who works to thwart racism from inside the system by joining the British Metropolitan Police Force in the early 1980s.

It was a particularly fraught decision because his own father had been brutally beaten by two policemen in an unprovoked attack.

In order to design the costumes, Kidao met with Logan and went through his old photos, but the key to total authenticity was working with the original tailor who designed his clothing.

"Logan was really into fashion," she says. "His tailor Charlie Allen recreated a lot of the looks he made for Leroy, including what he wears when he arrives [at the police station] for the first time. He'd had his suit tailor-made for his wedding. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to create his life this way. We did all of John's fittings in Charlie's shop."

Initially, Kidao was surprised at the level of Logan's fashion sense. "I didn't expect Leroy to be so stylish and into soul and funk," she says. "He wore leather trousers. He liked high-waisted cords and bowling shirts, the fashions of the period. We could tell his whole backstory before he joined the police."

Fashion sense of the main character was not an element of Kidao's work on Education, the coming of age story of a 12-year-old fascinated by astronauts and space travel. The boy is somehow sent to a special needs school, even as his parents, who were working two jobs, remained largely unaware of the substandard education their child was receiving. He was not the only one.

Taking matters into their own hands to remedy the situation, a group of West Indian women held remedial Saturday schools for the children, whom the system was failing.

Set in the late 1960s, Education exposes the poverty and racism in the British school system for children of its Black immigrants, and Kidao's costumes bring the story further into focus.

And although the three costume designers of Small Axe each had their own individual projects, they collaborated closely to create a similar look across the anthology series.

Small Axe is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.


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