Written by Ryan Fleming, Deadline
“Once I got into the business, I realized how much I loved telling stories through the art of costume design,” says The Woman King costume designer Gersha Phillips. “It was really interesting how much you can tell about a character and how important the costume design is for the production and for the storytelling.”
The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, tells the story of the Agojie warriors in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Inspired by true events in the 1820s, the film stars Viola Davis as Nanisca, the leader of the all-female unit of warriors known as the Agojie, as she trains the next generation of recruits and prepares for battle against an invading army.
Having assisted costume designer Ruth Carter on her research for the female warriors in Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, Phillips was excited to work on the project depicting their real life inspiration. “It was nice to go on the journey and actually figure out just how many other amazing women warriors there were from Africa,” she says.
Phillips says one of the most important aspects of the costume design was to create an accurate representation of the outfits worn by the real Agojie. “At the beginning I thought I was going to make all my fabric and print it all ourselves, which was impossible,” she says. Using African artisans, like a block printer in Gambia and weavers from Northern Ghana, she was able to keep the costuming as historically accurate as possible. “They used the resist dye method,” she says, “and used indigo a lot so we tried to replicate that.”
Certain aspects of the costumes were designed to differentiate rank between the warriors, which Phillips was able to do by basing everything off of Nanisca. “The thing we would do to elevate her was to just add more things,” she says. “She had her own private set of jewelry, custom made by our team, and her belts and accessories would always have grass on it, which is something that would show rank.” The rest of the warriors had less accessories, but Phillips and her team had each actress choose their own symbols for their wristbands and belts. “Some were Dahomey specifically, and some were West African.”
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