Creating an entire universe on film begins at the most basic level: a sketchbook. For costume designer Paolo Nieddu, who was tasked with bringing the life of bisexual blues singer Billie Holiday to the screen in Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, finding the perfect palettes, anchored in the allure of 1940s fashion, was not an easy task. But this wasn’t his first rodeo.
Nieddu had been preparing for this business his entire life. When he was growing up, art was his favorite subject in school. Like many designers, he was obsessed with art supplies, especially colored pencils, and when he wasn’t “sleeping in class” he found himself sketching. Still, he never thought he’d end up on a Hollywood movie set.
“I never grew up thinking I want to be a costume designer,” he tells Out. “I was always intrigued, of course, by movies and pop culture and glamour and beautiful clothes, stuff like that. But really, it happened through my love of fashion."
After moving to New York City, Nieddu landed an internship at Interview magazine during which he was introduced to legendary stylist Patricia Field, who was already an icon thanks to her work on Sex and the City and, of course, The Devil Wears Prada. As luck would have it, Field needed help with her latest project, the Sex and the City film. She took Nieddu under her wing, giving him his first gig as assistant costume designer and mentoring him through the ins and outs of the business. With over 300 ensembles used over the course of the film, Sex and the City became highly influential for up-and-coming designers and created a space to carve new niches for fashion lovers in film.
“It was a master class,” he says of working with Field. “The fittings, the amount of clothes, and the amount of time we were able to put into that movie, like, I really got to see a full high trials concept of how something was getting put together. That experience is still very vivid in my mind and taught me so much about how to do my job as I do it now, whether it’s contemporary fashion, or period fashion like Billie. The approach is the same.”
His relationship with Field continued on Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sex and the City 2, and Ugly Betty, where he was assistant costume designer for three seasons. He then began crafting his own work on Saturday Night Live, Smash, and Empire. During the latter he was the lead costume designer and forged a creative kinship with Daniels, the show’s creator, who tapped him to design The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which premieres on Hulu in February.
Holiday has been covered in pop culture before, in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross and in the Broadway play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, for which Audra McDonald won a Tony Award. Daniels’s iteration stars singer Andra Day in her first ever film role, and examines a government-led attempt to silence Holiday for singing “Strange Fruit” in public. The song protested the lynching of Black Americans in the South. In the film, an FBI agent named Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund) tries to take the singer down by using her drug abuse against her. We also witness some of the singer’s delicious liaisons, including with actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne).
Translating not only Holiday’s life but also her legend is proudly showcased in the clothes Nieddu designed for Day. Thankfully, as the designer argues, “We were making art, not a History Channel documentary,” so having a bit of artistic license was part of the fun, especially when you’re creating Daniels’s world. “That was something I had to keep telling myself when I was getting fixated on something being exactly from this time or getting the most accurate color. You know, you get in your head and you're like, ‘Should that be yellow?’”
“That happened a lot in Billie,” he continues. “We would be basing something off of a [black-and-white] photo and then I'm like, ‘What color do you think this was?’ or ‘What color do you want it to be?’ I tried to stick with colors from the time. A good tool was the Sears Roebuck, & Co. catalog. It was great for just straightforward silhouettes and shapes and colors. So you could find a palette, you know, or even just in pulling an old Life magazine and looking at good color ink in some of those advertisements.”
“In the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, the fashion was just insane,” Nieddu says reverently. “I love nothing more than early to mid ’30s, like Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, all day, every day.”
“You get to the late ’40s and things were boxy,” he says. “The men’s suits were boxy and the women's shoulders were strong, and then, the skirt suit. You get into the mid-1940s, where it’s sort of very straight down and nothing too wild. And then you get to the late ’40s, which is where we were in the film, postwar, and you have the Dior new look. All of that is happening, there’s volume and things are a bit more optimistic. When you start to dig into those theories and thoughts about that time, you take into account of what a traumatic decade the ’40s were.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday begins streaming on Hulu on February 26th.
A version of this story first appeared in Out's 2021 Hollywood Issue. Jake Borelli is featured on the cover alongside Ryan O'Connell and Alexandra Grey. It is the first print issue under the editorial direction of editor-in-chief David Artavia. The issue is out on newsstands on March 3, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News +.