Andra Day Portrays Music Legend Billie Holiday in Spot-On Outfits — The Photos Are Mesmerizing

Costume designer Paolo Nieddu, who is known for his work on the Sex and the City films along with TV series Empire, had just eight weeks to prep the wardrobe Andra Day would wear to play music legend Billie Holiday in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. Directed by Lee Daniels, the movie follows Holiday's life and career, specifically highlighting how her song "Strange Fruit" helped advocate for the Black community in the '50s. Paolo's talent becomes clear the moment you see Day's portrayal of Billie. The clothing helps her transform, and she helps the clothing shine, or, as Paolo describes it, "one hand washes the other."

Paolo did custom create many of Andra's looks based directly on old photos he found of Billie, but there were other moving parts. He leaned on old friends in the industry, including talented dressmakers, and even the Prada team. "There are vintage pieces I shopped from eBay, pieces from motion picture costume houses, Prada collaboration pieces, and some pieces that I made in house," Paolo told POPSUGAR, confirming that there weren't any doubles made when it came to this intricate collection of looks. "We did not have the time, and they take so long to make!" he said.

Paolo gave the example of the opening red dress along with the courthouse outfit and turban as direct re-creations from Billie's life. "Like so many people, I think I can identify that USA postage stamp of Billie. It's a picture in my mind, and I was like, 'This needs to be moving,'" he said, ensuring his remarkably accurate style sense, which you can learn more about when you scroll to read our full interview. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday streams on Hulu from Feb. 26. Ahead, find out everything there is to know about the fashion, which was such a huge part of Billie's life.


POPSUGAR: How long did it take to make one gown?
Paolo Nieddu: In house, it all depended. The pearl beaded dress she wears when she starts singing "Strange Fruit" was made by Susana Vera, who was my amazing dressmaker in Montreal. Her and her team of tailors probably worked on that dress for two weeks, using a rubber mallet to smash beads so they could sew seams. With the Prada pieces that were created, I got the conversation going in July and had them by October.

PS: How did you work with Prada on these looks?
PN: The yellow dress was a collaboration with Prada, based on a dress from a picture of Billie I saw that I really liked. That's how a lot of the Prada pieces came to be. I had sent them the pictures of Billie that I liked, going through director Lee Daniels. He chose his favorites, and then we sent them off. I just said to them "yellow" because at the time we did not have locations. I was looking at a black-and-white photo of Billie and then found Prada archival pieces that represented the same elements of Billie's dress in this beautiful, warm, luxe-y, yellow swatch of silk.


PS: How did Andra Day use the clothing to immerse herself in the character of Billie?
PN: Andra was incredible. She became Billie, throwing herself into the role. She herself is a fan of Billie and a fan of vintage. She understands the period and the way the clothes are supposed to be, so when she would try things on in fittings, she transformed and threw herself into it from a style standpoint. She knew how to move in them. When you wear vintage, it's different than now, and I think Andra really understood that, and that helped sell the garment.

PS: What were fittings like?
PN: We had barely any time, but we could have spent hours trying on clothes. We would pose for the fitting photos, and I'd have a thousand pictures of each outfit, as if I was holding a camera with a thousand shutter speeds. We'd be looking at photos of Billie and asking ourselves, "Should we lower this more?" It was really collaborative. Billie smoked cigarettes, so Andra would go over to the little bar and light a cigarette with her coat on to show how the clothes move. Or she'd lay on the floor with her glasses on and read a magazine. The way she was able to role play in the fittings was amazing.


"[Billie wearing flowers in her hair] was born out of a situation in her life that may not have been her brightest moment, but the result ended up being beautiful and iconic."

PS: Billie famously wore flowers in her hair. How were you sure to work those in?
PN: I think Billie was inherently a magpie; an accessories queen. She piles on the jewelry. She's definitely a more-is-more, opulent, excessive girl in nature. As I read in research, she burned her hand with her curling iron on the night of Carnegie Hall, so the gardenia became the way to cover it. Who knows if she was behind the curling iron herself. Maybe she was drunk or high. But this style moment was born out of a situation in her life that may not have been her brightest moment, but the result ended up being beautiful and iconic, and she did continue to wear them throughout life. And I don't think it was because there was some scar, because we see her later in life without flowers — it was just a circumstantial moment that stuck with her, and it worked. She wore orchids, gardenias, and feathers. Gardenias were impossible to find in Montreal in the winter, but we had a beautiful silk one.

PS: Were there any memorable wardrobe mishaps while filming?
PN: In the pink dress, her cigarette burned the netting with hot ashes falling on it, but it was fine. That kind of made it more real! Lipstick would always get on the white gloves. She wore a heavy, maraschino cherry red lip in the movie. But my most nail biting moment was when we were doing the Carnegie Hall scene with the black dress. We made white gloves and black gloves. Initially, I wanted to do black, but the morning of I was like, "let's do white." My tailor had the glove pattern, and she was at the studio. She started at 7 a.m., and the call time was around 10 a.m. We only had a few hours. My costume supervisor, Pat Welch, was standing on the street outside of the theater we were filming in, waiting for our PA to bring the gloves. They were about to call "Action, rolling," and the white gloves came at the last second. When I see the white, I'm like, "Yes, the white is forever."


PS: Where was the jewelry sourced from?
PN: All of the jewelry was vintage. A lot of it I found on eBay or Etsy. Some if it came from 1st Dibs, like this cocktail ring she wears often. There was a beautiful vintage watch that I saw Billie wearing in a few references photos, and I tried to just find pieces that could closely mirror the accents of the type of jewelry she wore.

PS: How do you describe Billie's casual looks?
PN: We wanted her to be glamorous, always. She's a star, an artist, and a celebrity, so that was something I was constantly thinking about. There are so many pictures of her on a microphone, but what would she wear before she put on her gown? The important thing for me was that even in her final moments, she was a glamorous, regal person. She's laying on the hospital bed in her purple silk custom made pajamas with the floral print bed jacket. When she couldn't wear the flower in her hair, I'd try to use floral print to put that flower on her.

Compare Andra Day's Costumes to Billie Holiday's Looks

Compare Andra Day's Costumes to Billie Holiday's Looks