Creating Style to Augment Substance
Costume Designer Makes Stars Shine on Small and Big Screens
By Karen Shih '09
Photos and sketch courtesy of Marci Rodgers
Whether she’s finding fur-lined leather jackets for the cast of an Oscar-winning movie or designing outfits for dancers celebrating decades of Black music, Marci Rodgers M.F.A. ’16 isn’t just dressing her characters. She’s telling a story.
“What’s magical to me is when you go from research to a rendering to a costume on screen,” says Rodgers. “When an actor puts on a costume and feels like their character, that’s priceless.”
Her latest projects include this fall’s “Till,” which focuses on Emmett Till’s mother’s pursuit of justice after her son’s lynching; a Super Bowl spot for Michelob Ultra featuring sports legends Serena Williams and Peyton Manning; and the Netflix film “Passing,” which follows the divergent paths of two Black women, one of whom “passes” as white, in 1920s New York.
Shot in monochrome, the movie posed an unusual challenge for Rodgers. But by focusing on texture, contrast and accessories, she developed stylish looks appropriate for upper-class women of the era while avoiding clichés like flapper dresses. Rodgers felt lucky that one of her mentors, School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) Professor Helen Huang, had prepared her for that moment.
“In my last semester at UMD, she gave me a project to render costumes in a grayscale. I wondered, ‘Why is she making me do this?’ But five years later, I used what I learned in this project,” Rodgers says.
Growing up with bold 1980s styles, Rodgers wanted to go to school for fashion. But her father said he’d only pay for college if she studied business, so that’s what she did at Howard University. After she graduated, however, she found a new path to her passion: Howard Professor Reggie Ray let her assist him with costumes for several Broadway plays. One of those was “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” where she met famed director Spike Lee. He hired her as a production assistant on “Chi-Raq” in 2015 and eventually as a costume designer for the acclaimed film “BlacKkKlansman” and TV series “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Her early work overlapped with her time as a UMD student, and she still draws on TDPS lessons, such as how costumes interact with sets (“What color is the carpet? Or the inside of the car?”) and with lighting (“Will this texture show up?”). She always follows the advice of Professor Daniel Conway: “When you read a script, create a playlist. Ask the director: What music would this person listen to?”
She can’t always believe how quickly her career has taken off—“I look around and pinch myself ”—but takes it as a sign that she should keep dreaming big.
“I love the audacity and creativity of Kanye West,” a fellow Chicago native, she says. “I want to collaborate with great artists who push the envelope.”
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