Chadwick's brief to 'keep it real' was also essential to the work of costume designers Diana Cilliers and Ruy Filipe, who replicated outfits right out of history. Cilliers points out that in addition to authenticity, Chadwick was intent on the cinematic value of the costume.
The wardrobe team took on the herculean task of designing costumes spanning nearly a century. "This is a designer's dream project." remarks Filipe.
The passionate duo paid the finest attention to the smallest detail of texture, colour and stitching to magnify the narrative of each character - from the leads, bit parts to the extras - and the mood and style of each decade, the locations and the pivotal events - in the tens, hundreds and thousands.
Filipe considers that he and Cilliers had a ‘Ying and Yang’ partnership that enabled them get a 360 degree view of the significant requirements of what they describe as a puzzle.
Starting with Mandela's childhood the Designers had to conceive of costume imagery from the 1920s to the 1990s.
In the village of Qunu in rural Transkei, Mandela was born into the Madibaclan. He was christened as Rolihlahla (which means "troublemaker") and was later given the English name of 'Nelson' by his schoolteacher. He is the son of a hereditary chief, and grandson of the Thembu King and leader of the Madiba clan, and thus considered royalty. The rich cultural heritage of the Xhosa tribe into which he was born together with his lineage, plays a vital visual role in the movie.
Filipe was enthusiastic to highlight the organic elements of his wholesome life in the countryside; the community characterised by the practice of agriculture, and living in close proximity to animal herds and having a meaningful relationship with the land. Filipe’s use of earthy tones refelcted that relationship.
Atandwa Kani, who plays the young Mandela, is also of Xhosa descent and relates that the vivid culture resonates with him. "We are proud of our rich culture which is also expressed through embellished outfits." Many aspects of the daily life of the Xhosa people are guided by their inextricable link to their ancestors and they honour tradition and are respectful of their elders. One's rank in the hierarchal society and lineage is represented in one's attire, every bead, colour and pattern is symbolic. "Our attire is a celebration of the Xhosa self." says Kani, who is pleased to be able to wear the wardrobe emblematic of Mandela's royalty and great stature. A Xhosa boy's initiation rites to manhood is marked by white clay painted on his body, and the ritual - which transcends time - encompasses a festive celebration for the whole community as they honour the step from boy to man.
It is when he arrives in the bustling city of Johannesburg in the 1940s that Mandela sees for the first time what White people wear. "This sparks his discriminating taste for fine suits which he had tailored to fit his body. He took great care in his personal appearance." says Filipe whose team handmade 19 suits for the young lawyer. "It was fantastic to dress Idris. He has great stature and looks good in whatever he has to wear."
Despite being a hero to millions, Mandela was something of mythical figure. When he was incarcerated his photographs were destroyed and for nearly 3 decades virtually no one in the world had any idea of his appearance. Like most of the designers on the production, the Costume team had limited reference material at their disposal. Many of the prisoners who were released from Robben Island in the 1990s donated their personal belongings packed in apple boxes to the Mayibuye Centre at the University of the Western Cape. It is here that Cilliers uncovered a goldmine of archive material. "We had access to their actual prison outfits and not only were we able to copy them in styling and fabric, but we could introduce personal details; little add-ons, and idiosyncratic methods that they had used to adapt their outfits to make their lives easier. We found a beautifully preserved jersey Kathrada had been gifted, probably from someone who had corresponded with him. It was both haunting and inspiring."
Harris, discussing Winnie’s wardrobe says: "She was always immaculately dressed, no matter what she was going through. I think it helped lift her spirits."
The festive jazz era of Sophiatown gave birth to a vibrant style of fashion that Cilliers considers was never featured in the White community. "The society was very influenced by American images; women were exhilarated with fashion and took great care in their grooming. That style of wide skirts and petticoats, hats, bags and gloves has never been repeated in the Black community." says Cilliers who makes reference to the magnificent photographs shot by the celebrated photographer, Alf Khumalo, and those featured in the Bailey Archives from Drum Magazine. "These images reflected an incredible, pulsating society - despite its poverty."
Cilliers mentions that she was specifically inspired by designing Ahmed Kathrada's outfits. "His sense of style was different to the others in the 'Magnificent Seven'. He was from a younger generation and different culture, so I tried to give him a completely different look. While the others wore formal three piece suit attire, Kathrada often wore leather jackets and he had cravats, we tried to imbue a more mischievous energy in him."
Tasked to create diverse layers of society and multiple layers of apartheid, Filipe imparts that Chadwick wanted costumes through which one would really feel the grit and the reality of what the apartheid years were like. There was always evidence of some opulence among the Whites, and while the Blacks wore 'hand me downs' and lived in disgraceful poverty we can always see a dignity amongst them."
Together with the large cast of main characters wearing different styles of wardrobe throughout the period, one day players and thousands of extras, Cilliers informs that the total count of bodies that they dressed exceeded 15 000.