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USM Alumna Designs Costumes for Barry Jenkins’ Amazon Series ‘The Underground Railroad’

Wed, 06/02/2021 - 16:29pm | By: Ivonne Kawas

Presented with one of the biggest career challenges yet, University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, ’97 and her team designed costumes for the Amazon’s series “The Underground Railroad,” from Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead.

This 10 part-series chronicles the harrowing journey of enslaved Cora and her bid for freedom in antebellum South.

As the synopsis for Jenkins’ adaptation reads: “After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway, a bounty hunter who is fixated on bringing her back to the plantation she escaped.”

Going from collaborating with Jenkins on “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Moonlight” to this series was ambitious and could be perceived as a career highlight, even though Eselin struggles with finding the right words to describe her experience. Due to the weight of the subject matter of the latter, which shines the light on the brutal atrocities of slavery through magic realism and alternate history.

“It is hard to find the words, as describing this experience as “thrilling” or “a dream” feels unsuitable,” says Eselin. “It was a serious responsibility. The obligation of being as authentic as possible in each portrayal was a challenging undertaking — I’d say it has been one of the most challenging, educational, and valuable things I’ve ever done in my career.”

To be as grounded in reality as possible, the design process started with a long gestational period of research and prep that lasted 6 months. It included going to institutions devoted to the research and preservation of history like the New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Whitney Plantation Museum, among others.

Eselin says the scope and size is what’s different than what they've done before, it was massive as it included: 110 principals, 80-85 stunt performers and around 3,000 background artists.

In approaching the design process, they built a world of its own for each episode, as Cora embarks on this journey from state to state; opening in a plantation in Georgia and making its way through North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana.

“Every episode is different. It’s a different period, even though we’re in the 1850s, we were traveling through Cora’s consciousness and examining years in American history,” said Eselin. “All costume choices were focused on not only conveying her progression, and sometimes regression, and truth, but also taking care not to be showy and to avoid taking away from the story.” 

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘈𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘯 𝘗𝘪𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦 (𝘊𝘢𝘦𝘴𝘢𝘳/𝘊𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘯), 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘴𝘰 𝘔𝘣𝘦𝘥𝘶 (𝘊𝘰𝘳𝘢 𝘙𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘭𝘭)

𝐈𝐧 𝐆𝐫𝐢𝐟𝐟𝐢𝐧, 𝐒𝐨𝐮𝐭𝐡 𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐚, 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐬𝐞𝐞 𝐚𝐧 𝐞𝐱𝐩𝐥𝐨𝐬𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐓𝐞𝐜𝐡𝐧𝐢𝐜𝐨𝐥𝐨𝐫, 𝐜𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐧𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐞𝐬𝐬, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐛𝐞𝐚𝐮𝐭𝐲, 𝐚 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐠𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐆𝐞𝐨𝐫𝐠𝐢𝐚, 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐲𝐞𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰 𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐬𝐢𝐠𝐧𝐢𝐟𝐢𝐞𝐬 𝐨𝐩𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐢𝐬𝐦. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘒𝘺𝘭𝘦 𝘒𝘢𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘯/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴, 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘈𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘯 𝘗𝘪𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦 (𝘊𝘢𝘦𝘴𝘢𝘳/𝘊𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘯), 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘴𝘰 𝘔𝘣𝘦𝘥𝘶 (𝘊𝘰𝘳𝘢 𝘙𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘭𝘭)

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘞𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘗𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘳 (𝘚𝘢𝘮), 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘴𝘰 𝘔𝘣𝘦𝘥𝘶 (𝘊𝘰𝘳𝘢 𝘙𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘭𝘭), 𝘈𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘯 𝘗𝘪𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦 (𝘊𝘢𝘦𝘴𝘢𝘳/𝘊𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘯)

𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐬𝐨𝐧 𝐖𝐡𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐡𝐞𝐚𝐝 𝐰𝐫𝐨𝐭𝐞 𝐂𝐨𝐫𝐚 𝐢𝐧 𝐚 𝐛𝐥𝐮𝐞 𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬, 𝐢𝐧 𝐰𝐡𝐢𝐜𝐡 𝐬𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐚𝐯𝐞𝐝 𝐚 𝐰𝐞𝐞𝐤’𝐬 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐡 𝐨𝐟 𝐰𝐚𝐠𝐞𝐬 𝐭𝐨 𝐩𝐮𝐫𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐬𝐞 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐁𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐄𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐢𝐮𝐦. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘒𝘺𝘭𝘦 𝘒𝘢𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘯/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴, 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘞𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘗𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘳 (𝘚𝘢𝘮), 𝘛𝘩𝘶𝘴𝘰 𝘔𝘣𝘦𝘥𝘶 (𝘊𝘰𝘳𝘢 𝘙𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘭𝘭), 𝘈𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘯 𝘗𝘪𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦 (𝘊𝘢𝘦𝘴𝘢𝘳/𝘊𝘩𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘯)

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘓𝘢𝘊𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘻𝘦 (𝘔𝘴. 𝘙𝘦𝘷𝘢)

𝐁𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐩𝐞𝐨𝐩𝐥𝐞 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐝𝐢𝐟𝐟𝐞𝐫𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐩𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐨𝐝𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐞 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐇𝐮𝐛 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐠𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐢𝐫 𝐭𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐨𝐧𝐲 𝐭𝐨 𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐚𝐠𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐬, 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐌𝐬. 𝐑𝐞𝐯𝐚. 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐮𝐧𝐢𝐟𝐨𝐫𝐦𝐬 𝐰𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐢𝐧𝐬𝐩𝐢𝐫𝐞𝐝 𝐛𝐲 𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐬𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐧 𝐛𝐲 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝟔𝟖𝟖𝟖 𝐂𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐥 𝐏𝐨𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐥 𝐃𝐢𝐫𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐲 𝐁𝐚𝐭𝐭𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐨𝐧, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐟𝐢𝐫𝐬𝐭 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐧𝐥𝐲 𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐁𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐟𝐞𝐦𝐚𝐥𝐞 𝐮𝐧𝐢𝐭 𝐭𝐨 𝐛𝐞 𝐝𝐞𝐩𝐥𝐨𝐲𝐞𝐝 𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐞𝐚𝐬 𝐝𝐮𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐝𝐮𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐖𝐖𝐈𝐈. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘈𝘵𝘴𝘶𝘴𝘩𝘪 𝘕𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘫𝘪𝘮𝘢/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴. 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘓𝘢𝘊𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘻𝘦 (𝘔𝘴. 𝘙𝘦𝘷𝘢)

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘍𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘏𝘦𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳 (𝘈𝘳𝘯𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘙𝘪𝘥𝘨𝘦𝘸𝘢𝘺)

𝐓𝐚𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐮𝐬 𝐛𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝟏𝟖𝟐𝟎𝐬, 𝐰𝐞 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐥𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐨𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐢𝐧 𝐬𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐥𝐚𝐯𝐞-𝐜𝐚𝐭𝐜𝐡𝐞𝐫 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐬𝐨𝐧 𝐨𝐟 𝐚 𝐛𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤𝐬𝐦𝐢𝐭𝐡—𝐑𝐢𝐝𝐠𝐞𝐰𝐚𝐲. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘈𝘵𝘴𝘶𝘴𝘩𝘪 𝘕𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘫𝘪𝘮𝘢/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴, 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘍𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘏𝘦𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳 (𝘈𝘳𝘯𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘙𝘪𝘥𝘨𝘦𝘸𝘢𝘺)

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘈𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 𝘎𝘳𝘢𝘺 (𝘎𝘭𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘢 𝘝𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘦), 𝘗𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘥𝘦 𝘑𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘺 (𝘑𝘰𝘩𝘯 𝘝𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘦)

𝐈𝐧 𝐈𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐚𝐧𝐚, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐕𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐅𝐚𝐫𝐦 𝐢𝐬 𝐚 𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐩𝐫𝐨𝐠𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐟𝐮𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐞. 𝐈𝐭’𝐬 𝐟𝐮𝐥𝐥 𝐨𝐟 𝐣𝐞𝐰𝐞𝐥 𝐭𝐨𝐧𝐞𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐥𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐥𝐲 𝐩𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐭𝐬, 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐧 𝐰𝐞𝐚𝐫 𝐚 "𝐜𝐡𝐨𝐫𝐞" 𝐨𝐫 𝐚 "𝐰𝐫𝐚𝐩𝐩𝐞𝐫" 𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬—𝐚 𝐩𝐞𝐫𝐟𝐞𝐜𝐭 𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐟 𝐞𝐟𝐟𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐥𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘈𝘵𝘴𝘶𝘴𝘩𝘪 𝘕𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘫𝘪𝘮𝘢/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴, 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥 (𝘓-𝘙): 𝘈𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘳 𝘎𝘳𝘢𝘺 (𝘎𝘭𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘢 𝘝𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘦), 𝘗𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘥𝘦 𝘑𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘺 (𝘑𝘰𝘩𝘯 𝘝𝘢𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘦)

𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘚𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘈𝘵𝘪𝘮 (𝘔𝘢𝘣𝘦𝘭)

𝐓𝐨 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐚 𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐲𝐚𝐥 𝐨𝐟 𝐂𝐨𝐥𝐬𝐨𝐧 𝐖𝐡𝐢𝐭𝐞'𝐬 𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐭𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐜𝐨𝐬𝐭𝐮𝐦𝐞𝐬 𝐮𝐬𝐞𝐝 𝐚 𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐲 𝐬𝐮𝐧-𝐰𝐚𝐬𝐡𝐞𝐝, 𝐟𝐚𝐝𝐞𝐝, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐝𝐮𝐥𝐥𝐞𝐝 𝐩𝐚𝐥𝐞𝐭𝐭𝐞. 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘵: 𝘈𝘵𝘴𝘶𝘴𝘩𝘪 𝘕𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘫𝘪𝘮𝘢/𝘈𝘮𝘢𝘻𝘰𝘯 𝘚𝘵𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘰𝘴, 𝘗𝘪𝘤𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦𝘥: 𝘚𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘈𝘵𝘪𝘮 (𝘔𝘢𝘣𝘦𝘭)

A Tight-knit Community

Eselin grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans in an artistic family with a mother who was a painter and a jazz pianist father, who graduated from Southern Miss in 1958.

Following her father’s footsteps, Eselin attended his alma mater. Obsessed with clothing and design, she brings that passion with her to USM’s film program, which she refers to as a tight-knit community that allows her to form strong bonds and build meaningful relationships.

“We were all like family. As time has passed, we have remained close friends,” said Eselin. “I am grateful for having been a part of a program that was so hands-on and intimate. We were fully-immersed in everyone’s projects, so we were able to gain experience in different aspects of filmmaking — it equipped us with a diverse set of skills that made us better storytellers.”

Nina Parikh, a fellow classmate, friend, colleague, and current director of the Mississippi Film Office, shares a memory of their first music video project together.

“Eselin and I overlapped in our years as film students. She put me in a sari to walk through a meadow of flowers for her music video project. She had a specific interest in making music videos at that time, with clothing and design as important elements in her work, so it’s no mistake that she has found success in costume design,” said Parikh.


Breaking Barriers

During and after college, Parikh worked as a freelance film crew member for six years, and collaborated with Eselin in many jobs. Eventually, Parikh, who is also breaking barriers and excelling in the industry, landed as a state employee at the Mississippi Film Office.

“One of my responsibilities in this role was to assist productions find experienced and/or emerging, enthusiastic crew members, while working in Mississippi,” said Parikh. “I always worked toward matching experience and interests with projects as much as possible.”

As there were very few individuals with costume and wardrobe experience in the state, Eselin’s name was shared with projects frequently along with a handful of others.

“Parikh significantly influenced my career, as she would give my name to other productions coming to Mississippi, mostly in Jackson,” said Eselin. “Thanks to those amazing opportunities, I was able to experience breakthroughs and build upon my success as a costume designer,” she added.

Some of the productions Eselin worked on as her career started to take off were: as a costume production assistant on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (Coen Brothers); for costume designer Mary Zophres; and as a costume designer on “The Blues,” a series produced by Martin Scorsese, specifically the episodes directed by Wim Wenders and Charles Burnett; and many others, big and small, to later working on a feature with Parikh, who produced the award-winning and acclaimed film “Ballast.” In 2008, both winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

Looking back at the early days of her career, Eslin recalls that she didn’t realize she could be a costume designer.

“Early on, I actually didn’t realize I could be a costume designer, so I started by working as a camera loader, production assistant for commercials, and taking on audio-visual work. Until one day, someone gave me an assistant job in costume design, and then the next thing I knew I was called to work with background artists on a pilot directed by Forest Whitaker,” said Eselin. “The more I got into designing, the more I knew it was what I was passionate about.”

Eselin’s most recent collaborations are “Troop Zero with directors Bert and Bertie for Amazon Studios and the three collaborations with Jenkins. Constantly exploring new worlds and cultures, if you wonder what she is up to now, she is currently working on the much-anticipated Latinx remake of “Father of the Bride.”

“I don’t know a person that is more focused and passionate toward their work. I know when Eselin is working on a project, as I won’t hear from her and she’ll be hard to reach. I don’t take offense. You can watch any of the last three Jenkins projects and know she wasn’t snubbing her friends. She was focused. I fully expect her talents and skills to expand and bloom in new ways until she chooses to no longer do it, which may never be the case,” said Parikh.

“As probably all film students do, we joked about some future time when our name would come at the end of, ‘…and the Oscar goes to.’ Well, it’s no joke anymore, and I can’t wait to embrace her in celebration when that time finally arrives for her.”

Find more information about the Media and Entertainment Arts (Film) program at USM.