To successfully reach their audience and produce the desired effect, stories need an array of support elements. Narrative storytelling through clothes is at the core of costume design, a vital part of any visual production. Used to both reveal and inform identities, to indicate social status, to measure the dispositions of certain eras, or to influence public discourse, clothes play a dominant role in most cultures. In visual and performance arts, costume design builds on the duality of clothes to be simultaneously at the frontline of a scene, and invisible, blending in the overall narrative.

In Childish Gambino´s notorious video, This is America, costume and set design are central to the complex narrative, layered on an interplay of metaphor, symbolism, and recognisable social criticism. The capacity of fabric, colour, and design to communicate a vision and convey a lasting message is fully explored, pointing at the connectivity between humans and textiles through history. The main character played by Gambino himself wears pants and shoes that have been linked to confederate uniforms. His unclothed upper body is telling of the larger message of the video – vulnerability of black bodies in a contemporary America that hasn’t significantly moved past its history of racial violence. Adorned with golden chains, the male body here is a metaphor for physical bondage, while his dance moves and grimaces point at a deeper cultural form of enslavement.

The main character navigates several scenes mixing acute violence with lively choreography. The first seconds of the video open the succession of violent acts to follow – a black man dressed in white sits on a chair and plays his guitar. Seconds later, the guitar is gone, the man sits with hands tied together and his head covered in a bag resembling a burlap sack. The suggestion of material here becomes an agent of storytelling – made of the jute plant, one of the strongest natural materials, the fabric loses integrity in this unexplained violent act. A symbol of the discrepancy between those at risk of suffering and those in power who inflict pain, the lightness of white cotton clothing points at the defencelessness of minorities in American history.

The image of the hooded man is a powerful trope in American history, leading back to lynching, and essentially signifying loss of agency that immediately predates loss of life. We don´t know who put the hood over the man´s head in the opening scene, which indicates that violence may have unknown and surprising sources. A hooded figure riding a horse in the background is a recognisable symbol of apocalypse, while the hooded kids using their phones could be a metaphor for alienating effects of technology. In all instances, the hood is a costume design choice that carries an impactful message.

If characters are built partially through costume design, the contrast between how a character behaves and what they look like is also a tool in telling the story. The school children dancing their way through the video symbolise the passivity of society – not really inflicting violence, yet not doing much to stop it, they follow whoever seems to keep them safe. Their uniforms are a mark of social class and privilege, but also raise an important question on collective memory and consciousness, uncritically gathering around social beliefs that might be harmful. The church choir robes are another example of disciplined existence – some have identified the scene as a reference to the 2015 Charleston church shooting, but the robes may also stand for a questioning of various forms of indoctrination that go unnoticed.

Words: Elena Stanciu