Jack Zeman
By Nolan Feeney
January 16, 2015

While creating the outfits for Whitney, Lifetime’s Whitney Houston movie that airs Saturday night, costume designer Mona May ran into one of the most notorious foes in the business: shoulder pads.

“When we look at shoulder pads that were worn in the 1980s and early ‘90s, you almost couldn’t wear them now because you would look like a flying nun,” says May, who is also the costume designer behind films such as Clueless and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. “It’s something every costume designer has to work with: how do you now make this fashion?”

To transform actress and America’s Next Top Model alumna Yaya DaCosta into Houston, May modernized Houston’s classic looks while paying close attention to the personal details, from the exact lace patterns on Houston’s dresses to the simple cross earrings she was known to wear. The Angela Bassett-directed film doesn’t tell all of Houston’s life story, instead looking at her relationship with husband Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta) from 1989 to about 1995 — but recreating the era’s looks was still sometimes a challenge. Archival photos and video footage can be hard to come by, and materials that looked stunning on a red carpet in the 1990s don’t always look so hot on a soundstage or on DaCosta’s body type. “As a costume designer, you have to be like a detective,” May says.

Below, TIME asked May to break down seven of the more than 30 outfits DaCosta wore in the film.

“The best part of my job is when you just met the actress and you’re just getting to know each other,” May says. “You’re starting to put the clothes on and something right comes along, like the beaded jacket or the right pair of jeans, and the actor in the moment becomes who they’re playing. It’s really palpable.”


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