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The Costume Designer for Lifetime’s Whitney Houston Movie Breaks Down the Diva’s Most Iconic Looks

6 minute read

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.”

Heart and Soul

Jack Zeman

When the movie opens with the 1989 Soul Train Awards, DaCosta is wearing a replica of the outfit Houston actually wore that night. But because DaCosta is smaller than Houston was and has broader shoulders, May used her “tricks” — adjusting the length of the dress, the collar and sleeves — to ensure that the new proportions looked as good on her as the original did on Houston. “I think why Yaya looks so much like Whitney is because of the details — making her body look like [Houston’s] so she has the right movement and can really get into it,” May says.

Jewel Crush

Florian Schneider

Finding a beaded jacket like the ones Houston wore required an extensive search. “We were looking everywhere, we were looking on eBay, we went to all the costume houses in Los Angeles, we’re digging in all kinds of bins,” May says. “In the last minute, as it always happens, we went to this small costume house, Palace Costume. Somewhere in there was that jacket. When we put it on Yaya in a fitting, it just worked.” That it exuded both extravagance and approachability made it a winner. “She was never a diva you couldn’t talk to,” May says.

Serving Face

Though May says there was some resistance to the outfit from a few producers, this vintage yellow blazer gave her a chance to showcase the era’s high-fashion trends. (The label is missing, but May believes it’s Oscar de la Renta.) “When we found that outfit, me and Angela were basically screaming with delight,” May remembers. “There are moments with the gold jacket and this yellow suit that people will go, ‘Oh my God, I remember this!’” The look, worn during a meeting with Clive Davis (Mark Rolston), also helps tell the story of Houston’s relationship with her label. “It showed how she really had to put on a face when she came in.” May says.

Shine Bright Like a Diamond

Jack Zeman

Not all sequins are created equal. “There are so many different kinds: how they are sewn on, what kind of shine they give away,” May says. “Some can be way too shiny, some super flat.” May worked closely with the film’s director of photography to find fabrics and textures that would do justice to the original outfits during filming. “In a dark performance stage or club scenes, people can get lost,” she explains. “We always try to bring something that is really sparkly and alive on the stage. When we tried [this dress] on, it worked beautifully, and it gave Yaya more curves.”

Red Hot Kinda Love

Jack Zeman

Houston and Brown were no strangers to matching outfits during the height of their fame, and this color-coordinated look from the 1993 Billboard Music Awards (where she won Artist of the Year) was a natural choice for the film’s tour montage. Though taken from a real-life reference, the look’s timeliness ultimately surprised May. “It’s so interesting how fashion comes around,” she says. “This lace dress, which is lined with a nude fabric, it’s now. This is really in fashion right. It’s really fun to be able to play with past and present.”

Nice Day for a White Wedding

Jack Zeman

When recreating Houston’s wedding dress from 1992, May went from store to store trying to find the right kind of lace and earrings to maintain historical accuracy. Not all the outfits from the purple-themed wedding — the bridesmaids and groomsmen all wore matching purple — aged as well as that look, however. A tiny bit of creative license was necessary: “We have to modify it to our contemporary eye so it doesn’t look hideous. You want to look at it as something that is historic but looks good,” May says. “You don’t want to be going, ‘Oh my God, what is going on here!”

The Greatest Look of All

Jack Zeman

For the “I Will Always Love You” performance, May and Bassett went back and forth about what to do. They considered a purple dress as a nod to Houston’s favorite color before opting for a white gown that, while not based on an outfit Houston actually wore, best wrapped up the film’s complicated love story. “It wouldn’t be right to put on the gold jacket or anything that was over the top,” May says. “We have to show the love, the simplicity of two people. You want her to be the star, the legend, but you also want to see the person.”

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com