How the Costume Designer Behind Disney+'s 'American Born Chinese' Used Fashion to Blend Fantasy and Reality
Joy Cretton used looks from AAPI designers for a different kind of authenticity.
The Monkey King. Guanyin. Guan Yu. They're names synonymous with Chinese legend, which seem to blend mythology and history for a unique take on storytelling. But because those are the standard bearers of Chinese narratives, they've been interpreted again and again, with a new Journey to the West seemingly popping up every year (not always to critical acclaim) and both live-action and animated versions of the trials and tribulations of these gods, goddesses, warriors, and scholars offering every generation their own version of the stories.
The latest is Disney+'s American Born Chinese, an adaptation of the ultra-popular (and National Book Award-nominated) 2006 graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. When the show, which premieres today on the streamer, was announced with a cast that included newly minted Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, as well as Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu, fans were ready for a brand-new take on these beloved characters — and Disney didn't disappoint. Lush visuals, action-packed set pieces, and (of course) a deeply touching story that offers up a take on the Asian American experience all come together for a one-of-a-kind comic book movie that's anything but your typical blockbuster.
Costume designer Joy Cretton, who also worked on Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, didn't just rely on custom-made creations (though there are plenty of those, too) to bring these giants of Chinese culture to life. Instead, she used amazing pieces from designers like Prabal Gurung and Phillip Lim (both listed as costume consultants on the project) to bring a sense of authenticity to even the most out-of-this-world look.
Below, see how Cretton brought these characters to life, using everything from Doc Marten boots and thrift store finds to intricate headpieces and couture creations to outfit the cast for this triumphant blend of action, comedy, and culture.
“Guanyin’s [Michelle Yeoh] costume was inspired by several elements, including the colors of jade and water. We wanted to keep the ethereal flow, beauty, and grace of classic Guanyin, but also wanted to give her a modern take, including pleating. After testing different shades of jade green, a beautiful ombré was created to utilize all of the colors in one. Her iconic lotus was embroidered at the center of her belt, and clear crystal beads cascade down the bodice of her gown as sparkling water droplets. Guanyin’s headpiece was also inspired by the lotus. Michelle Yeoh was a great collaborator throughout the entire process and helped the team perfect the look so it had just the right feel."
“Wei Chen's robot tee was inspired by his character in the graphic novel. His look in the show is a mix of bold color-blocking, overly cropped pants with a trusty thrifted woven belt, and a crossbody fanny pack for all of his godly necessities. He also faithfully wears a bracelet with a matching maze pattern to his father's suit. His look is unexpected for a high schooler, but worn with such confidence that we can't help but fall in love with his individual coolness.”
“Amelia comes across as the picture-perfect teenage dream girl in leather pleated miniskirts, cozy floral socks with tough-stacked Mary Jane Doc Martens, and lace-trimmed Peter Pan collared blouses under fuzzy animal sweaters. A closer look reveals the layers in her clothing mirror the many layers of her character buried beneath her personal struggles, and the cozy knits offer a sense of security in the chaos of her world. As she slowly opens up to Jin, they discover they are more alike than they knew.”
“One of my favorite Easter eggs is Ke Huy Quan suited up as Guan Yu, the god of war. Ke wears a necklace around his neck featuring this significant god, so his accurate portrayal in the show was not taken lightly. His robe was constructed of textured forest green fabric and edged with a ruched leather trim. Topped with black battle armor, and complete with sky-high platform wedge combat boots, which he walked in effortlessly.”
“Princess Iron Fan [Poppy Liu] returns at the end of the season in a deep shade of purple-often used for immortality. Her look is darker, edgier, and much more mature in a floor-length coat layered over a pantsuit with a sheer high neck, and heavily hand-beaded under layer complete with matching gloves and belt. Traditional silver nail guards top off the look, custom designed in collaboration with fashion designer Kenneth Barlis.”
“Ao Guang, the Dragon King [Jimmy O. Yang], wears a super-sparkly blue-green sequin suit which mimics a dragon scale effect. Sheeny, textured under layers help him to appear wet and slick as he is from the sea, but dressed to impress at the big heaven bash.”
American Born Chinese is streaming now on Disney+.
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