behind the seams

Nope’s Vintage T-shirts Were Telling Us Something

Photo: Universal Pictures

Spoilers follow for Jordan Peele’s film Nope.

For most of Jordan Peele’s Nope, Haywood siblings Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) are on the defensive against an alien that has taken up residence in a cloud above their Hollywood Horses ranch. It attacks as it pleases, eats whatever it wants, and drenches their home in blood. So when OJ slips on a borrowed vintage Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, a subtle but effective message is broadcast to the audience members on high enough alert: The Haywoods, along with their tech-savvy ally, Angel (Brandon Perea), are about ready to fight back.

The tee features a quote on the back from Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” “I don’t think you see it,” points out Nope costume designer Alex Bovaird. “I don’t think he turns around.” Bovaird chose the item of clothing for what it could signify to those on the lookout for “hidden Easter eggs,” as she hesitantly calls them. The shirt appropriately appears when the trio is rallying — “when they’re like, ‘Okay, let’s go back in,’ instead of running away. They go right into the fight. OJ and Em are taking on the entity and, subtextually, the powers that be,” Bovaird says.

Bovaird worked closely with Peele on certain script-specific outfit elements but was given free rein to brainstorm unwritten aspects of the characters’ personalities, like what music they would listen to or which beloved cartoon they might rep. In the detail-heavy world of Nope, it is easy to overlook a pop-culture reference amid the chaos of an alien invasion, but each and every costuming decision was made to complement the film’s considerations of celebrity, spectacle, and storytelling. “We were worried about going a little too far, but I don’t think anything is too far for Nope,” Bovaird says.

1. The Band Merch

From left: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures
From top: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures

For most of Nope, OJ, Emerald, and Angel dress distinctly. The elder Haywood is often in Carhartt workwear and various hats that advertise the family business. Em, who has been trying to break into Hollywood, mashes up streetwear and items she has rediscovered at the family ranch. Angel is introduced in a gray Fry’s Electronics polo shirt. But after the trio are held hostage by the alien and flee to Angel’s apartment to clean up, they find a sort of shared uniform in his array of band T-shirts, from the Butthole Surfers to the Wipers. As they discuss how to stop the alien, OJ’s Rage Against the Machine T-shirt and Em’s Jesus Lizard tee — vintage finds Bovaird sourced at the Los Feliz Flea and on eBay, respectively — reflect not just Angel’s taste but also the friends’ mutinous spirit.

“We just loved that image of the wolf; it’s really strong,” Bovaird says of the Jesus Lizard shirt, which she found for $1,000 on eBay. “Which is crazy,” she says of the price, “but somebody just showed me one on eBay for $4,500, so I think vintage T-shirts have gone the way of Air Jordan sneakers.”

Then there’s the Earth T-shirt Angel wears to the ranch when he realizes the alien is hiding in a cloud. It’s decorated with another predator: a coiled snake. “It’s like this weird, heavy, doom, goth-metal band,” Bovaird says of Earth, formed by Dylan Carlson, Kurt Cobain’s best friend. Bovaird liked the snake tee for two reasons: It insinuated Angel would be listening to “some semi-obscure bands that I definitely had not heard of,” and it conjured an image of “the suppression of an animal.”

From left: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures
From top: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures

Peele’s previous horror film, Us, also featured referential shirts, with nods to ’70s and ’80s pop culture: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the punk band Black Flag (which Peele also repped on the Nope set), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which Nope evokes in other ways, too. For this film, Bovaird says she wanted to collect references that would specifically bring to mind the film’s natural landscape “because there’s a lot we were saying with what we’ve done to the earth, what we take from it, and capitalism.”

One particular flea-market T-shirt, worn by the father visiting Jupiter’s Claim for the “Star Lasso Experience” with his family and decorated with a lineup of Universal monsters including the Bride of Frankenstein and the Swamp Thing, recalls other classic movies with similar aims. (In an earlier version of the Nope script, Bovaird says, the film followed that family.) “I love the history of the monster movie told on that T-shirt, with all the different monsters, and how we were making our own new monster movie,” Bovaird says.

2. The Haywood Hand-Me-Downs

From left: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures
From top: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures

Although Nope starts with OJ and Em slightly estranged after the death of their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), costuming links the family together throughout the story. Emerald, who was named after The Wizard of Oz, is suitably dressed in a green Haywood soccer jersey, intended to be a hand-me-down from her brother. (It bears the Canyon Cowboys logo of an actual high school, which Bovaird had to get cleared: “Hopefully they’re happy she’s the hero!”) OJ’s bright-orange Scorpion King hoodie is a reference to his first experience on a movie set with his father. (It’s also a reclamation of the Universal Studios film that has since become a cult favorite because of what Bovaird describes as “legendary-bad CGI.”) Em’s Lovesexy T-shirt, released to promote Prince’s 1988 album, is a quiet nod to their mother. A scene in which Em recounts obtaining the T-shirt was cut from the film, but “technically if it was vintage, it probably would have been her mother’s,” Bovaird says. “There are all these sorts of family-ties things going on.”

“At the end, we wanted everybody to have very iconic looks, and we were trying to ape ’80s-blockbuster costumes,” Bovaird says. “If you look at The Goonies or Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, they have really strong costumes that still made sense. They were purposeful in their look.” Bovaird let the fact that she, Peele, and Nope producer Ian Cooper have similar generational touchstones guide her curation, leading her to a baseball jersey–style Garfield tee for Em that she found at a warehouse “that has clothes that are squashed together in bales that are about to be shipped off” to other countries. It says little about the Haywood-family legacy, but Cooper and Peele smartly approved of the choice.

“I keep seeing people with Garfield on now,” Bovaird says. “Maybe Garfield is in the Zeitgeist. Garfield is having a moment. He’s kind of brilliant. He’s kind of the original status-updater, right? The original tweeter.”

3. The Nudie Suit

From left: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures
From top: Photo: Universal PicturesPhoto: Universal Pictures

Unlike the functionality of the Haywoods’ workwear or the casualness of Angel’s band T-shirts, the crisply-clean western outfits worn by the Park family hint at a kind of cosplay. Steven Yeun’s Ricky “Jupe” Park has spun his childhood fame from the movie Kid Sheriff into a whole American West–themed career, with an amusement park and a reality show that require Jupe and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt), to always look home, home on the range. For Bovaird, this level of affect meant a lot of fringe and a Nudie suit. Bovaird imagines that Jupe had his red suit specially made to honor what he believes is a genuine connection with the alien — and when the alien destroys Jupe’s fantasy by consuming him, the celebratory outfit becomes bitterly ironic.

“I showed Jordan a few other colors. White was an option, but it looked a little too Elvis. We looked at white; we looked at magenta,” Bovaird says. “The artwork on the back, we created with a chain-stitcher. The flowers on the back are supposed to look like the entity unfurling. I think the entity ends up looking slightly different, but we always knew it was going to be organic. The flowers represented that and then the spaceship — Jupe is trying to commodify the whole thing.”

4. The Veil

Photo: Universal Pictures

The attack on the Gordy’s Home sitcom set in Nope shares some DNA with both a dream Peele tweeted about in 2014 …

… And the real-life chimpanzee attack of Charla Nash in February 2009. Nash suffered numerous injuries, including the loss of her hands, eyes, lips, and nose, and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in November of that year to talk about it. During that appearance on Oprah, Nash wore a hat and veil that Bovaird re-created with “a direct copy” for the character Mary Jo Elliott (Sophia Coto), who was attacked by Gordy and seemingly suffered injuries similar to Nash’s.

Mary Jo is a tragic figure in Nope — disfigured by one animal and then consumed by another — who shares qualities with Jupe. As he clings to his Kid Sheriff fame, Mary Jo does to her Gordy’s Home days; Bovaird dressed her in a sweatshirt with her own face on it for emphasis. The piece was “based on the Laura Palmer classic sweatshirt,” Bovaird says, and “the idea is that she’s holding on to that sweatshirt from when she was famous.”

Bovaird also created the costumes for the Gordy character, played by Terry Notary in motion capture, including an astronaut suit and a double-breasted waiter uniform (as seen in a deleted scene from one of the film’s trailers).

5. The Helmet

Photo: Universal Pictures

In Nope, the Haywoods are descendants of a Black horse jockey who was captured by photographer Eadweard Muybridge and whose images were then transformed into one of the first, if not the first, moving pictures. The film is clearly and understandably contemptuous of a history that has remembered Muybridge’s name but not the jockey’s, and it drives that point home through a TMZ cameraman named Ryder Muybridge, who suddenly appears on the Haywood ranch just as they begin to launch their assault against the alien. During his arguments with the Haywood siblings, and even after he’s attacked by the entity, the cameraman, played by Devon Graye, keeps on his highly mirrored, oddly designed helmet, which Bovaird says was meant to look like “something from outer space.”

“That was something that Jordan wanted from the get-go. He came in knowing exactly how he wanted that helmet. He had to have it like that, and we custom-made it, and that was that,” Bovaird says. “He loved this actor, and it could have just been a stuntman, but God bless him, Devon had to do it and sit in those hot, hot leathers.”

6. The Scarf

Photo: Universal Pictures

After OJ, Em, and Angel fail to capture definitive video evidence of the alien, they turn to cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Wincott’s Antlers bears a costuming resemblance to Nope’s actual cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, who also dresses in shades of black and whom the actor shadowed in preparing for the role. Van Hoytema even gave Wincott one of his own scarves to help him get into character.

“He got a lot out of talking to Hoyte and wanted to have something of his,” Bovaird says, noting that she made four “very close copies” of the scarf to use on set. “I think the inspiration came from Hoyte, but Michael wears only black in real life. It’s definitely a strong choice for Michael, and he wanted to feel like Holst had a sense of fashion and wasn’t practical. He looked a certain way. Michael and I went shopping together because the kind of clothes Michael was guiding me toward for Holst are not the kind of clothes we had. We had the time, so we decided to go shopping. I’ve got some fun photos of us trying on the skirt that he wears.”

Once Antlers joins OJ, Em, and Angel to document the alien, his looks — including a sleeveless black top, a slouchy hoodie that he pulls over his face like a shroud, and that omnipresent scarf — subtly allude to how Antlers isn’t exactly one of the gang. (He’ll eventually abandon the three in search of the perfect “Oprah shot” and is devoured by the alien.) In another scene that was deleted from the film, Antlers maintains his all-black preference with a boxy suit jacket, worn shirtless, paired with billowy bottoms that Bovaird thinks might have been a sarong rather than pants.

7. The Denim Shoe

Photo: Universal Pictures

Nope shows most of the Gordy’s Home attack via young Jupe’s perspective as he hides under a table from the chimpanzee. As he watches Gordy run around the set, Jupe focuses on one of Mary Jo’s blood-splattered shoes, which came off in the mêlée and is somehow standing straight up. Nope returns to the gravity-defying shoe more than once, and Bovaird says that the shoe’s “jean” fabric, as delineated in the script, was a deliberate Peele choice.

“It said in the script ‘jean shoe,’ and one of the first things I asked Jordan was, ‘Do you mean a shoe that goes with jeans? Or do you mean a denim shoe — a shoe made out of denim?’” Bovaird remembers. “Because to me, a ‘jean shoe’ is a shoe you put on with jeans. But he said, ‘No, no. It’s a shoe made out of jean material.’”

The shoe is later shown to be in Jupe’s possession as one of the many Gordy’s Home–related items he keeps in a secret museum in his office, a manifestation of his lingering trauma. But maybe the fabric of the strange shoe somehow connects to the alien, also known as Jean Jacket, named for a horse Em loved as a child? Bovaird is hesitant to answer one way or another.

“We’re just supposed to connect it all, but I’m not actually sure about the denim of it all,” she says. “And if you ask Jordan these questions, he’ll just say, ‘Yeah, if that’s what it means to you.’”

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