How the ‘Back To Black' designers revived Amy Winehouse's most iconic looks

Costume designer PC Williams and hair and make-up designer Peta Dunstall talk to KFTV.

By Ellie Calnan 11 Apr 2024

How the ‘Back To Black' designers revived Amy Winehouse's most iconic looks
'Back To Black'; Cr: Studiocanal

“If you can draw a silhouette of someone and know who it is, that’s an iconic shape. Amy Winehouse is definitely that,” says Peta Dunstall, the hair and make-up designer behind Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new biopic of the late singer Back To Black which Studiocanal releases in the UK on April 12. It hits cinemas in the US on May 17 via Focus Features. 

Dunstall, along with costume designer PC Williams, was responsible for reviving some of the most iconic images of Winehouse, for star Marisa Abela – from her ever-growing beehive all the way down to her microscopic ballet pumps.

“There are some [looks] where you want them to be exactly as they were because they were so memorable,” Williams, who won a Bafta for her costume design on Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts, says. “But we also talked a lot about seeing things through Amy’s eyes with this film. To take [the outfits] back to how she would have seen them, as opposed to how we viewed them on her.”

Back To Basics

Production on the Studiocanal feature began in London in January 2023 and worked backwards, starting with the later years of Winehouse’s life and ending with scenes of the pre-fame teenager.

For Dunstall, it was a baptism by fire; she was a late addition to the project and it was only her second time as a lead designer (the first, Amazon’s Foe). “Amy was at her most broken down so make-up and hair labour wise, there was a lot going on,” the hair and make-up designer says. She admits, though, that this stage was in many ways the easiest to work on. “It was the Amy I was most familiar with. Her earlier images were all new to me, that’s where I did the most research.”

While the designers both had more than enough photographs to reference, Williams also got the chance to sift through Winehouse’s own wardrobe. “It was amazing. Just amazing,” is all she can quite manage to muster of the experience. The result was Abela wearing Winehouse’s real pink cardigan in an electrifying scene where she first meets her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil, played by Jack O’Connell. 

For the most part, Williams relied on thrift stores and second-hand sites like eBay and Vinted to capture the essence of noughties fashion. For Winehouse’s iconic 2008 Grammys look, however, where the stunned performer wins record of the year, the designer got the real deal. “Dolce & Gabbana kindly remade that dress to spec for Marisa for us and Louis Vuitton remade the shoes she wore,” Williams reveals, adding the original jewellers even helped track down her heart pendant. “It was exactly like you see.”

Facing Amy

But how does one tackle arguably Winehouse’s most defining feature – the hair? According to Dunstall, Taylor-Johnson “didn’t’ want a wig” for fear that it would offer distraction. “She wanted it to be pared right back, for it feel authentic,” Dunstall adds. Instead, lots of pieces were added to Abela’s real hair including halos, stick-ins, fringe clips and even a full wig which was turned inside out and used as a volume-adding lump. “Anything that I could stick in it went in it,” the designer jokes.

With hair often as chaotic as the singer herself - Winehouse once joked that the more anxious she was, the bigger her beehive – it takes on various forms throughout the film. “[Taylor-Johnson] always wanted a scale so we could just say ‘she’s a number four here’ or ‘she’s definitely a 10 here,’” Dunstall reveals, adding that of course it was “always a little more complicated” than that in the end.

Other Winehouse looks required constant monitoring. “Probably the most repetitive conversation we had at every change was ‘what tattoo stage are we at?’” jokes Dunstall who reveals a few team members were assigned to “triple check” with each scene. “I’ve never done a job before where I could just do a quick Google search to find out. There’s just so many images of her.”

Dressing Amy

With a celebrity as photographed and memorialised as Winehouse, accuracy to detail was often key but sometimes a little movie magic was needed too. Another iconic Winehouse performance revived for the screen is her infamous 2008 Glastonbury set in which the singer complains of the heavy sequined dress which took “three women” to get her in to. “[Cinematographer Polly Morgan] wanted to match the Glastonbury lighting, but I wanted the dress to really sing under the lighting as well,” Williams explains.

This meant changing the colour to a darker blue with a silver metallic underneath and using 3-D printed flowers for texture – all of which also helped lighten the dress for Abela, who was filming in it all day. “It meant as [Abela] is dancing across the stage, you’re kind of giving more movement to her through this textile and through this garment.”

The earlier Winehouse scenes also gave Williams “a lot more room to play” as looks were “less ingrained” in the audience’s minds. Taking footage from open mic nights and press shots from Winehouse’s debut album Frank, the team would mix and match features to create entirely new looks. “There was so many options that we could take and go ‘I want to create a print but in the shape of this one’,” says Williams.

Back To Black ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, a lasting image of a Winehouse somewhat back on her feet. “We didn’t want it to signify anything,” Williams says of the final outfit which went through several variations in prep including a ballgown. “We wanted to tap into the ownership that she had and the agency she felt.” Eventually, the team settled on a satin pyjama-style top and pair of grey jeans, the latter inspired by the last photograph of Winehouse taken before her death. “There was a stepping in to ‘woman-ness’ of the outfit that made it feel right.”

Everyone’s Amy

The Winehouse biopic comes not too long after Netflix’s Maestro about another Jewish musician, for which Bradley Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose incited some controversy online. “I was never aware of any of those conversations,” Dunstall says on whether prosthetics were considered for Abela, who is of Jewish heritage. “And I’m pleased I wasn’t.”

Nonetheless, since the first trailer launched in January, the film has been drawing some strong reactions on social media. “Whatever you do, you're not going to be able to give everyone the Amy that they personally know and love,” Williams notes. “But that’s just the kind of person, and the kind of phenomenon, she was.”

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