If you look close enough you’ll be able to appreciate the costume design on Hulu’s Black Cake. In the murder mystery series, the clothing begins by centering around the lead character as a young girl named Covey played by Mia Isaac struggling to have a voice. Eventually, she matures and becomes Eleanor (China Chung), a dynamic and opinionated mother and wife with agency. All the while she’s well aware of her Asian and Jamaican roots. Throughout the years, she travels from Jamaica to London and then ends up in Southern California. Along the way, her costuming showcases her professional journey, but it also provides a glimpse into the inner turmoil and secrets she often hides beneath her garments.
For many of the earliest episodes and quite a few flashbacks, Covey is in her home country Jamaica. During these years she is a submissive young girl who has to be obedient to her authority figures to survive. Colorful swimwear, tops with floral appliques, comfortable pieces like summer shorts, and easy button-ups are what her wardrobe is comprised of in Jamaica. Her primary school uniform is a brown linen mini dress paired with a light yellow collared shirt. This look in particular exemplifies the earliest years of her life and how she lacks power over her clothing choices.
The pastel and bold color palettes provide a juxtaposition since dark moments begin taking place in Covey’s life as she reaches her teenage years. Hayley Nebauer, the lead costume designer on the series, shared in an interview with Yahoo that all the swimwear was custom-made using vintage references. “It was all these sort of sunbleached tropical colors and sorbets, and optimistic and refreshing and light,” Nebauer adds.
The airiness and carefree energy of Jamaica are distinctly expressed when many of the scenes in the series depict the country. A defining period moment that stood out to me: Covey’s off-white silk wedding dress. The piece had all the makings of the ‘50s: a bodice that was bustier-inspired, a high waist, softened shoulderlines, a bow in the center, and tulle, see-through sleeves emblazoned with mini flowers. The modish gown also included a gorgeous matching train.
What caught my attention was the next part of Covey’s journey. After a devastating moment following her wedding, she lands in London. During this stage of her life, as she enters adulthood by force, her outfits begin to align with her emotional state and the rainy climate there. As she lives there in the ‘60s she wears grey a lot. “When the story moves to London, it’s not a place of hope–it’s not the swingin’ London in the ‘60s. It’s very bleak and it’s desaturated,” Nebauer says. There’s one moment when Covey dons a maroon wool peacoat and a brown hat as she commutes to her job as a domestic to a wealthy British family. It’s quite a departure from the color-filled wardrobe from her previous years, in fact, it’s downright drab and uninspiring.
Next, she relocates to Edinburgh, Scotland in hopes of beginning a new chapter. By this point of her life, Covey has morphed into Eleanor immediately after a series of troubling events. In Scotland she takes on a new name and is wearing professional attire. It’s still the ‘60s so she’s wearing formal officewear: wool midi skirts and blouses that are appropriate for the secretarial job she lands. A traumatic experience lands her back in London and her wardrobe slowly begins to be filled with reds and other vibrant hues when she reconnects with her teen beau Gibbs (Ahmad Elhaj). This is notably an exciting turn of events–it alludes to her experiencing happiness even with secrets she’s hiding.
Throughout the series modern clothing graces Black Cake in each episode. Eleanor’s children who are grappling with the recordings she leaves behind are dressed for their personalities. Her son Byron (Ashley Thomas), an oceanographer who has loved the ocean since he was a child has all the markings of a Black man in corporate America. He distinctly wears button-ups in colors like blue and black, and he is mainly wearing tailored trousers to accompany his shirts. None of his looks exude comfortability however it’s clear he does not lack confidence. However, his sister Benny, played by Adrienne Warren, an artist who loves to cook, is the polar opposite of her sibling when it comes to her fashion choices–Benny expresses herself through her clothing. She never falls for the trappings associated with an office job so she is most comfortable in hues like lime green, black, and white. There’s a scene when she’s wearing a black motorcycle jacket which is a nod to her rebellious nature. The green points to her creative mind, liveliness, and high energy level. The opposing styles of Benny and Byron are proof that two siblings can either lean on their clothes as a way to divulge their innermost thoughts or simply not do so.
The significance of black women’s clothing amid trauma is what allowed Black Cake to be one of the most compelling shows on television in 2023. Eleanor has multiple phases in her life in which her clothes are a means for her to gain meaningful work. Her respectable skirts, jackets, and blouses are her armor, but there are moments when they don’t protect her from harm. Despite this, she still manages to navigate through her life and land in the United States. In the entire series her narration guides the viewer, but so does her clothing.
Through its costume design, the series excels at detailing the Caribbean experience. Black Cake also succeeds at providing a glimpse into how an immigrant from a vibrant island is often having to wear masks and costumes to make it in America. By doing so it allows viewers a moment to reflect on the many roles women of color must take on to also survive.