Michaela Coel’s Fashion Statements broke the mould in I May Destroy You

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For a show that is so complex and authentic, the fashion is just as real and honest. There is no lack of praise for I May Destroy You, making its Golden Globes snub even more shocking, with the sexual assault narrative being presented in such a ground-breaking style. The twelve-part show focuses its attention on the core of such complex topics, such as sexual abuse, race, sexuality and trauma. Through these topics, the show puts Black British culture at its forefront, as it centres around a black survivor of sexual assault, in an all-black lead cast. Michaela Coel’s performance as Arabella takes us through her character’s complicated and dark journey, a journey which is mirrored in the fashion statements Arabella wears. Costume designer Lyndsey Moore translates the urban neon magic of London into Arabella’s outfits, as she states in an interview that the characters “are literally constructing their identity through their clothes.”  

Coel’s full creative power over the show strongly comes through as everything about the show is like jumping into Coel’s consciousness. From the bubble-gum pink ombré wig to Arabella’s statement combat boots and khaki trousers, Coel, along with Moore, have crafted a lost yet powerful look, personal to twenty-something Arabella and the events she has been through. Arabella Essiedu is a Londoner working on a second book, a follow-up to ‘Chronicles of a Fed Up Millennial’, suggesting that although she doesn’t seem strapped for cash she is not particularly well off. Moore has delved deep into charity shops and vintage stores to produce a look for Arabella that captures her identity, whilst not spending masses of money. What Moore really gets across is that Arabella is a creative and an artist and this seems to come across in the retro finds.  

The first look we see Arabella wearing is a pair of white trousers cinched in at the waist, a printed shirt, which perfectly clashes with a heavily knitted red and grey cardigan, only to be set off by her pink ombré hair. From the beginning the charity shop mixed with Zara look is prevalent, making Arabella’s look stand out as her own. As a result of the first scene being set on the Italian coast, and having previously devoured Normal People in the same lockdown season, I was half expecting an edgy yet sharp series not so far away from the romance that Normal People poured out. However, just halfway through the first episode, I knew that was not the case. There were no floral mini dresses or spaghetti straps here, but baggy t-shirts, expressing the raw reality of the characters’ state of mind. We witness the evening of the assault in the first episode, with Arabella wearing a graphic T-shirt and jogging bottoms, highlighting that through the clothes she was wearing she was not prepared for anything- she was not equipped to finish her book, to go out to a nightclub and she was definitely not prepared to be attacked.  

Arabella frequently mixes tough military styles with more feminine tones, as displayed in her public takedown of a fellow writer at a writing summit for sexual assault. Here, although she is wearing one of her trusted cardigans which acts as a security blanket to her, with a feminine lipstick, she contrasts it with combat boots and khaki trousers making her seem soldier-like and strong. The outfit is soft but rugged, looking like she has just thrown it on, yet reading into it you can see it is concisely styled, as it provides Arabella with the strength to reveal what she is about to.  

Another big aspect of the fashion is the hairstyles and headwear throughout the series, as they depict the characters’ emotions, factually representing the integral role hair plays in Black identity. Arabella very much expresses her identity and how she is feeling through wearing wigs. The pink ombré wig is synonymous with her character in a time when she is lost, however, the purple wig she wears in the flashback episode suggests a feeling of empowerment, which in turn demonstrates to be something other, showing that the striking look is not exactly what it seemed. Arabella sports a long straight-haired wig in episode seven when she becomes obsessed with social media. This look represents a time when she digresses from her usual flair, mixing the wig with a champion tracksuit and heavy Instagram style makeup, showing us as the audience a completely different Arabella. Yet in the episodes where Arabella displays a shaved head, we feel along with her a cleansing release, like she is slowly processing what has happened to her.  

As well as Arabella’s patterned Aztec style cardigans being a constant in her wardrobe, from Simon’s borrowed bomber on the night of the assault, to a more refined sweater in the finale, Kwame’s beanies and hats seem to be a constant in his. In the beginning when Kwame is the centre of fun and very out-there his beanies add a pop of colour, however, after he is sexually assaulted we see a sudden shift to more masculine muted colours and a change in style to bucket hats. He goes through a period where he experiments with being heterosexual and changes his style in accordance with this. Yet, by the end of the twelve-part drama, he has returned to his trusted beanie. Despite the change back, the impact of the assault clearly stays with him and his choices in fashion, as he has switched to richer tones like mustard and indigo.  

One of the best fashion creations of the season has to be the Halloween costumes, with Moore giving us a unique take on the angel versus the devil. Terry embodies the classic sexy angel, whilst Kwame creates his own style featuring a black and white lace tux, both looking fabulous. Arabella leads us down a devilish route with her dark angel aesthetic. From the barbed wire headpiece to the magnum opus of the imposing black angel wings, the look is a creation of her own self. The style heavily relates to what is happening in the scene with Arabella being frantic and checking her Facebook live in the middle of crowded streets. Her look here signals part of her breakdown and the realisation that she needs to move on to another stage in her processing.  

The fashion, along with the messages in I May Destroy You, really broke the mould and made a statement. There is something very special about the costumes that makes them flawlessly not even register to the audience as they are so real, fitting exactly with everything else on the screen. The snub by the Golden Globes continues to confuse me, along with so many others, even Deborah Copaken, a writer on Emily In Paris, can’t seem to understand why such an influential show wasn’t nominated. Coel’s series deals with heavy themes but brings a comedy and lightness to them, as well as reminding us of the power to heal and grow beyond trauma. Through the fashion and topics, I May Destroy You shows real life and should have most definitely been on the Golden Globes nomination list.

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