How Nana Afriyah Helped Bring the Costumes of ‘The Woman King’ to Life
Photo: Sony Pictures

How Nana Afriyah Helped Bring the Costumes of ‘The Woman King’ to Life

The Ghanaian designer and costume coordinator worked with the film's costume designer and led a team of local artisans to make the actor's outfits.

The Woman King has made $66 million at the worldwide box office, and counting. A crowd pleaser for sure, the movie’s marketing alone has presented charming visuals in cinematography, stunt action, and defiant Black women charging into war. Based on the all-woman military regiment of West Africa’s Dahomey Kingdom in the 1800s, The Woman King story is made all the more powerful by the costumes the cast dons.

From the warriors wearing custom-made woven kente to the batik prints incorporated in their attire, the costumes add to the visual experience of the film. At the nexus of this creative effort is Nana Afriyah, the craftswoman who coordinated costume operations in Ghana. Afriyah studied some costume design while at university (at the International Academy of Design & Technology in Tampa, Florida), but didn’t get to use that knowledge until years later in Ghana on the film series Adam's Apple in 2011.

She went on to create costumes for other titles like Guldkynsten, The Cursed Ones, Adam the First, Born of the Earth, Black Earth Rising, The Burial of Kojo, Borga, and even dabbled in music videos, working on Wizkid’s Grammy-nominated Made in Lagos. Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation was the first international project she worked on, alongside the film's costume designer.

An image of two women looking at some fabric and comparing it with a image on a cellphone.For 'The Woman King,' Nana Afriyah worked with local craftswomen in Ghana to create the custom-made warrior uniforms.Photo: Nana Afriyah

During pre-production for The Woman King, Afriyah had received an email from Gersha Phillips, the film’s costume designer, in September 2021. Recommended by a friend, she was initially asked to be a costume buyer. She was excited nonetheless. “The movie stars Viola Davis! Costume buying is what I do sometimes but thankfully the role evolved after that first work was done,” Afriyah told OkayAfrica. “We had a further conversation, and I was given a deeper responsibility because Gersha decided that the costume for the warriors would be custom made. And that was where Ghana had a bigger role in the movie.”

To play her part, Afriyah was expected to have had prior design and film experience, and to understand the language of the international film industry with its schedules, protocols, and meeting deadlines, as well as follow exact procedures set for designs, accounting, and confidentiality. The work required finding solutions and not giving excuses when challenges arose.

While Afriyah is a costume designer in her own right, her involvement with The Woman King came with a chain of command where Phillips called the shots. “On this film, my work was crafting the fabrics, overseeing the operations and handling logistics for almost six months,” Afriyah says. “For the scenes shot in Ghana that I styled, it was basic village life so it was simple variations of clothes wrapped around the body and different types of head-wraps based on our references of that time period.”

Afriyah didn’t do this alone; she found a community of craftspeople in Ghana and guided them into making a range of costume pieces. “I actually didn’t intentionally set out to work with only women but for some reason, none of the craftsmen worked out,” she says. “In hindsight, I think it had to do with me being a young woman because they basically had to follow my directions constantly and I had very strict protocols for them to follow. They couldn’t respect the protocols so I couldn’t work with them.”

Afriyah notes that things “worked out better” when dealing with the craftswomen, but a handful of them still quit on her. The nature of the work, with its tight deadlines and attention to detail, proved to be too much for some and she found herself having to constantly find replacements. All things considered, she loves how it encouraged and empowered the local artisans she worked with, and, like in the film, showed how women were capable of doing great things.

On this film, my work was crafting the fabrics, overseeing the operations and handling logistics for almost six months,” Afriyah says.

"On this film, my work was crafting the fabrics, overseeing the operations and handling logistics for almost six months,” says Nana Afriyah. Photo: Nana Afriyah

The first scene in The Woman King, where the Agojie form an ambush attack on the Oyo slave raiders, is the on-screen debut of the warrior uniforms that Afriyah and her crafts team made. In the training scenes as well, the batik print she sourced can be seen worn around the Agojie's waists. The woven Northern kente in the uniforms was also handcrafted. “Most of the other prints that you see onscreen worn by the King and townspeople were also sourced by me from Ghana,” Afriyah says.

She believes costumes for movies should be memorable and amplify the story, where needed, but sometimes, they should be muted to allow the story to take front stage. For The Woman King, she commends Phillips on leaning into the film’s historical references, and being a source of inspiration to those she worked with. Additionally, she’s glad that West African women got to play a role in bringing these authentic African costumes and characters to life.

Afriyah has always been passionate about young people and creatives. Her production company, Enjoymentt Lives Here, intends to tell African stories in blockbuster ways. While creating costumes for the Sony film has validated her talents and skills on a global level, she hopes this opportunity attracts major investors to support local projects and companies like hers.

As the African fashion industry continues to make strides on the international stage, turning towards local production mechanisms and craftsmanship has created a new dialogue around age-old garment making practices. Such communities preserve this knowledge through their craft, and pass it down through generations. “I think it opens the door for more opportunities to come to us,” says Afriyah, about what this collaboration means for African artisans as a whole. “It shows a track record that we are capable, that even in the face of very little infrastructure we can produce results that meet global standards when given the appropriate budget, leadership and opportunity.”