To Understand Us, Pay Attention to the Outfits

The deeper meaning behind the red jumpsuits, the leather glove, and Lupita Nyong’o’s costumes—according to the woman who designed them

Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures

This story contains major spoilers for Us.

Near the end of Jordan Peele’s Us, viewers finally witness the confrontation the entire story has been building toward. The protagonist, Adelaide Wilson (played by Lupita Nyong’o), faces off against her jumpsuited doppelgänger, Red (also played by Nyong’o), in an underground chamber inhabited by clones known as the Tethered. Adelaide and her family spent much of the movie killing off their murderous counterparts, but those clashes were merely a prelude to this fight to the death.

Armed with a fire poker, Adelaide swings at Red, trying to destroy this shadow figure who has haunted her since she was a girl. Wielding a pair of gold scissors, Red slices at Adelaide with moves to rival any slasher-film villain. Finally, Adelaide manages to stab Red in the stomach—before snapping her neck with the golden handcuffs Adelaide has been trapped wearing for most of the movie.

Despite this victory, something feels off. For those paying attention, one visual clue hints at the big twist to come: Adelaide’s white T-shirt and hooded cardigan are absolutely covered in blood. In a final sequence, Peele flashes back to Adelaide’s childhood, revealing that the protagonist herself is actually a Tethered—as a girl, she kidnapped and traded places with the real Adelaide, who grew up in the subterranean world of the Tethered to become Red. As the existential showdown with Red neared, Adelaide’s clothes took on the same color as Red’s jumpsuit, signaling the duo’s deep and violent connection.

In other words, Adelaide’s outfit functions as a window into her true identity. Observant viewers might notice the many ways in which Us uses clothing to tell the story of the Wilsons and the uprising of the Tethered. Every detail about the outfits used in the film—including the doppelgängers’ instantly iconic jumpsuit uniform—was meticulously planned by the movie’s costume designer, Kym Barrett. Best known for her work on The Matrix, Barrett thought carefully about the decision to have Adelaide wear white. “I wanted her to be the lantern that led her family,” Barrett told me recently, after she had seen the completed film for the first time. “Along the way, that light is continually flickering … She’s getting more and more and more covered in blood. The idea was that [by the film’s end], she’s almost as red as Red.”

Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures

According to Barrett, every film is rooted in a distinct psychology. The costume designer must be a psychologist who investigates the material world the characters inhabit in order to pull their deepest motivations to the surface. “You’re trying to work out why people did things, where they lived and why they lived there, and what happened to them,” Barrett said. The Australian-born designer began developing this analytical approach to her craft while working as a wardrobe designer on Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) and as the costume designer on Romeo + Juliet (1996). In her early days designing for theater, Barrett had operated off gut instinct, feeling her way through what characters would wear. By the time she was hired as the lead costume designer on The Matrix (1999), her first big-budget Hollywood film, Barrett had learned there was a kind of science to costume design. She realized she needed to become a “method designer,” employing tactics similar to those of method actors, to better understand a film’s anatomy.

It makes sense that a costume designer whose own creative process is so cerebral would be a natural fit for a movie by Jordan Peele—a modern-day master of suspense who imbues the tiniest of details with meaning. Barrett said when she first met Peele to discuss Us, the synergy between their ideas was palpable; she was hired that same day. Her first task as costume designer was determining the psychological core of the film, and she knew early on that Nyong’o was the key to the story. “She, obviously, is the linchpin of the script,” Barrett said.

The designer and actor met for several hours in New York City, where they discussed the dramatic tension between Nyong’o’s dueling characters—two women whose bodies share the same soul, as The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis recently explored. “Like two good investigators, we were asking each other questions,” Barrett recalled of her first encounter with Nyong’o. The main topic of their conversation: “the tightrope between the two characters. How do you cross between the two characters, keeping them familiar but separate?” Nyong’o had the idea to develop a distinct voice for Red and a particular walk informed by trauma, which then helped Barrett visualize how the character would be clothed.

Lupita Nyong’o on set with the director Jordan Peele (Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures)

Adelaide, in contrast to Red, is always dressed in white. When she’s first introduced as an adult, she’s wearing a lightweight white shirtdress. She later changes into a cream ball cap and a white T-shirt (paired with light-khaki shorts), which she wears to the beach, before changing into her final outfit: the white T-shirt and cardigan combo. The color choice is the result of deep psychological work Barrett had done to flesh out Adelaide’s character. “She had to appear to be completely normal,” Barrett explained, adding that Adelaide picks her clothes so that the people she encounters can’t tell she’s really a Tethered. “It’s all about a neutral palette. What she chooses is really generic, and anyone can project onto it whatever they want to see,” Barrett said.

Adelaide consciously wears clothing that can serve as camouflage of sorts. Part of the critique embedded in this idea is that wealthy Americans, like those whom the upper-middle-class Wilsons spend much of their time around, are so self-absorbed that they don’t look beyond the surface, Barrett said. This explains why the Wilsons’ rich white friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, respectively), are ideal companions. The yacht-obsessed, foul-mouthed Josh is first seen wearing a black T-shirt with the word fragile written above a broken wine glass. Meanwhile, the alcohol-loving Kitty opts for a candy-pink bikini, sunglasses, and beach kimono. The Tylers’ garish outfits—not to mention their foreign luxury vehicles and high-tech gadgets—can be seen as shorthand for the brand of conspicuous consumption often associated with the nouveau riche.

Elisabeth Moss and Lupita Nyong’o on set with the director Jordan Peele (Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures)

While Adelaide wears neutral tones in search of anonymity, her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), chooses outfits that communicate something about who he believes he is and where he belongs, Barrett said. For much of the film, Gabe wears a gray Howard University sweatshirt, which Barrett said was aged and over-dyed to give it that lived-in, favorite-sweater look. Peele himself has said that Gabe wears this sweatshirt because it instantly identifies him as a black man rooted in the black community—even though he’s growing more dazzled by the nicer accoutrements of the (white) upper middle class.

The Wilson children’s clothes reflect their own unique personalities, Barrett told me. Jason is a trickster figure, made evident through his Jaws T-shirt (which Peele himself begged the movie’s director, Steven Spielberg, for permission to use) and his faux-tuxedo sweatshirt. The teenaged Zora is an introvert, but her brightly colored garments (blue, hot pink, purple, green, and yellow) are an outward manifestation of her inner richness. It is Zora who often foreshadows moments of significance, such as when she says early in the film that the U.S. government puts fluoride in the water to control its citizens (hinting at the later reveal that the government created the Tethered to control the populace above ground). In an early scene, Zora wears a blue bunny T-shirt, in reference to the rabbits that the Tethered eat raw as their only sustenance. And for the rest of the film, she sports a green, short-sleeved, hooded sweatshirt that says Thỏ, which means “bunny” in Vietnamese.

The Wilson family (Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures)

As a unit, the Wilsons needed to stand in stark contrast to Red and her family of doppelgängers. Hence, the eerie jumpsuits—a uniform that Red herself came up with after the Tethered chose her as the leader for their rebellion, Barrett said. Unlike Adelaide, who wants to blend in, Red wears her pain openly for all to see. “She completely enshrouds her being with this red,” Barrett told me. “It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.” With her life stolen away by Adelaide, Red nurses her anger for years. It’s no surprise that when she unites the Tethered as a revolutionary army, ready to kill off their surface-world selves, she clothes them in the color of her rage. Barrett and her team worked hard to choose a shade of red that would feel unsettling to look at. “It’s half the color of wet blood; it’s half the color of dried blood,” Barrett said. “It’s like an old wound.”

The design team for Us similarly agonized over the minutiae of the Tethered underworld, Barrett told me. While many of the costuming choices for the clones made more sense as the story unfolded, other things weren’t as clear. For example, how did the Tethered—who lived in tunnels and could only eat raw bunny meat—acquire their matching uniforms? It turns out, they made the jumpsuits themselves, Barrett told me. Bizarre as it may seem, the doppelgängers have the machinery to mass-produce their outfits. The production designer, Ruth De Jong, even designed rooms for the set where the Tethered would have manufactured the garments.

Another question viewers might have had: Why were each of the Tethered wearing a single, leather half glove? Barrett approached this design element from a very practical standpoint. Her team learned early on that it’s easy to cut yourself when handling large shears, which the Tethered use as their primary weapon. So the designers figured that the Tethered would have developed some sort of protective gear to cover the hand they used for slashing. According to Barrett, when Peele and the producer Ian Cooper saw the glove, it evoked a different, pop-culture-based meaning. For the director, it referenced Michael Jackson, whose “Thriller” music video is an important inspiration for the film. For Cooper, the glove alluded to the razor glove worn by the Nightmare on Elm Street antagonist Freddy Krueger.

The Krueger connection is perhaps a useful reminder of how essential costumes have long been to horror films. Today, both Freddy’s glove (not to mention that red-and-green sweater) and the masks from Scream and Halloween remain iconic costumes. Though not quite horror, The Stepford Wives (which influenced Peele’s first movie, Get Out), relied on its A-line frocks to help narrate the film’s special brand of suburban terror. While Barrett’s garments in Us are meant to speak for themselves—to supplement and enrich the story rather than distract from it—they’re also worth paying special attention to. After all, Peele’s puzzle-like films are made to be watched more than once, allowing viewers to pick up on different clues with every screening. Barrett’s costumes, too, are designed to yield new answers, and new mysteries, with each viewing.