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How ‘Nope’ Became a Vintage Tee Wonderland

Costume designer Alex Bovaird explains the uniquely iconic ’90s- and Y2K-inspired looks that decorate Jordan Peele’s terrifying new movie

Universal/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The moment Nope costume designer Alex Bovaird saw it on eBay, she knew she had to show Jordan Peele. As soon as he saw a photo of it—a vintage Jesus Lizard T-shirt featuring an oversized cartoon wolf with a wagging tongue and hearts for pupils—the director lit up. “That T-shirt,” she recalls him saying, “gives me life.”

Luckily for Bovaird, the price of the rare ’90s noise-rock band tee that Keke Palmer’s character Emerald Haywood wears didn’t also give the filmmaker sticker shock. After all, it cost four figures. “I was spending someone else’s money, but we do have an alarmingly tight budget,” Bovaird says. “You can’t just spend willy-nilly. So until they said they liked it, I didn’t buy it. It’s nice, [but] I don’t think I would ever buy myself a thousand-dollar T-shirt.”

When it came to finding the right pieces for his third movie, though, Peele insisted on sparing no expense. Filling Nope with safe, universally known ’90s and Y2K pop culture totems would’ve felt empty. The director preferred hyperspecific—sometimes downright obscure—references that matched the unsettling but winking tone of a film that’s deeply anti-nostalgic.

“He’s quite different from a lot of directors; he’s just obsessed with the details of wardrobe,” says Bovaird, who also recently worked on HBO’s The White Lotus. “That can be a bit daunting because you can’t just show him and him be like, ‘I like that one.’ It doesn’t work like that with him. With him, it’s very much like, ‘That’s a good idea. That could work. What about this idea as well?’ He puts a lot of his personality into this movie.”

For Bovaird, coming up with fits that, well, fit Peele’s aesthetic was a fun challenge. She says that the idea is that the wildest T-shirts in Nope actually belong to Brandon Perea’s Angel, the Fry’s Electronics gearhead/conspiracy theorist who helps the movie’s protagonists set up a surveillance system at their horse-training ranch. “The actor playing him is quite naturally effervescent and cheery, and he’s playing someone who’s a little bit cynical and a little bit dark,” Bovaird says. “So I think we wanted to pull that back by giving him wardrobe that was like, ‘He’s into these slightly obscure bands.’”

Instead of picking Nirvana shirts, Peele and his producing partner Ian Cooper chose tees from bands that the members of Nirvana were into. Like: Earth (founded by Kurt Cobain’s friend Dylan Carlson), Wipers (Nirvana covered their songs), and the Jesus Lizard (the bands once released a split single together). Angel also rocks tees by alt-rockers Butthole Surfers and Mr. Bungle.

When a killer UFO forces the Haywood siblings to leave their home, they stay with Angel at his apartment—and raid his closet. “They did shoot it like it was more obvious that they put on Angel’s clothes, but they cut that out of the movie,” Bovaird says. “So I did wonder myself, ‘Are people going to be like, “Why are they suddenly wearing these band T-shirts?”’ The thing is with Jordan, I think he likes people to watch his movies again and again, and get more from them. Maybe he was like, ‘OK, if people are paying attention, they’ll eventually realize that they’re probably Angel’s T-shirts because he’s wearing all these T-shirts.’”

Emerald ends up in a Jesus Lizard shirt that’s literally eye-popping. “It just looks really striking against the natural world,” Bovaird says. “It has an animal on it. It’s a wolf.” (If you’re looking for more meaning: The Jesus lizard is another name for the common basilisk, a reptilian species that could, at least in the mythical world, kill a man with its gaze. In Nope, the alien entity doesn’t eat what doesn’t look it in the eye.)

Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ also borrows a Y2K-era Rage Against the Machine tee that’s emblazoned with a giant portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in a bright yellow hat. Before shooting began, Bovaird picked it up in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz Flea. “We tried to do this colorful, pop, neon thing against the dusty landscape,” she says. What really attracted her to the shirt, however, was what the audience doesn’t even see: the Zapata quote printed on the back. “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” it reads, echoing the Haywoods’ fight in Nope.

With the vintage market booming, it’s becoming harder and harder to find old band merch for cheap. Consider: As of this week, the East Hollywood vintage boutique Varsity Los Angeles is selling a youth version of OJ’s red Rage tee for $88. In an adult size, it may go for upward of $100 or $200. “The prices have just gotten higher and higher and higher,” Bovaird says. “I wish I bought this [Nirvana] Incesticide T-shirt I was looking at five years ago. It was $200. Now the Incesticide T-shirt is $800 and $900.”

Still, there’s no doubt in Bovaird’s mind that dropping hundreds of dollars on vintage shirts for Nope was the right choice. Especially because one of her goals was to create looks as memorable as the ones in the blockbusters from Peele’s childhood. “He always talked about making this big summer film,” Bovaird says. “And so I tried to do that a little bit with my costumes. It sounds cheesy when you say, ‘I want to make iconic costumes.’ But we tried to think about Michael J. Fox or these ’80s movies where they had strong, iconic costumes.”

In truth, Back to the Future and Nope have more in common than you might think. Because it became a franchise, it’s easy to forget that the 1985 original crashed a time-traveling DeLorean straight through the Reagan era’s laughable idealization of the ’50s. Nope often feels like a bizarro Spielberg movie, always looking back to the director’s youth but not through a warm and fuzzy lens. The main character’s name is OJ. The wholesomeness of the ’90s sitcom is destroyed by a raging chimpanzee in a highly disturbing sequence. And the first production that OJ worked on with his father as a horse trainer was 2002’s The Scorpion King, which featured Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in his first leading role—and notoriously bad CGI.

In the finale of Nope, OJ wears a beat-up Scorpion King crew hoodie with a Panavision logo on one of the sleeves. “You ever go onto a film set, there’s a lot of people wearing the T-shirt from the movie they made two years ago,” says Bovaird, who points out that since Scorpion King was, like Nope, made by Universal Pictures, it made it easier for the licensing department to clear the item. “So we wanted to tell that story as well—that he was a film worker.”

The problem for Bovaird? Cast and crew gear isn’t typically sold to the public. So while the hoodie OJ wears looks like a vintage piece, it’s really a reproduction that’s been aged to perfection. To make it pop, Peele considered yellow and green (Emerald’s name made that color too obvious) but eventually went with orange. “Because it would look so striking out against the sky,” Bovaird says. She adds that everyone seemed to have opinions about it: “Nobody knows what to say about a 1930s costume, but T-shirts and hoodies, everyone gets into it.”

While shooting in the heat of Southern California, the sweatshirt became stifling. “We shaved it down underneath as much as we could because the one we liked, the shape of was a bit thick and polyester-y,” says Bovaird, who also designed custom Haywood Hollywood Horses apparel for OJ and Emerald. “We did more things to that damn orange hoodie than I care to remember.”

In the end, the fact that Bovaird couldn’t get her hands on a single vintage Scorpion King hoodie was for the best. Sun, sweat, and dust created a need for dozens of sweatshirts. “We probably have 50 orange hoodies and now I’m like, ‘Oh, I should have kept a few,’” Bovaird says. “I’ve got one.”

Designing the Nope costumes was a painstaking process, but Bovaird thinks it was worth the effort. As odd as they may seem, with time OJ’s faded hoodie and Emerald’s baggie Jesus Lizard tee may end up being iconic, like Marty McFly’s puffer vest. That’s what Peele and Cooper were going for: slyly, unnervingly weird references that capture the movie’s message of anti-nostalgia. “It’s all about the ride for them,” Bovaird says. “That’s always in the back of their mind, not cynically so they can make more money, but because they’re movie geeks.”

When the first stills from Nope started trickling out, the Jesus Lizard noticed, and then sprung into action. On July 14, their Twitter account posted one of the photos of Emerald in the band’s T-shirt and linked to an online store where you can preorder a reprint of the tee. “Give us all your money!!!!” the tweet read. Thankfully, each one costs only $25.