The Other Black Girl rejects the year’s playful attempt at rebranding pink: In the Hulu series, Barbiecore is no joyful emblem of female empowerment; it’s a warning. The show—adapted from Zakiya Dalila Harris’ book of the same name and streaming all 10 episodes of season 1 now—follows young editorial assistant Nella (Sinclair Daniel) as the only Black woman at the major publishing company Wagner Books. Or, anyway, that’s the case until Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) drops in. When the two come face to face for the first time in the series premiere, the difference between them is immediately stark: Nella wears a simple ribbed polo and khaki slacks, adhering to an unspoken, scrubbed corporate dress code. Hazel, meanwhile, arrives in scarlet track pants, a loose oversized button-down, and a leopard-print cardigan from the Target Future Collective collaboration with Kahlana Barfield Brown.
By the time Nella and Hazel buddy up both inside and outside Wagner, the former is inclined to mimic the latter. She swaps her worn cream sweaters for lilac turtlenecks and maroon-striped blazers. Purples and reds and pinks infiltrate her outfits like a parasite, a choice costume designer Kairo Courts says was entirely intentional. “Something pink symbolizes that they’ve drank the Kool-Aid, and something’s not quite right,” she says.
Courts, who spent part of her early career working for a magazine in New York, modeled the Wagner Books attire—and Nella’s in particular—after her own observations from the front lines of whitewashed corporate culture. It was thus a simple task to dress premiere-episode Nella in the basics. “For Nella, [her style] was really simplistic and a little bit monochromatic,” she says. “She is almost like the wallpaper in the office. We didn’t want to make her stand out too much, because she’s already standing out: She’s the only Black girl in the entire office.”
So when “the other Black girl” starts showing up to work in primary hues, eye-catching silhouettes, and bold designs from Black creatives, Nella finds herself admiring, jealous, and perplexed all at the once. “For Hazel, [her closet] was very eclectic and spontaneous, and a lot of street style was brought in for Hazel—things that weren’t familiar in the business setting,” Courts says. “And a lot of times, things that she wore were a little standoffish for most of the folks that were there [in the office]. … And that’s what we wanted to push the envelope on.”
To dress Hazel and other characters outside of the sanitized Wagner office, Courts pulled from thrift shops and her own wardrobe, as well as designer brands including Andrea Iyamah, House of Sunny, Brandon Blackwood, Sergio Hudson, Hanifa, Telfar, Pyer Moss, Sewit Sium, and BridgeParker. For Nella, meanwhile, Courts stuck with what she describes as “run-of-the-mill stores that are in the mall where we could find basic pieces”: Banana Republic, for instance, as well as Madewell and Gap. But Courts began to skew this binary as the episodes progressed, and Hazel’s unusual impact on the office—both literal and, perhaps, supernatural—manifested in what the employees wore.
“The environment that Hazel comes into, she’s bringing her personality, and she’s touching everybody with it,” Courts says. “So toward the end, you start to see some of the co-workers dressing in patterns. And you start to see that they’re wearing more color.” Perhaps none of these co-workers is more susceptible to Hazel’s neon beacon than Nella herself, whose subconscious reasoning seems to be three-fold: 1) She yearns for a colleague who can ease her isolation; 2) the itch of competition between her and Hazel veers more threatening than friendly; and 3) as Courts puts it, Nella is “not quite sure of herself. And we wanted to make sure her character looked that way. She’s ever-changing; she doesn’t really have a style, so she’s really trying to figure herself out.”
That’s where the alarm-bell hue of pink enters the fray. In episode 6, Hazel shows up in a custom-made pink mud-cloth kimono, designed by Courts herself and tailor Shan Keith. By this point, the audience understands Hazel is not as she seems. Pink, then, is “a warning sign for the whole show,” Courts says, “and we didn’t even realize that we were going to do that until we started with this mud-cloth look. And then our producers and our directors were like, ‘You know what? This will be great if all the ladies always wore pink.’” Soon enough, pink latches onto the other women as they all try to emulate Hazel, much to Nella’s own bafflement: With every passing hour, she becomes only more convinced that something isn’t right about Hazel. Who is she pretending to be? And who is she really? The horror of this surreality, combined with the very real horror of working as a Black woman in a blindingly white environment, is epitomized in these girlboss shades of pink that wheedle through the wardrobes of both Nella and those around her. It’s a nightmare in Barbie’s clothing.
By the end of the series, Courts says, those vibrant colors are meant as a call to the audience: To interrogate who gets to “dress the part,” and when and how they’re accepted, especially within the charged environment of The Other Black Girl. “Fashion—it’s definitely not evil, and we love it,” Courts says. “It’s more like, those who are fashionable and ‘well-put-together’ should be scrutinized a little bit more. Everyone in the show who had some sort of fashion was someone that we needed to be paying more attention to—and not the positive attention that we usually pay to folks that ‘look the part.’ These are people that we need to question.”
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.