The role of Patsey, the tormented scapegoat of Mephistophelean slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in Steve McQueen’s gritty drama 12 Years A Slave, is unglamorous to say the least. When she’s not out in the fields picking 500 pounds of cotton a day with the harsh Louisiana sun beating down on her, Patsey is the subject of an endless string of abuses by Epps—or occasionally, his jealous, Lady Macbeth-like wife, played by Sarah Paulson. She collects bushel after bushel of the fluffy fiber that’s a staple of fashion, but like most field slaves, is clothed in tattered dresses and isn’t even afforded a bar of soap.
So it’s been extra surprising to witness Lupita Nyong’o, the then-unknown actress who rivets as Patsey, strutting her stuff on various red carpets this awards season—a jarring about-face similar to Jennifer Lawrence’s transformation from a squirrel-chopping mountain gal in Winter’s Bone to budding fashion icon back in 2010.
With all due respect to Lawrence, her primary competition in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race, Nyong’o has been crowned the de facto red carpet winner this awards season for her sharp fashion sense. For her efforts, she’s been spotted sitting front row at New York Fashion Week, graced the cover of New York Magazine’s Spring Fashion issue, and has fashion houses like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney “begging” her to wear their designer gowns on Oscar night.
“Until all this, I hadn’t been a student of the fashion industry as a formal industry,” Nyong’o told The Daily Beast. “I wasn’t the girl who bought the fashion magazines, I’d always just worn what appeals to me. I know that even if I don’t buy the magazines and stuff, with fashion and style, you pick up influences all the time—if your eyes are open, you’re being influenced by fashion and style, whether you like it or not.”
The 30-year-old actress first sought fashion inspiration from her mother, Dorothy, who serves as managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and also runs her own communications firm. She describes her mom as “a very colorful dresser” blessed with an “unflinching” approach towards clothes—an attitude that Nyong’o has adopted herself. Once she became enmeshed in the acting world, she turned to some timeless Hollywood icons for sartorial guidance.
“I’ve admired from afar people like Elizabeth Taylor, Iman, and Cate Blanchett,” says Nyong’o. “When I knew I was going to be doing the press tour for 12 Years A Slave, I got to work and started researching what was happening in the formal world of fashion to try and articulate to myself what my style would be in it all. It’s been a great education—a great discovery—to find clothing artists who are doing things that I feel express something about myself. And there are so many.”
As far as Nyong’o’s own style is concerned, she’s been known—like her mother—for juxtaposing colorful dresses with her dark skin, resulting in a striking and elegant contrast.
“I love color and gravitate towards solid block colors,” says Nyong’o. “I like clean lines and a classic look, but I also like to have a sense of humor and wear things that put a smile on my face.” She pauses, and laughs. “I like to wear things, I don’t like things to wear me. I don’t like fuss!”