Costume Breakdown: SZA - "Garden (Say It Like Dat)"

I’m a sucker for foliage. And Donald Glover. And dreamy wide-angle shots of SZA lying on the jungle floor. It checks out, then, that SZA’s 2018 music video for “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” remains one of my favourite music videos I’ve witnessed to this day.


Among the fleet of mesmerizing music videos that emerged during the artist’s 2018 Ctrl era, from late night benders set to “Drew Barrymore” (including a brief cameo by the actress herself) to a blackout-induced summer camp battle soundtracked by “Broken Clocks”, “Garden” is arguably the simplest, yet the most breathtaking. Directed by Canadian-born artistic wunderkind Karena Evans (who also directed a number of Drake videos, including “God’s Plan”, “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings”), the video is four minutes and four seconds of hazy and natural beauty, which, in conjunction with the costuming, subliminally corresponds to the song’s overall theme.


SZA and Donald Glover in the beautifully hazy video for "Garden".


Put simply, “Garden” is about clinging deeply to someone for your own sanity, feeling a deep need to know them despite not wanting to show your true self. Being afraid to bear it all to someone in fear of what they might find, and clinging to them in order to fill that void. This interpretation isn’t a reach; the song’s opening lyrics literally state “Need you for the old me / Need you for my sanity” and “Ground me when I’m tumbling, spiraling, plummeting down to Earth.” By the chorus, the R&B singer croons, “Open your heart up / Hoping I'll never find out that you're anyone else / 'Cause I love you just how you are / And hope you never find out who I really am / 'Cause you'll never love me”, finishing with the heartbreaking lyric, “But I believe you when you say it like that”.


So where does the ‘garden’ come into play?


Here we delve into the more abstract interpretations of this work. Early on in the video, we see SZA and none other than Donald Glover, caressing each other on the floor of a lush jungle, or, garden. I like to think of this as a direct allusion to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Adam (Donald Glover) being created first and Eve (SZA) later joining him, as it happens in the video. Adam didn’t know Eve to begin with; he arrived first in the garden and was later met by her, unaware of her past, her personal intricacies or where she came from. Later in the video, SZA later unites with her grandmother, Audrey Rowe, who made several speaking cameos throughout the album. This guest appearance directly links SZA’s character to a sort of lineage or heritage, almost a physical manifestation of her deeper self that she cannot show to ‘Adam’ - whether this be ancestral trauma, family issues, or even just deeper nuances of herself.


Let’s talk about the costumes.


To up the ethereal ante of the work, the costuming, at least in my opinion, directly reflects the song’s sentiments. (This is perhaps the most abstract observation in terms of this project.) When traipsing around the forest in the arms of her Adam, SZA dawns a very pared-down nude two-piece set. Nothing too fancy, effectively near baring it all to her partner–or at least appearing this way. However, in the context of the song, and the larger themes of the work (and in comparison with the other ensembles she sports in the video) this ‘strictly basics’ ensemble, which she wears in the presence only of Donald Glover, is a front. Attempting to appear casual and neutral, she sports a barely-there, no-frills outfit in attempts to uphold this frontage - almost as if to avoid coming on too strong.


However, in later solo shots, notably those of her singing on a mountain scape, singing in a tree and singing in the presence of her grandmother, we see a different side of SZA, one outfitted in ensembles more complex, embellished and ornamental. A mesh and rhinestone-encrusted black catsuit on the mountain, a flowing A-line pink ruffled top and shorts in the tree, a pink sequined-flower cocktail dress in the scenes with her grandmother, all emblematic of who she is when not in the presence of her lover. Whether this be more complex, more high maintenance, more decorated or requiring more care, it’s a look she chooses not to show her counterpart in efforts to maintain the facade she has created.


SZA sporting one of her more decorated ensembles from the video.


It takes a certain type of artistic aptitude in order to constructively enhance a song’s meaning through visuals. Very seldom do music videos actively add an entirely new meaning or aspect to a song–except in the case of SZA. What is, to begin with, a heartbreaking song about the fear of honesty in a relationship, becomes an artistic powerhouse rife with metaphor and symbolism, with breathtaking cinematography that, at least for the author, is all-consuming.


Cover illustration by Inci Sahin.