What Does Fashion Have To Do With The Civil Rights Movement?

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
As much as we love an evil-stepsister ball gown or superhero spandex suit, some of the most impressive costumes on the silver screen are the ones that re-create reality. Consider the weighty task faced by Ruth Carter, costume designer of the Oscar-nominated Selma, who was charged with dressing the film's Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his fellow marchers as they approach the edge of the Edmund Pettus bridge, or congregate in church to mourn their fallen brothers and sisters. Making these outfits tell the right story is crucial, but when discussing the civil rights movement, what its members wore hardly enters the conversation at all. But, garments can be a powerful point of entry into society's larger issues — recent moments, like Trayvon Martin's hoodie and Kenya's #mydressmychoice, make that clear.

Having worked on movies such as Malcolm X and Lee Daniel’s The Butler in the past, Carter is no novice when it comes to dressing a leader. Or a crowd, for that matter. To prepare for Selma, she researched everything from vintage Ebony magazines to the documentary Eye On The Prize. “I knew that I needed a plethora of things, of different articles of clothing, everyday clothing, and I didn’t want it to feel all over the place,” she says.

Carter's challenge was not only figuring out where to source enough retro pieces for a crowd as large as the one that marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, as she tells us, it was also how to dress leaders who were astutely aware of the effect of their sartorial choices — from Dr. King's austere suits, to Coretta Scott King's (Carmen Ejogo) "laid-back" attire, to the use of overalls as a sign of solidarity. And, figure it out she did. Carter's work on the film has earned her a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for Excellence In A Period Film. And, ahead, she tells us exactly how she took on the behemoth of a project, and just how closely related the civil rights movement and personal style may be.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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How do you approach — or even begin to approach — a project such as this? What was your research process like?
“Well, the first thing is to read the script, and it just happened to be a brilliant script written by Ava DuVernay and Paul Webb. I’ve been familiar with the Selma script, because other directors that I work with had also been given a crack at redefining it, but no one had really done to it what Ava had done. I was captivated and immediately wanted to find the images that supported the emotion that I felt as I read the pages.

"First, [I went] through my own library. I had several books on photographic essays, books on the civil rights movement. I also have a collection of Ebony magazines; a couple of them covered the Selma to Montgomery March with photographs and cover photos of Martin Luther King leading the march.

"I watched videos like Eyes on the Prize, and other [documentaries about the movement]. It was a springboard for me because it talks about clothing. A lot of the footage has been black-and-white, so one of my challenges was to decide how it should be in color and also where I was going to gather all of the period clothing, because it was a march of everyday people.”

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
So, you were already well-versed on this time in history. Was there anything that surprised you in your research this time?
“Today, we might have T-shirts if we looked at a crowd, and baseball caps. [In Selma], we saw a lot of white shirts and business suits. A man’s suit in the ‘60s was an everyday thing. A guy would walk into your home in a suit, and it would be normal. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that he came from work. I also noticed that there were a lot of coats, and there was a significance to all of these things. Coats were a form of armor. It was like they knew that they were going to be faced with this brutality. So, not only did they put a coat on because they were going to march 50 miles, but because they could pad underneath to protect themselves. And, if you put your hands in the pockets of your coat while you were marching in the front line, it was a symbol of peaceful protest.
"The overalls with the white shirts and the black tie was the uniform of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the SNCC. They wore that in solidarity with the farmers of the South. You see James Bevel [played by Common] wearing that in the film a lot.”
One of the things that struck me was that the men who dressed in suits and the women in dresses looked incredibly put-together. They seem to have on their Sunday best.
“Well, I think that today we have gotten so far away from dressing up. Today, we dress down for everything. But, back in the ‘60s, people dressed up as a form of respect. It was customary. When I was a child of the ‘60s and went to visit my Southern relatives, you had to get up in the morning and get dressed before you went and sat at the breakfast table. If this film was being shown in the '60s, there would be less talk about why people are so dressed up than it is now. 

"Someone said, ‘Well, Coretta is sitting having a conversation with King in the middle of the night, and she’s in a sweater and a skirt.’ I’m like, 'Yeah, women wore skirts as a casual thing. Did you expect her to be, what, in like a Juicy sweatsuit or something?' We are so far away from that now. It isn’t dressed up in Sunday best. It’s actually just dress.”

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Dr. King wore a suit throughout the film, but during the final march to Montgomery at the end, he was dressed down. He had on the blue, collared shirt.
“By the time the third march came about, the federal troops were leading the marchers along their path, and they knew that the march was going to be successful. Also, by the time we got to the third march, people and their children were singing, it was jubilant, and the thought was that they were protected. They didn’t necessarily need to wear their armor this time, they were actually going to make the 50 miles.”

Speaking specifically about the costumes, and as vintage-fashion lovers ourselves, what was your secret for sourcing the clothes for the film?
“There are collectors in New York and Los Angeles and Massachusetts that I have continued to go to throughout the years. There are huge collections, like Western Costume — they have the biggest collection — and I went to them for an enormous amount of pieces that we spent weeks searching through and pulling. And then, there’s a collector in Massachusetts called The Autumn Olive. They have brand-new clothes from the ‘60s. Catherine Nash is a collector out of New York, and she had the jewelry, and so she sent me just dozens of jewelry sets, earrings, and brooches.

"Then, we made things. We made most of what Coretta Scott King wears. But, I couldn’t just go to the fabric store because it’s also hard to find vintage fabrics, or fabrics that look vintage, so I had to keep the knowledge in my head of what I knew would be vintage and look for things that would be close to it. For example, the green dress that she wears when she emerges up the stairs to the courthouse and joins Martin was a bright green leafy pattern; I took the fabric and I used markers to deepen the green so that it would look a little bit more [appropriate for the period].”

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Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Coretta Scott King’s wardrobe was really beautiful, and she was known to be a wonderful dresser. What do you think her style says about her as a woman, as the wife of the biggest civil rights leader, and also as a civil rights leader herself?
“I feel like she definitely related to Jackie O. When you see her in that orange suit in that final march, she felt like she was the First Lady of the march. No one else is really dressed like that. She really wanted people to know that she cared, and that she was there in the foreground in support of the movement, because she couldn’t always be there because they had children, but when it was important, she was right there and very proud to be there. And, I also saw her as being very respectable in her neighborhood, in her community — the quintessential First Lady of the church. I felt it was important that I stay true to her legacy.”

How can we talk about style when it comes any moments of injustice — past and present?
“Whenever there’s change in protest, there’s usually a youth movement tied to it... And whenever there’s that civil rights movement, there is fashion that goes along with sort of signifying that ‘I am in solidarity to this change.’ We change our look because we want to change the perception of who we are, and I think that has been true from the past when people wore a zoot suit. A zoot suit in the ‘40s was called hoodlum fashion, and it was something that came about as a result of rioting in Los Angeles. In the Black Panther movement, the black turtleneck became a significant style of dress. Selma was the overalls with the white shirt and the black tie. So, there’s always a mode that goes along with civil unrest. Today, it was sagging. We sag our pants. It’s always something that’s in defiance of what the conservatives would think would be appropriate. That has been very powerful throughout the ages at achieving a sense of new era and new thought.”
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