Features, Film

RUTH E. CARTER: All Black Everything

Part of the Coolidge Corner series honoring Ruth E. Carter

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Part of an ongoing series from Hassle writer Anna Hoang celebrating the costume work of 2023 Coolidge Award winner Ruth E. Carter!

As far as color association goes, “villains in black” is a tried-and-true concept. It’s giving cloaked darkness or a person too busy harvesting chaos to unleash upon the world. What would be the point of someone with misanthropic intentions to look good for others? Now, sometimes, black might be used to signify societal rebellion or an extreme wealth that has far surpassed interest in material presentation (as long as the turtleneck costs over a hundred dollars per thread). It could probably mean all of this and more. All the same, I’m a sucker for all-black outfits. It might not be for everyone, but I tend to dress in black at least twice a week. However, there are days where I wear black and feel like someone will summon me to move props in the background of a stage play. See, it’s not only the color that makes it look good: it’s the structure, the shape, the ever-so-difficult task of matching blacks.

Granted, having a costume designer to find the right fabric, construct it to tailored form, and make it look good would make getting ready feel a lot better. Still, I can dream — and by that, I mean watch a movie and create my own wardrobe vision board on what I wish I can dress like. The Golden Lords, the fictional antagonistic gang in The Meteor Man, is a typical example of villainous coordination. Led by Roy Fegan and populated by a young Don Cheadle and Big Daddy Kane, the Golden Lords’ style take a mafia-esque approach both in style of sharp blazer-like cuts (though some wear aviator jackets with baggy arms and fitting torsos) and in extortion as they terrorize a neighborhood in Washington D.C. The cincher to their outfits are the gold emblems, whether it’s a more physical piece (like Fegan’s spaceship sheriff badge) or something more royal-brooch like (like Cheadle’s geometric shape affixed to the side). There is a bit of galactic overlord to the look, which gives an intimidating contrast to Robert Townsend’s cushy Meteor Man costume. The gold accents, which is tied in with the gang’s bleached hair, give a sense of power as the villains’ upper-hand in a scared community.

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO AND LAURENCE FISHBURNE IN SCHOOL DAZE (1988). IMAGE COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES.

The importance of costume design in School Daze couldn’t be understated. Apart from it being one of my favorite Spike Lee films, the film was one of the first, rare depictions of HBCUs on screen. While more recent films, like Stomp the Yard and Beyonce’s Homecoming, celebrated traditions like stepping or uniforms, School Daze came out of Lee’s experience at Morehouse. Supplemented by Carter’s (who graduated from Hampton) familiarity, the film strongly brings the united fronts of the men and women of the Gamma Phi Gammas through letterman sweaters, homogenous haircuts, and a loyalist attitude. Opposite Laurence Fishburne’s moralistic, Pan-African-donned Dap is Giancarlo Esposito’s Julian, the leader of the Gamma. He carries his black outfit with refinement: a form-fitting letterman jacket with a tight shirt that speaks less jock and more militant, leather gloves to show class and being brawl-ready, and combed hair all in place. Fraternities are often thought of as shirtless slobs doused in keg juice, but the importance of these organizations in HBCUs is accentuated by a leadership elevated by terror derived from brains and not brawns.

ANGELA BASSETT IN WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? (1993). IMAGE COURTESY OF BUENA VISTA PICTURES.

It’ll be hard not to talk about Angela Bassett’s outfits in nearly everything and call it a day, but I’ll bring attention to the leather outfit she is seen wearing in What’s Love Got to Do with It (unfortunately, this scene is right before a sickening assault, which makes it hard to want to go back to the film to screenshot the full outfit). The film covers the span of Tina Turner’s career, which has flourished from the ‘60s mini-dresses to the famous ‘80s hair-metal hair. There are a lot of tricks to admire: the adjustment of a dress advised by Turner herself (who told Carter that Bassett’s shorter torso wouldn’t be able to compete with Turner’s dresses, which were intentionally cut short by designer Bob Mackie to accentuate her long legs), the way that Tina and Ike are under a depression-blue shadow on stage but becomes bright beacons on stage when the spotlight is on them, the way that the film keeps up with the fashion trends. With regard to the movie, it’s not the greatest testament to Turner’s career achievements as it focuses more on the tumultuous abuse she endures from Ike. He actually shows more consistency in wearing black turtlenecks (and, at one point, a terrible shaggy haircut that he deserves), but Tina’s leather-black outfit is briefly seen when she is recording in a studio. It’s a relatively modern look (accompanied by sideswept bangs and a revealing tanktop cut) and sort of a surprise in time-period placement. However, it comes at the point of the film where she begins to fight back, and her power might be implied by the sleek nature of her outfit. Also, in the moment, she looks so content and at peace singing in the microphone that for a fleeting moment, she is untouchable. 

Featured films: 

The Meteor Man (1993) dir. Robert Townsend

School Daze (1998) dir. Spike Lee

What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) dir. Brian Gibson

Part of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s program honoring costume designer Ruth E. Carter, running from 9/13 to 10/15.

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