Features, Film

RUTH E. CARTER: Great gowns, beautiful gowns

Part of a series honoring 2023 Coolidge Award winner Ruth E. Carter



The second in a series by Hassle writer Anna Hoang celebrating legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter, recipient of the 2023 Coolidge Award. Catch up with the previous installment here, and be sure to check out the Coolidge’s accompanying repertory series!

Before I knew about the compensation websites offer, I thought one of the greatest acts of online kindness was when people wrote thoughtful product reviews. Hurried complaints are a dime a dozen, but I send my compliments to those who took the time to break down the issues in an informative and clear way. I find it especially memorable on Lulus, an online store that sells dresses for all occasions. Anyone that has looked for elevated dresswear has probably stumbled upon the site. For me, it has come through for the last-minute searches when I have forgotten that dress codes exist in certain situations. While Lulus is limited in size inclusivity and feels a bit catered to the horse-girl-in-big-city-adjacent crowd (an identity I have sometimes co-opted for social events), I was initially appreciative of how open strangers can really be. You’ll find comments where strangers share pictures of themselves in the purchased dress, how the size fits their listed measurements, and if the dress has met their expectations (“Got lots of compliments at my fiancé’s golf party!” I saw once and wondered forever). Like anything that’s put on the Internet, I can see how these comments can flip into nastiness or manipulated into deep-web misogyny. I’m sure that the community at Lulus (or any women who has grown up in this world) is aware of such malice, but  girls just want other girls to have fun, which is why I find it so sweet.


There is a lot of power in an outfit that makes you feel good. This week’s Coolidge selection, Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite, is an example of form meets function. Pants need to be durable and stretchy for ass-kicking, collars are crisply popped to alert to the naysayers of the law that this is no office square, and inner pockets are a must-have for stashing items while running or posing stoically. Instead of focusing on cool period outfits, I wanted to talk about The Dress moment. In films like She’s All That and My Date with the President’s Daughter, there is the hushed moment of attention where the female protagonist steps out in The Dress. In both examples, we see innocent adoration through the male gaze. However, the impact is more long-lasting of those who want to be them, in that moment.

But as Princess Diana can attest, sometimes the Dress Moment isn’t completely for sugar-sweet awe. In the jazz saga Mo’ Better Blues, Denzel Washington is Bleek, who plays both the trumpet and two women, his girlfriend Indigo (Joie Lee) and an aspiring singer Clarke (Cynda Williams). Bleek’s poor juggling between the two women gets himself in hot water, which includes the memorable scene where he gives the same dress to both women, who then showed up at the same time wearing the flame-hot red dress with a deep neck cut (even if you look great, this is probably one of the most anti-Dress Moments). His clowning adventures eventually lead to a permanent injury that ruins his career. When Bleek revisits the club that he used to play, he sees Clarke on stage with his band. She laments over “Harlem Blues,” which is not quite the revenge-dress anthem, but Ruth Carter’s choice in her dress is impeccable: the cut is of a siren’s, but the color scheme is for an angel with broken trust. Sometimes, revenge doesn’t lead to vengeance; it might be used to show where the pain came from.

What about a dress not intended to mean anything? Selma, which is playing next week, is a film of magnificent power in American history that starts with an infamous event of shocking terrorism: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four girls were murdered by a bomb planted by the KKK. The scene shares a beautiful, dark golden light showering the staircase of a church, in which the girls descend in their best Sunday dresses. The peace is immediately cut by the explosion, in which bits of fabric and body parts are in mid-air. It’s a horror to witness for anyone, but for those who have known the pure, childlike simplicity of going about your day trying to have fun with your friends, there is the known sympathy and anger of stolen life. If you look at Carter’s costume exhibitions, you’ll probably see the girls’ dresses on display, which feel especially harrowing when it’s placed among the adult outfits that have gone to save lives, make mistakes, and exist freely.


On the flip side, Chi-Raq is about strategy. An ambitious undertaking of a Greek play taking place in a Chicago neighborhood amidst gun violence (and perhaps a sister film to Selma, which was released the year before), Chi-Raq challenges the community to react over a death of a Black girl when the women collectively abstain from sex. Teyonah Parris leads the movement with Lysistrata, which requires unwavering conviction to justice and against the many, many complaints from men. In Spike Lee fashion, the film is satirical and sensual, and Carter keeps the assignment tight. As a fashion nod to the original source, Parris is often wearing a variation of a gold bodychain that decorates her camouflage dress when she entraps the city’s General in order to take over a military building or for the final seduction battle between her and her lover Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). Lysistrata is a great character in that she rarely loses sight of her mission and devises her sexuality as a weapon for the weak. Sometimes, a dress is exactly what you need to hit ’em where it counts.

Featured films:

Mo’ Better Blues (1990) dir. Spike Lee

Selma (2014) dir. Ava DuVernay

Chi-Raq (2015) dir. Spike Lee

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