By Tokunbo Salako with AP • Updated: 14/03/2023
Given the enormous success of Everything Everywhere All at Once at the Oscars, you could easily be forgiven for missing one of the night’s other significant and memorable moments for women.
The ceremony also saw costume designer Ruth E. Carter become the first Black woman in history to win two Academy Awards.
Four years after winning Best Costume Design for Marvel’s Black Panther, she took home her second honour in the category for its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
As lead costume designer, Carter played a crucial role in making the film a cultural phenomenon with her garments helping to bring the fictional country of Wakanda to life.
Here is a partial article about the history of black women in costume design by Shelby Ivey Christie. Link at the bottom for complete article.
Until the late 1950s, black actors appeared on screen mostly as slaves or domestic workers, leaving little room for creative costuming. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning role as Mammy in 1938’s Gone with the Wind is a prime example of this kind of caricature casting; her wardrobe was marked by a house dress, an apron, and a headscarf. Similarly, when James Baskett appeared as a plantation worker named Remus in 1946’s Song of the South—a role he won an honorary Academy Award for—he did so in the type of plain, tattered pieces synonymous with poor blacks at the time.
1957: Carmen Jones
“I’d have to say my favorite costume moment is Carmen Jones,” shares Stacey Beverly, a Hollywood costume designer who’s worked on Girlfriends, The Game, and Black-ish, among other projects. The 1957 classic stars Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, a factory worker who, outside of her blue-collar job, wears a now-famous look: a curve-hugging red pencil skirt and black off-the-shoulder top. This was significant—not only were audiences seeing a black woman portrayed outside of a domestic role, but that black woman was also the epitome of glamour, dressed in luxe fur coats, dresses cinched at the waist, and hoops (gold hoops, to be specific, which were not de rigueur in 1957). Dandridge made history as the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, and while she didn’t win, her portrayal of Jones did succeed in sending an empowering message to scores of black women.
1966–1968: Batman and Julia
In 1966 Eartha Kitt was cast as Catwoman in Batman—a role that saw her costumed in a tight leather catsuit and mask, bringing the sex appeal and allure of black women onto the small screen. Two years later, when Diahann Carroll became the first black woman to star in a TV series by landing the title role in Julia, the milestone was also a seminal moment for black costume design. A widowed single mother—which many black women could relate to, as the U.S. had entered the Vietnam War three years prior—Julia had an impeccable wardrobe reflective of the times. As the ’60s ushered in a fashion awakening that saw a departure from classic A-line silhouettes and an embrace of mod styles, Julia was costumed in swing dresses, paisley prints, and leisure suits; her hair was worn in the short, asymmetrical cut popularized by Vidal Sassoon, and she completed her looks with round-toe shoes and nude lipstick. Black women finally saw themselves as active participants in American pop culture and trends. They weren’t just the women who scrubbed the floors and burped the babies, they were now professionals, earning their own money and curating trendy wardrobes. Mattel partnered with Carroll to create a Julia Barbie, and in 1969 Carroll won a Golden Globe for the role.
I love fashion and I wanted to be a fashion designer growing up. It was the only dream I had had for a very long time. It still burns within me. I like anything that involves clothing. However, costume design in on another level of creativity and imagination to me.
One thought on “Women’s History Month: Behind Hollywood on the Set Scenes”
Ertha Kitt on a weekday evening was a little bit of naughty TV that spoke to this boy in the mid 1960’s. I loved it.