Not-so-Hidden Figures: On Costumes for Black Women in the 1960’s
In February of 2016, at the 88th Academy Awards, Jenny Beavan, the costume designer for Mad Max: Fury Road, won her second Oscar. If you remember this win, you probably remember that on her way to the stage, Beaven walked past an audience of men who refused to clap for her. This included directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Tom McCarthy, who would go on to win big that night, taking home the awards for best director for The Revenant and best picture for Spotlight, respectively. These men had pretty great Oscar nights, and yet something about Beaven’s win upset them so much that they were unable to respond to her win graciously. In her skull-studded leather jacket, scarf, and pants, Beaven didn’t look like most of the other women in their ball gowns at the Dolby Theater that night. She, not unlike the female protagonists of Fury Road, dared to disobey the common ideas of how women should be and how they should look, and she was punished for it with glares and disrespect. Clearly, whether on screen or off, costuming can mean a lot more than just what clothes someone is wearing.
At this year’s Oscars, the films nominated for best costume design are Allied, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Jackie, Florence Foster Jenkins, and La La Land. The costuming in each of these films is incredible and the case could easily be made for any of them to win. The case could also be made for a film that was not nominated: Hidden Figures. The costume design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus is gorgeous. It, like many of the nominees, shows the design of the period of the film. The clothes express the early 60’s fashion, from the pencil skirts and broaches to the new styles of pants worn by the youngest of the three protagonists, Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson. The clothes are beautiful and for anyone who appreciates the retro 60’s aesthetic, the film is a dream come true. But costumes go beyond just the appearance of the clothes, it’s also about who is wearing them and what this means for the characters. In Hidden Figures, costumes aren’t just gorgeous vintage pieces, they’re gorgeous vintage pieces being worn by African American women in the south. What is most important about the film is obviously the fact that it is bringing to light a side of history that has gone unrecognized for far too long. But it’s also important to recognize that, even if in a small way, the costumes of the film serve this theme, and they showcase the beautiful vintage style of the African American protagonists in a way that few mainstream movies do.
Often, the period films we get with African American actors have them in roles where their characters don’t have access to the styles of clothing seen in Hidden Figures. Two of the film’s stars, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, are no strangers to success for period pieces. In 2009, Henson received her first Oscar nom for her role as Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In her memoir, she has described how she was paid a mere percentage of the millions that co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett received and that for the three months of filming in New Orleans, she had to pay her own hotel expenses. She credits Tyler Perry and the pay she received from him for starring in I Can Do Bad All By Myself for raising her baseline pay and ensuring she was paid what she was worth for future projects. In Benjamin Button, Henson plays a nursing home worker who adopts the abandoned newborn titular character in 1918. Henson’s part of the film takes place mostly 20–40 years before the events of Hidden Figures, but there’s still a great deal of mid-20th century costume design in the film. Button’s costume designer Jacqueline West even got an Oscar nomination for her work. West’s work at costuming Queenie is detailed and historically accurate to what her character would have worn at the time.
However, when it comes to costume design, the focus of the film is inevitably on Blanchett’s Daisy. She is the character who, more than anyone else, showcases the beauty of the style of the time. From her costumes as a dancer in Paris to her looks as a modern young woman in the 1940s in Manhattan, Daisy is impeccably dressed throughout the film.
This is not to suggest that Queenie’s costumes are a failure of West’s. The costumes for all the characters show the work that went into designing them and they reflect historical accuracy. It just so happens that for Benjamin Button, and many other period pieces, historical accuracy allows white women to wear beautiful, colorful vintage styles, while women of color wear the neutral and unelaborate clothes dictated by their unglamorous professions.
This is also true for The Help, the film that led to Octavia Spencer’s Oscar win for her role as Minny Jackson. Set in Mississippi in 1963, The Help features costumes for its white characters that are gorgeous and fit the retro aesthetic perfectly. From Brcye Dallas Howard as a prim and proper southern belle to Jessica Chastain as a Marilyn-esque blonde bombshell, the costumes are incredibly well detailed and provide insight into who these characters are.
On the other side of the scale, we see Spencer and Viola Davis as the black maids working for these upper class white families. These women are seen mostly in their uniforms: grey and white dresses, lacking the elaborate detail and color that is afforded to the clothes of the white women. Once again, this film is historically accurate and I don’t mean to suggest that this is the failure of the costume department. Rather it is an example of one of many films where the narrative for black women is one that puts them into plain clothes that are dictated by their profession while the white women in the film are allowed to wear fashionable clothes.
This is where Hidden Figures differs. Monáe, Henson and Spencer, as well as countless other black women working at NASA, are all seen wearing beautiful vintage pieces accurate to the 1961 setting. The clothes are work appropriate but stylish, with the women all seen in pencil skirts, high neck sweaters and blouses. They are earth and jewel toned, neutral but still with enough color for them to stand out and align with the 60’s aesthetic.
In trying to think of another film that features three black female protagonists and has dozens of other black women in the film, where they are always dressed in this kind of vintage 60’s fashion, I found myself unable to come up with another movie. Aside from aesthetic beauty, the costumes also serve the narrative. It’s important to understand that even though these women are struggling in their fight for equality at the predominantly white NASA, they are also incredibly hardworking, resilient and successful at their jobs. They’re not paid or treated the way that they should be, but they’ve used their intelligence and skills to earn a living in this field and they pride themselves in the work they do and in their appearance. These women don’t want to be the same as the white men they work with. They embrace their femininity in their hair, makeup and clothing. Rather than wear drab clothes to try and fit in, they all try to stand out, through their hard work and their appearance. In a room full of men all dressed the same, Henson stands out, and does so proudly.
Hidden Figures shows that intellect and black womanhood are not opposing. These characters don’t have to reject their aesthetic beauty and feminine sense of style to prove they’re worthy of success. All too often, appreciating the retro 50’s and 60’s fashion means focusing on the clothes of white women. Hidden Figures offers an alternative through its use of fashion for black women. Of course, as Henson’s Katherine Goble Johnson says in the film, these women work at NASA not because they wear skirts but because they wear glasses. The intelligence and resilience of the characters is rightfully the focus of the film. But it’s a welcome change to see a film set in the 60s featuring a cast of black women not just wearing skirts, but wearing beautiful, fashionable skirts.
Originally published at abovetheline