There is always time to celebrate the diversity and culture-shifting power of Black fashion in cinema. For decades, filmmakers and costume designers used clothing and accessories as storytelling mediums in painting a portrait of Black life in America. For anyone that needs a quick refresher on the most iconic fashion moments from Black movies, TZR rounded up several you should already know. (If you don’t recall anything from this list, consider streaming a motion picture or two this weekend.)
You’ll notice throughout the movies, below, that many costume stylists curate wardrobes that help communicate the messages of freedom, triumph, tension, beauty, and pride within the Black community. Take for instance, the Oscar-winning costume designer and visionary Ruth E. Carter, whose impeccable eye helped portray numerous defining cultural moments for Black people. She has worked on everything from Spike Lee’s 1989 dramedy Do the Right Thing to the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. On a separate note, you may recall the outfits worn by blues singer Shug Avery, a character in the 1985 historical drama The Color Purple, that challenged the traditional dressing tropes of her time.
Before more style spoilers are given, scroll ahead to see 12 memorable fashion moments in Black movies.
The Color Purple
The Color Purple is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and is set between the years 1910 and 1940. In this coming-of-age film, Shug Avery (played by actor and singer Margaret Avery) demonstrated a penchant for mood-lifting, glamorous attire. The red beaded dress, pictured above, was arguably one of the most memorable fashion moments from the film. Many Black women at the time were barred from being this sexually liberated and didn’t have the financial liberty to own such fabulous pieces, which made Shug’s exceptional outfits even more noteworthy.
Beyoncé fans will want to see the singer’s iconic fashion moments in Dreamgirls — a 2006 musical drama, directed by Bill Condon, that follows the history and evolution of R&B music in America. While playing the role of Deena Jones, a member of Black backup music trio dubbed The Dreamettes, Bey fully embraced fashion and beauty trends of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her retro wardrobe included impactful pieces like disco-inspired bodysuits, fishtail gowns, and opera gloves.
Do The Right Thing
The highly acclaimed 1989 film not only earned Spike Lee worldwide recognition, but also gave voice to style trends that were emerging in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy area at the time. The outfits, craftily curated by Ruth E. Carter, represented the era’s burgeoning street style and helped shape trends in men’s fashion, many of which continue to resonate to this day. (Case in point: Mookie’s signature Dodgers jersey, or Buggin’ Out’s tragically scuffed Nike Air Jordan sneakers.)
The Marvel comic adaption is remarkable not only for its cultural significance, but also its top-notch costuming. The film’s costume designer, Carter, drew inspiration from traditional and contemporary African fashion while creating outfits for the world of Wakanda. She made sure to keep four words on her vision board: beautiful, positive, forward, and colorful. Needless to say, the wardrobing delivered on all fronts.
Waiting To Exhale
This 1995 romance film was directed by Oscar-winning Black actor, producer, director, and activist Forest Whitaker. The feature zeroes in on the lives of four Black, middle-to-upper class friends who bond over the shortcomings in their love lives (and the scarcity of good men, to be exact). Throughout the movie, the ladies pursue love and demonstrate an impeccable taste in fashion. One of the movie’s most notable outfits was a white dress, worn by Robin Stokes (played by Lela Rochon), which, arguably, foreshadows the cutout trend and illustrates how the movie’s fashion was way ahead of its time.
This 2017 feature tells the previously little-known story of three Black women — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — who played instrumental roles in advancing the NASA space program. The characters professional accomplishments broke race and gender barriers during the civil rights era. Meanwhile, their impeccable outfits, created by designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, exemplified the best of ‘60s fashion.
Released in 1975, Mahogany offers a glimpse into the Black experience during a time of discrimination. In the movie, struggling Chicago fashion design student Tracy Chambers goes from a rags-to-riches journey. Eventually, she soars to success as not only a designer, but also a runway model. (A natural fashion icon, actor and singer Diana Ross played Tracy and took on the role of a costume designer at the same time.) The character’s campy costumes became progressively more dramatic throughout the movie and culminated in the seminal orange satin dress with a giant dragon emblazoned across the front.
Set It Off
If your style leans towards a “borrowed-from-the-boys aesthetic,” this action heist film will provide plenty of outfit inspiration. Throughout the movie, its characters — Cleo (Queen Latifah), Tisean (Kimberly Elise), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), and Stony (Jada Pinkett) — are sporting workwear and streetwear-adjacent garments like baggy sweatshirts and denim overalls. The era-defining film takes on the challenges and expectations faced by working-class Black women, which explains the prevalence of utilitarian, function-forward garments.
Sorry to Bother You
In Sorry to Bother You, an independent comedy that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, director Boot Riley and costume designer Deirdra Govan found the perfect balance of political commentary with pure pop entertainment. The movie not only paints a portrait of contemporary Black life in America, but also puts forth an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist message. The outfits — particularly those worn by Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson) were generously sprinkled with poignant statements. (Think a “The Future Is Female Ejaculation” graphic tee or “Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb” statement earrings.)
Love Jones was one of the first films to portray a different aspect of Black life, one filled with sensitivity and hope rather than struggle and strife. If you’re a fan of ‘90s fashion, too, take note of this 1997 romantic drama. Its plot line follows the story of Darius, a poet, and Nina, an aspiring photographer recovering from a recent breakup. Nina (played by Nia Long) was the epitome of effortless, carefree yet confident style with her oversize, loose-fitting clothing and leather jackets. In many ways, her understated, boho-urban aesthetic mirrored modern-day minimalism. Beyond the fashion, the movie is filled with intelligent conversations and the actors’ magnetic chemistry will fully immerse you in the love story.
For the best of the 1920s fashion, look no further than Dee Rees-directed, HBO-produced biopic Bessie. The plot follows Bessie Smith’s rise to fame as the “Empress of the Blues” and shows how Black women pushed forward the boundaries of culture, gender, and sexuality during the Roaring Twenties. Press play to see lots of drop-waist dresses, feather-adorned headwear, glitter, and other sartorial beacons of The Great Gatsby-era fashion.
This feel-good comedy film follows the journey of four best friends as they spontaneously decide to turn one friend’s work vacation into a girls trip. The four go to Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, where one member of the group, lifestyle guru Ryan Pierce (played by Regina Hall), has been offered a speaking gig. Naturally, as they rekindle their wild side, the characters demonstrate a medley of mood-lifting vacation looks, curated by Black costume designers Danielle Hollowell and Provi Fulp. For one, Tiffany Haddish’s character Dina possesses a loud, bright, and bold personality, which is thoroughly reflected in her outfits like the kaleidoscopic look, above. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, this movie not only puts Black women at the forefront of a narrative, but also features a majority-Black cast and crew.