Fashioning Wakanda: the fashioned black body in Black Panther

 

The fashioned black body is one that has been excluded from the western mainstream fashion and beauty world for centuries. It is often removed to the category of subculture, even though the styles and fashions that are considered “lesser” are often appropriated by white bodies. Black Panther (2018) challenges this notion of afro-centric fashion as a “subculture” by making it mainstream through unapologetic representation.

Like most people around the world, I saw Marvel’s Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler, which was the most culturally relevant superhero movie that I have ever seen. It was essentially a short introduction to African diasporic studies, that touched on the socio-political relationship between black Africans and those black bodies that have been historically displaced by colonization and slavery, and the desire to find autonomy in a world where whiteness is a marker of value. Black Panther has made the conversation regarding the need for the representation of black bodies in Hollywood “blockbuster” productions public. Black Panther is a completely self-contained movie that did not need quirky cameos from other Marvel superheroes to legitimize its place as a franchise. That is in part because of the powerful storyline, incredible visuals and character development of both male and female characters.

Black Panther cast photograph (2018)

From the very start of the film, the viewer is transported into the world of Wakanda through bright colors, shots of lush landscape and incredible displays of advanced technology. However, I found myself most mesmerized by the stunning costumes designed by the Oscar nominated, Ruth E. Carter. Carter has been designing costumes for films over the past 30 years, for movies like School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Amistad. Carter drew inspiration from various cultures and dress styles within Africa, in addition to Afropunk styles to create the image of Wakanda as a site of afrofuturism. Through dress, Carter was able to change, or rather provide a new way of looking at the black body that was void of colonial impact. In an article on the importance of fashion in Black Panther by Tanisha C. Ford from The Atlantic, Ford writes, “Carter is quick to point out that her work has always centered a black conception of the future, one rooted in political determinism and creative self-expression”

Black Panther fans in Melbourne, Australia.

The costumes of Black Panther were designed first with practical functionality in mind so that the fighting body could move without restraint. Costumes within the movie also function has a symbol of self-expression, honor, and belonging. However, this idea of belonging is layered. Firstly, within the film each character’s clothes reveal which tribe they belong too, in addition to their role and rank in Wakandan society. Belonging extends outside of the film screen in the way moviegoers have been fashioning themselves in African prints and Wakanda inspired outfits on their way to see the movie. The discussion of ‘what to wear’ for watching Black Panther has become a growing and trending topic on Black Twitter, solidifying it as a pop cultural and socio-political discursive event. The discussion around what one should wear to the movie reveals the fulfilment of the craving to be seen and to have one’s ancestry honored. It is also a testament to the idea of black fashion escaping the realm of the mythic and imaginary to one that is real and has permanence and value in its own right.

By Destinee Forbes

Theda Bara: Hollywood’s Original Vamp and Femme-Fatale

We often associate film stars with their onscreen personas, which are inextricably linked to the costumes they wear while portraying their most iconic characters. Audrey Hepburn will forever be linked to Hubert de Givenchy’s black evening gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz became a part of her lasting image. Identification between star and character can lead to typecasting and an audience expectation that a star will appear as a certain type of character. For example, Joan Crawford was the rags-to-riches girl. Crawford’s characters were often working-class girls who, through luck and hard work, were able to climb to the social ladder to their happy ending. One of Hollywood’s earliest manipulations of star into character, was Theda Bara.

 

Theda Bara, often cited as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, was one of the silent-film era’s most famous stars, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Her career last from only 1914-1919, perhaps the reason why her name is not as well-remembered today as some of her contemporaries. After her first film A Fool There was (1914) her image as the vampire, in this case a woman who destroys men using her sexuality, was cemented. Fox Studios was so committed to this image that they fabricated a backstory for Theda, in which she was an Arabian princess raised in Egypt, trained in Paris, saved by director Frank Powell from the horrors of war in Europe, and brought to America. This outrageous story concocted to support her onscreen image linked Bara to her characters in the eyes of the audience.

Bara’s most famous film, Cleopatra (1917), created a Queen of Nile that mixed popular styles of the day, Egyptian motifs, and burlesque costumes to display a Cleopatra who would be both irresistible to the public, and maintain Bara’s public persona. Her costumes reflected her mysterious image. Her costumes were extremely revealing, and accentuated her voluptuous curves. Theda Bara biographer notes that “The Cleopatra costume created quite a stir because it cost $1,000 a yard and Theda seemed to be wearing only ten cents’ worth…the Plain Dealer declared that ‘Of all the Vampires of Screen There’s None So Bare as Theda’”. While Bara strove for historical accuracy in her portrayal of Cleopatra, the revealing costumes did more to enhance her existing image than transport the viewer back to ancient Egypt. Fox carefully controlled this sexy, mysterious persona, even going so far as to contractually insure that she did not appear in public without a veil. While studios would regularly control a star’s story and persona in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System, Bara presents one of the earliest examples of this deception. Through her costumes and characters Bara projected the image of the Vamp and the femme-fatale, and helped to define their look in Hollywood.

By Olivia

Sources:

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, (New York: Collins, 2007)

Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Hollywood Costume, (London: Victoria and Albert, 2012)

 

 

Costume Trainee Lily Bailie on Game of Thrones, Music Videos and Belfast’s Fashion

Lily Bailie studied Performance Costume at the Edinburgh College of Art as an undergraduate before embarking on a career in costume design. In this interview Lily reflects on her first jobs, her love of music videos (she is also a DJ) and her future. Her first roles after graduation as a costume trainee were for Game of Thrones, Zoo, and The Woman in White.

What was your job at Game of Thrones?

I was a costume trainee, which allows you to do a bit of everything. I worked in the Crowd costume department, which focuses on fitting and dressing the extras. It is a fun department to work for because every day is different: from making alterations and organising stock to loading costumes on a truck before driving to set. Given the number of costumes and extras, being organised is essential for any production’s costume department. I also worked on set, which often required me to work long hours in sometimes relentless weather conditions. It was nonetheless an amazing to experience and good fun.

What did you enjoy most about the job?

Being a trainee is great, because you experience different roles and gain a general understanding of the costume world in film and television. As a trainee, you hop between different departments, which allowed me to see the full journey of a costume from the sewing room, to a fitting and to being worn on set. Higher positions don’t offer the same breadth of experience, as they are more specialised.

How did you get the job?

My supervisor from a previous film sent my name as a recommendation to Game of Thrones. When working in costume, it is important to always work hard and make a good impression, because you never know who might get you your next job.

What other projects are you working on?

I am currently working on the BBC production The Woman in White, which is a Victorian drama series set in 1850. I also worked on a film called Zoo, which is a film based on the true story of a Belfast zoo during World War II. Belfast’s wartime fashion was interesting, because it was everyday dress rather than high-end fashion.

I also recently worked on the music video No Reason for Bonobo, which was an ambitious shoot with an amazing team. The video shows eighteen different rooms, which gradually decrease in size to signify claustrophobia. It was a bizarre and fascinating project which blurred the boundaries between costume design and art.

What are some of your favourite costumes?

I love the music video for M.I.A.’s Bring the Noize. All dancers are dressed in white while moving through a warehouse with UV-lights, which creates an interesting interplay between the costumes and lighting.

What project would you love to design costumes for in the future?

I would like to develop a style for a music video that can also be used for live gigs and album art work. I like design crossing over from the art department to costume, to style, to fashion; I love it when everything comes together.

To see more of Lily’s work, please visit her site www.cargocollective.com/lilybailie.

50 Years of History of Dress at the Courtauld Alumni Interviews Part Seven: Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille dressing an actor, Daily Mirror, 2010

Camille Benda, MA (1999)

Camille Benda has recently designed costumes for the following films: Lilting, Still, The Quiet Ones, and The Blood Stripe, which is currently in post-production. As well as film, Camille has designed numerous theater productions, including regional theater at Yale Repertory Theater and Off-Broadway at Rattlestick Theatre. She also speaks about costume history at venues such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Costume Society and The Courtauld Institute of Art.

What led you to pursue graduate studies in the field of dress and fashion, and what attracted you to The Courtauld in particular?

The moment I heard about the Courtauld, I knew I had to go. I grew up in Seattle, Washington and was designing costumes for small theatre productions at the time. I was captivated by the chance to live in London, with its world-class museums, and the opportunity to combine history of dress studies with my fledgling costume design career.

Clothing was an early obsession for me, and it blossomed into a fascination with costumes, historical dress and fashion. I’ve always been interested in people and what makes humanity tick; so dress became a framework for understanding people – as we learnt at the Courtauld, clothing and fashion communicate economic and social status, moral values, human behavior and much more.

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

“Laura,” Camille’s sketch for the TV film “Belonging to Laura,” RTE Ireland, 2009

You graduated in 1999. What was the topic and structure of your MA course? What was the subject of your dissertation? 

Aileen Ribeiro was in her last few years of teaching at the Courtauld, and I feel so lucky to have been taught by her before she retired. It was the one-year course in the History of Dress, so we covered dress history through the ages in the first half. Our specialization was 18th century English and Scottish dress, with a trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh. My dissertation was on Moravian and Slovakian folk embroidery and the meanings woven within. Folk dress is a particular favourite of mine: it creates a tangible connection between the past and present, and is a perfect example of form and function working in harmony.

How did your time at The Courtauld impact your career choice?

Research has always been my favourite part of the design process – that’s where the characters described in a script come alive in images. I am always surprised when I am searching for the look of a character, and a drawing, painting or photo pops into my head as the perfect solution. It’s usually an image I’ve seen in the very first days of doing research – my brain must set it aside somewhere on a shelf, to be brought out for the right moment. Always go back to your research when you are stuck!

After The Courtauld you went on to complete an MFA in Theatre Design at Yale University. Could you describe this transition and/or how the two courses of study worked together? 

I was accepted to the Courtauld and Yale at the same time! So I asked Yale to defer my enrolment for a year so I could do the Courtauld course. I felt the Courtauld would provide me a unique viewpoint from which to look at costume design. The two courses meshed so well together. The Courtauld really provided me with the foundation of my approach to costume design, and at Yale I learnt the craft.

Could you discuss your career since completing your studies? 

I have focused on costume design for film since graduating, first in London as an assistant costume designer on films shot in England, like The Golden Compass, then designing costumes for art house films like Pelican Blood and Weekender. In between projects, I enjoyed giving the occasional history of dress talk, at the V&A, the Costume Society and my favourite one, a talk at the annual CHODA symposium about the representation of Elizabeth I in film throughout the 20th century, and the effect contemporary fashion design had on how the designs were approached. Now I’m based in Los Angeles, and enjoying learning the ropes in the ultimate movie town.

You’ve moved around for your education and career, notably between the USA and UK. How has your residence in various locations affected your approach to dress (personally and/or professionally)? 

I live in Los Angeles now, and moved there from London, where I lived for 12 years, so climate is the biggest factor in my approach to dress now. I admired London women and their masterful layering techniques: it is a true fashion achievement to stay warm and rainproof while remaining stylish! The exact opposite is Los Angeles style – too hot for layers, but still a big effort to add style to any simple and light look. Perhaps just a linen dress, but with amazing shoes or jewelry. And of course the ubiquitous LA sunglasses, which are an ethnography essay in themselves.

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actors Bess Wohl and Bill Thompson in “The Master and Margarita,” Yale School of Drama, 2001 (Photo: Camille Benda)

You’ve worked on fascinating film and theatre projects, are there any that stand out for you? 

The Master and Margarita, which I designed at Yale for director Will Frears- talk about a perfect creative opportunity! The play was adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s book about 1920’s Russia (with flashbacks to ancient Rome) and the absurdity of oppression. I enjoyed designing costumes for constructivist Russian artists, six-foot tall cats, Roman emperors, a naked witch and a masked ball hosted by the devil. (See photo)

Does your creative approach differ for historic films, such as Cheerful Weather for a Wedding, as opposed to ones set in the present time? 

Not at all! Once I discovered costume design, I was blissfully able to convey my curiosity for people-watching into a curiosity for characters in a script, and then a passion for helping actors, directors and writers express those characters with their costumes. So I always start with that. Costume design is not just putting people in clothes. It’s finding the driving force behind the characters and the script, and then bringing that to the screen, whether that means shopping for modern clothes, building period costumes from scratch (see photo) or digging through a costume rental house for the perfect glove. I always try to shop where the character would shop.

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

Actress Felicity Jones dressed for “Cheerful Weather for a Wedding,” 2011 (Photo: Camille Benda)

I just watched one of your most recent film projects, Lilting, and was mesmerised by its beauty and visual cohesiveness, from the interiors to the lighting and costumes. It shows how the creation of a film depends on a huge network. Could you discuss a particular collaboration that you felt worked well? 

Lilting was a very special project to work on, since everyone did it for the love of the craft, not the money. The budget for the film was tiny, but it proves that money is not the driving force, it should always be a focus on creating the world and telling the story. I often work with the director Karl Golden – he is a master at connecting all the creative departments and staying true to his visual style. I try to work very closely with the production designer, the cinematographer and the hair and makeup department to ensure that I am helping to support a cohesive vision for the film.

Advice for hopeful costume designers, as well as any shifts in the field of costume design that you’ve witnessed? 

Collaborate and contribute. Talent is necessary, but the next level is to be able to collaborate and support your team, other departments and the director. You can help your director and producers by showing them how much costume design can contribute to a project, be it film, television, theatre, music video, dance. It’s magical when you can infect other people with your own enthusiasm for design. But I’m not biased or anything….

The industry is changing. I learned from amazing costume designers like Ruth Meyers and Jane Greenwood who have been working for 50 years in the industry. Everyone knew how to draw by hand, and many designers still do, however now eye-catching computer drawing is becoming very popular. There are many more stylists joining the industry, starting out dressing celebrities and doing music videos and then moving into film and television. It will be interesting to see where costume design goes next!