The costumes worn in the critically acclaimed film Selma tell about an important yet understudied history of the race, class and generational tensions of the Deep South. Few realize how critical dress was in establishing and maintaining the social order of the South. The Jim Crow system was built upon a hierarchy that placed wealthy whites at the top. They portrayed their status through their clothing.
African Americans who dressed in fine wears were accused of not “knowing their place,” thinking they were equal to middle-class whites and better than working-class whites. The punishment for such an “offense” was often a beating, or even murder. The vigilantes who brutally murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman also stripped him of his stylish suit, and they tied his naked body to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire. With all of the contestations over the dressed black body, it makes sense that protesters would use dress as a central element of their activism.
It is no surprise, then, that director Ava DuVernay chose two-time Oscar nominee Ruth Carter to bring such a complex history to life. Carter has worked on more than 50 films, including Amistad, Malcolm X and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. I recently spoke with Carter, who offered exclusive details about how she and her small team of five crafted all of the looks for Selma. As a historian of the civil rights movement who writes about gender and fashion politics, I can say that Carter gets it right.
Black activists who dressed in their Sunday best as they marched through Selma, Ala., in 1965 consciously chose a strategy of visibility that challenged the social hierarchy. Carter aimed to represent the sense of collective action that unified Selma residents of various ages, classes and occupations.
“I wanted there to be a strong look of community, of socioeconomics,” Carter said. “I looked at this Selma-to-Montgomery march and studied the colors and asked myself, What makes this look like ‘the South’?” Carter concluded that lightweight fabrics in colors such as orange, yellow, light blue and khaki best captured the mood of Selma. There is a diverse social composite among the marchers, whose costumes help distinguish their occupations in all of the film’s protest scenes.
Carter also had to capture the rebellious spirit of the activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. King and the other ministers (whom some SNCC members jokingly referred to as “De Lawd and His Disciples”) are mostly depicted wearing dark suits and clerical attire. Their costumes were part of Carter’s visual strategy. The ministers stood in stark contrast with the bright color palette she created.
Their costumes also characterized the ideological differences between King and SNCC leader James Forman. While the elders dressed up in their Sunday finest, the men and women of SNCC dressed more casually. They adopted the denim overalls and work shirts of the sharecroppers they organized alongside. SNCC realized that wearing “respectable” attire would not protect them from state-sanctioned violence and wanted a more radical look that represented their radical politics. These young “shock troopers” changed the face of American fashion.
Given this reality, I was struck by the fact that no one in SNCC was filmed wearing denim. I was happy to learn that Carter was well aware of this history.