Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) in the courthouse in a scene from the film Selma. Costume designer Ruth Carter wanted to portray them as a striking couple who cared deeply about civil rights but who also have come to symbolize the black glamour of the era. 
Gasper Tringale

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.

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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.

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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.

“Forman was always in overalls, a white shirt and black tie, and a denim jacket. This was the dress of the younger organizers in solidarity to the Southern farmer, and it was widespread,” Carter said. Because the film centered on the ministers, DuVernay wanted James Bevel (played by Common) to be the only main character dressed in denim. It would be easier for a general audience—for whom this history and these characters were new—to follow the narrative if the costumes did not overcomplicate the script. Carter agreed, but she made it her mission to dress any college-age extras in denim. “I redressed dozens,” she said, “hoping that they would eventually make it to camera in some unified way.”

Carter could not focus solely on the protests of the 1960s. She also had to channel the glamour of the era. Despite the everyday violence they faced, black women in the South took great pleasure in their self-styling. Against this backdrop of violence and pleasure, black women like Coretta Scott King innovated new styles. Carter wanted to portray Mrs. King (played by Carmen Ejogo) as a woman who cared about civil rights but who also took great pride in her appearance.

She is arguably the best-dressed character in the film. “I loved all of the clothing that Coretta is seen wearing in the film, and 95 percent of it was all tailored from scratch,” Carter said. “My favorite is the green print dress she wears as she is walking up the stairs in the courthouse.” Scott King was clearly the style icon. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, a group of young girls are joyfully conversing with one another about how they want to look like Mrs. King, from her beautiful dresses to her perfect Marcel-wave hairstyle.

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Ruth Carter is such a skilled designer that one often does not even notice the complex narrative work that her costumes perform. But I encourage filmgoers to view Selma with new eyes. Take in the beautiful sartorial landscape that Carter creates. Feel the range of emotions that her stylistic choices help to evoke. Her work is black fashion storytelling at its best.

Tanisha C. Ford is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. She is an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her on Twitter.