The fashion in black cinema is unmatched. It’s bold, powerful, effortlessly sexy and of course iconic. We have the ability to flawlessly move from a soft, mild display of fashion to flashy and exuberant. Either way, it’s full of personality.
Style in black cinema is done with such intention that wardrobe breathes life into the characters on screen, and vice versa. Classics over 20 years old such as Eve’s Bayou, perfectly intertwines delicate Southern style with the story of young girlhood and family tragedy. And still in 2019 films like Queen & Slim are told with poetic speech and imagery, all while being one of the most stylish films last year.
Style trends are born and reborn through characters we’ve come to know and love. Here’s 15 iconic looks from black characters in cinema.
Queen & Slim: Jodie Turner Smith as Queen
Everything makes sense when you learn that Shiona Turini, who was a styling consultant for Beyoncé’s Formation music video, is the mastermind behind Queen & Slim’s wardrobe. A runaway plot that has never been so stylish. Queen’s double-animal print look allowed her character to become increasingly relaxed and carefree as the plot progressed.
Life Size: Tyra Banks as Eve
Costume designer Maya Mani has spoken has said that her goal was to create pieces that would be iconic in a doll’s world. Hence, Eve gave us vibrant colors, texture, dramatics and fun. This matching leopard set is the first outfit we see Eve wearing, and the goal of iconic was certainly met.
CANADA - MARCH 05: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images MOVIE FOR TV - "Life-Size" - 3/5/00, A widower's daughter accidentally brings her Eve doll (played by Tyra Banks) to life as the Perfect Woman while trying to cast a spell to resurrect her mother., (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Clueless: Stacey Dash as Dionne
Over twenty years later, Clueless is still synonymous with plaid sets. All of Dionne’s looks are worth taking note of, from her striped neon crop top to a loud, red patent leather mini skirt. But by far, the most memorable is her black and white plaid suit and top hat. Sophisticated, sexy, sassy— this matching set embodied it all.
Two Can Play That Game: Gabrielle Union as Conny
Did Conny Spalding invent the power suit? This look is the epitome of the HBIC you love to hate: the seductive red, the short-hemmed skirt, and the heavy pony. The juxtaposition to the main character, Shante, is apparent. Conny was meant to appear harder and less classy, but you can’t help but love it.
Friday: Nia Long as Debbie
The realism of Shawn Barton’s costume design was one thing, among many, to appreciate about this classic. The epitome of the simple fashion of the 90’s, Debbie’s striped crop top was subtle. Fitting for Nia Long’s character, the modest-length skirt was an element of effortless sexiness.
Cinderella: Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother
We’ll just say it— This is the only adaptation of Cinderella that matters. Costume design was epic and extravagant from Whoopi Golderg’s approximate $5 million worth of Harry Winston jewelry to this unforgettable golden gown. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick loosely attributes her inspiration for the gown to Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and told Shondaland that Whitney Houston was very open when it came to her costumes. Let’s be honest, she would have pretty much pulled off anything.
Harlem Nights: Jasmine Guy as Dominique La Rue
Period pieces often provide the best fashion, and Harlem Nights was no exception. Set in the 1830s, evening gowns and tuxedos were prominent, and feathers and boas were front and center. Dominique La Rue is mysterious and alluring, her costumes fitting that image. It’s hard to choose between La Rue’s dramatic, black feathered-shoulder look and the ensemble we last get to see her in (before Quick shoots her). Ultimately, there’s just something about casually wearing a floor-length silk gown, with a matching sheer cover-up draped in feathers as your nighttime attire that just takes the cake.
The Chronicles a Riddick: Thandie Newton as Dame Vaako
Cinderella’s costume designer, Mirojnick teamed with Michael Dennison to create pieces that were not like “anything that had been done before,” they said in production notes. Mirojnick developed a fabric for this gown she called “Mockadile,” resulting in something looking like a cross between crocodile, cracked glass and fish scales. The opera gloves and Versace-like waist chain completed the look perfectly.
Eve’s Bayou: Lynn Whitfield as Roz Batiste
At the opening of the film, the family’s affluence is apparent; the room was full of women in extravagant dresses. Roz’s first look set the tone for her character: poise, classy, very-well put together, until pushed to the furthest extent to provoke otherwise. The velvet sweetheart neckline and citrine jewelry are small opulent touches I immediately fell in love with.
Mahogany: Diana Ross as Tracy Chambers
This camp classic walked so last year’s Met Gala theme could run. In true rags to riches fashion, the costumes became more dramatic as the film progressed through Tracy’s journey to fashion designer. Being the natural icon that Diana Ross is, it’s not surprising to discover that she took on the role of costume designer herself.
Boomerang: Lela Rochon as Christie
We love a monochrome-mastering queen. Boomerang has many notable power suit moments, but this Barbie-esque look was super fun. Much like Christie’s personality, though her screen-time was short lived, the outfit was a poppy, energetic take on 90’s date-night attire.
Black Panther: Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia
With Black Panther, costume designer Ruth E. Carter became the first black winner of an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and it’s not hard to see why. The fictional land of Wakanda, African roots, and futuristic fashion elements all play a part in the costume design. Lupita’s green and black gown was impressively covered in Wakanda text.
Love Don’t Cost A Thing: Christina Millian as Paris Morgan
The 2000’s gave us a handful of films to look to for throwback fashion inspiration. The “baby girl” aesthetic is occasionally revived in pop culture, like Normani’s “Motivation” music video. Paris having her boyfriend’s name on her t-shirt, and wearing a sports jersey miniskirt is just about as early 2000’s as it gets.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Kiki Layne as Tish
Though subdued, costume designer Caroline Eselin’s picks were classic and timeless. The film depicts two characters dealing with very adult situations at a young age, and particularly, Tish’s outfits reflect the maturity and grace with which she faces these challenges. Plus, we’re now dubbing her the queen of layering.