Sequins and Embellishment as a Cultural Signifier of 1970s Fashion Film

There are characteristics displayed in the sequins and beading of the costumes in fashions of 1970s film.  Sequins, rhinestones and elaborate beading were a signature element of 1970s fashion. All of the women highlighted in my fashion archive project, Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, Tracy Chambers from Mahogany and Shugs Avery of The Color Purple are representative of the embodiment of contradictory postmodern women as displayed through their glittering garb.  These are all examples of personal desires and passions and historical flirtations.

Edith Head noted a cultural shift in the 1970s to very anti-fashion in film and in society.  The films highlighted in this project were made in the 1970s, a time of change in Hollywood and politics. The New Hollywood system was in a place where the star and his or her agent were in charge.  This allowed them to become more selective with the roles that they chose and they recognized the value their brand brought to the commercial success of a production. There are many points of contradiction associated with post-modern women.  While The Color Purple and The Great Gatsby are period pieces, there is an argument to be made for depictions of a post-modern woman in the garments worn by The Color Purple’s Celie, Shug Avery and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. The embellishments serve as a way both to counteract the male gaze and to satiate the desirability of women, both white women, and women of color. Bugle beads, sequins and rhinestones have a long history of signifying the side-show and burlesque side of sexualized entertainment, relying on a stabilized caricature of money and finery (Munich 150).  Shug Avery epitomized this historical connotation when wearing her red beaded gown whilst performing in the nightclub.

shug-avery-post-pic

By allowing Celie to wear the gown, she transfers this idea of sexiness and desirability. Bugle beads were commonly used by famed costume designer Adrienne, most notably in The Bride Wore Red in Joan Crawford’s cape.  While wearing the cape, Crawford is wearing a garment that is “seen to be worn” – not exactly seen to be wearable in the practical sense but worn only insofar as it is seen (Munich 150). For Shug, the dress is a part of her usual costuming to become a figure lusted after by men – one spectator makes mention that he would “drink [Shug’s] bathwater.” For Shug, the act of wearing this garment is a staple in her evening wardrobe thus eliminating the aspect of unwearability.  However, for Celie, Adrienne’s idea of unwearability is applicable because a dress with embellishments in as bold a color as red is beyond her comfort zone and idea of self-image. For Celie, there is a dissonance in the idea of womanhood when she compares herself to Shug; but that point of tension is removed once Celie finds herself in the same dress. The bugle beads and sequins become more than a costume, rather a new identity and form of self-discovery. This film provided insightful discussion, intrigue, and critique in the realm of feminist film theory. This theory has provided an insight into the way in which socially constructed dichotomies such as gender and race are represented in film (Smelik 80). Interestingly, The Color Purple, filmed from the perspective of the ordinary woman, does not break with the tradition of racist stereotypes of black women as highly sexualized objects or exotic women (Smelik 67). Shug Avery is, in fact, a blues singer but in the early days of film and fashion, the progressive woman was signified by her ability to dance.  For example, in Our Dancing Daughters, Joan Crawford’s character is considered a bold, liberated woman for dancing in clothing that revealed her legs and allowed her to move freely.  In The Color Purple, Shug Avery wears sequins to dance around the nightclub. She also has Celie try on the dress which allows Celie to feel emboldened rather than the timid victim of abuse from her husband.

the color purple 1

In feminist film study, the male gaze is a point of contention. “Classical cinema constructs its meanings through particular representations of sexual difference” (Smelik). The question then becomes can that be countered by a female gaze? The wearing of the red dress by Shug in the nightclub is certainly an example of being looked at by men but it also furthers the lesbian love story that occurs later on between Shug and Celie.  A dress worn in scenes that perpetuate racial and sexist ideals is also used to transition into a period that defied such ideas. Shugs wearing this red dress was an example of minority group disidentification-the act of using clothes as othering for groups not socially accepted in mainstream society (Davis 97). Black people have always been considered the other in American society and the idea of the blues songstress and black, exotic women serving as entertainment is a long withstanding tradition of black women’s position as it relates to entertainment and male pleasure. Ironically, the red, sequined dressed acted as a way to misidentify the black woman when read in the context of whiteness and as a product of the patriarchy.  Conversely, it served as a unifier between Celie and Shug as two black women looking to explore their sexuality.  Sometimes minority group disidentification does act as an intentional unifier.

“In Mahogany, characters’ desires and ambitions are mediated by and through the visual.  Each character’s skill is operating in the realm of visual knowledge” (Thaggert 718). In Mahogany, Diana Ross’ character Tracy wears sequined and/ embellished garments during pivotal moments in her characters life.  Whether it be the debut of her own collection or the photoshoots taken with Sean McAvoy-the photographer that discovered her- after becoming a successful model. Tracy debuting her own collection was both a sign of independence in the face of womanhood and also conforming to patriarchal control as the line was funded by her wealthy Italian lover.  Similarly, with her modeling career, Tracy found success as a working woman but it was through the male gaze and vision of Sean.

Tracy Chambers has a high “visual aptitude” in that she can produce and circulate images so that they have an effective reception by others (Thaggert 716).  Tracy takes great pride in this ability and often aggressively manages the production and actualization of her creations; particularly, in the scene where she is yelling at the seamstresses working on her debut collection because of their supposed poor execution.  In a screengrab from a scene in Mahogany, two of the garments behind a visibly frustrated Tracy in the aforementioned scene are sequined gowns.

mahogany screengrab

The color choice is specific and intentional as one of the two gowns behind her has a purple sequined bodice with golden mustard colored sleeves and collar. Purple is the color of royalty and at the pinnacle of her career, Mahogany was considered fashion royalty.  Additionally, the purple garment has a golden, mustard-colored collar and sleeves. Gold is a color that signifies wealth and status which relates to the historical connotation of these embellishments as stabilized caricatures of money and finery (Munich 150). These themes are prevalent in the film as it challenges the idea of post-Civil Rights Act America which is supposed to serve a greater good for African Americans in the country. The reality was the covert racism and sexism more ferociously directed at the African American woman that followed the Act.  Women are often criticized by utilitarians as their concern with fashion is considered frivolous and to this day, women are ridiculed for their ambition in the workplace. Tracy faced these struggles as a black woman from the South Side of Chicago with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. When this dream is actualized and she finds herself in Rome with Sean, it is a moment of empowerment for Tracy as a black woman to have made it across the world and to become a revered figure in fashion. However, Tracy, now Mahogany is highly commodified under the thumb of the patriarchy because her success is attributed to Sean selecting her, getting her to Rome, and curating her image.  Tracy is confined by the trappings of truly opulent wealth. Tracy’s commodification is furthered with her wealthy Italian lover Christian Rossetti funding her designs. Even before funding an entire collection, it takes the approval of a male spectator, Rossetti, for the audience to be accepting of Mahogany as an original designer rather than a means to an end of selling garments from other designers.

Sequins and rhinestones are signifiers of independence and difference as explicitly pointed out in one of Mahogany’s earliest scenes.  When in class, Tracy’s (Ross) teacher instructs the students to design “a basic swimsuit…. No sequins, no rhinestone, no ostrich feathers” (Thaggert 725).  With this statement, the teacher attempts to diminish Tracy’s individuality and creativity to which she gives a “dismissive, a rather ominous look, a glare” (Thaggert 725), an action that draws attention to Tracy’s eyes-  one of Ross’ most famous features.  Throughout the film, Tracy becomes more glamorous and her eye makeup features bold colors, shimmers, and glitter. The idea of bringing Tracy’s ideas to life is alluring but she is often reminded of the origins of her success with regards to who is footing the bill of her collection or, in the case of Sean, who was the person that ‘discovered’ her. Mahogany brings up the issues of post Civil Rights black females as it relates to fashion and societal expectation; the incessant demands of the fashion world, performing in a predominately white culture, the desire for professional recognition, the difficulty of finding effective creative outlets and a need for fulfilling personal life with an admirable partner (Thaggert 737).  Notice, when Tracy returns to Chicago to be with her true love, Brian, she does not wear any form of embellishment and has simple makeup. This seems to signify how she has dimmed her light to shift the spotlight onto Brian and his dreams. Tracy decided to channel her creativity to aid in the success of Brian’s campaign. Even the absence of sequins, beading, and rhinestones signifies the climate of a situation.

The costumes worn on-screen translated to stage in later years. Diana Ross was first and foremost a songstress before she was an actress.  Ross is inherently a musical entertainer, Shugs Avery was a nightclub singer and dancer and Daisy Buchanan was in the era of the flapper. These costumes provide translatability to commercial success of a film because of Ross’ recognizable persona as an entertainer.  There are connections between the glamour of Mahogany in her modeling and the glamour of Bob Mackie costumes on stage and in photographs where she is giving face. Mackie served as an inspiration for this fashion archive project because of his glittering costumes that draw the eye.  While he is not a costume designer for film, there too lies a translatability because he’s dressed stars like Diana Ross and Cher for their world tours while also dressing Cher for the Academy Awards, Hollywood’s most prestigious awards ceremony.

The idea of Daisy Buchanan wearing heavily embellished, glamorized garments was not abnormal as it is always assumed that white women are of a higher social standing.  Daisy wearing a bugle beaded gown to Gatsby’s party was certainly “worn to be seen” as she attends a soirée at Gatsby’s home where she is the object of desire. Daisy is cherished by Gatsby and valued in a way that deviated, slightly, from the predominant narrative of women being objectified and in many cases diminished to accessories for their male counterparts. Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, viewed Daisy in this way and showered her with physical embellishments like her pearl necklace and engagement right to prove his status to the world. But Gatsby acquired his wealth to prove his worth to Daisy.  Pearls aren’t associated with Burlesque dancers rather they are associated with proper women and debutantes. For Daisy to be wearing them when she sees Gatsby while wearing a bugle beaded gown was meant to downplay the burlesque connotation of the beading because it shows both how she is a proper woman but a kept woman.

daisy gatsby 1974

Tom made their marriage official by giving Daisy a string of pearls worn on her wedding day valued at $350,000. Tom puts a price on Daisy furthering the commodification of women in the patriarchy. “Things are substituted for emotions, things provoke emotion, and people become things” (Wershoven).  Daisy is the product of a family of means thus molding her into a woman that highly values exhibiting proper social grace. She left Gatsby with nothing because she herself had nothing to offer.  In the case of Daisy, embellishments served as a way to mask the emptiness of her life. When Daisy is wearing her beaded and sequined gown to Gatsby’s party she appears radiant even as her gown shines and reflects the lights of Gatsby’s mansion as women must glow rather than shine.  The Color Purple and The Great Gatsby were period films but they were both made in the 1970s; a time of social and political upheaval. There are traces of the time of the 1970s being a more liberated point with the mostly black cast of The Color Purple and that storyline being brought to the big screen. People stopped paying attention to dictated trends on screen and started paying attention to the street. It is notable that the glamorous 1920s fashion of The Great Gatsby was a focal point of the movie despite the ‘death’ of fashion in 1970s film.

“Post-modern pop stars produce a visual culture which throws set ideas about femininity, masculinity, blackness, and whiteness into considerable confusion” (Smelik 79).  Mahogany may have been the only film that took place in the 1970s but these three films collectively make reference to the changing times in fashion and film that the decade brought about. Diana Ross was revolutionary for being mainstream famous and successful in a white world of music.  Shugs Avery was an independent black woman who was both empowered and confined by her sexuality while Daisy Buchanan had the privilege of wealth and whiteness. All of these themes are reflected in the glimmering of the sequins and embellishments of garments worn by these characters. Maybe all that glitters is, in fact, golden in Hollywood.

Work Cited

 

Biedenharn, Isabella. “How Bob Mackie’s Dazzling Designs Connected the Stars.”

Entertainment Weekly, no. 1460/1461, 07 Apr. 2017, p. 20.

Munich, Adrienne. Fashion in film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U Press, 2011. Print.

 

Radner, Hilary. “The ghost of cultures past: Fashion, Hollywood and the end of everything.”

Film, Fashion & Consumption 3.2 (2014): 83-91.

 

Smelik, Anneke. “What meets the eye: feminist film studies.” BUIKEMA, Rosemarie (1993).

 

Thaggert, Miriam. “Marriage, Moynihan, Mahogany: Success and the Post–Civil Rights Black

Female Professional in Film.” American Quarterly 64.4 (2012): 715-740.

 

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