Costuming The Mother of The Blues: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Yesterday we celebrated Mother Earth, but today we celebrate Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, ‘Mother of the Blues,’ and Ann Roth, ‘Mother of Costume Design’ (in my opinion). These three powerful figures have brought so much to this world. Mother Earth has given us nature and a home to create, discover, love, and live our lives. Ma Rainey has given us confidence, dignity, loyalty, and Blues music while representing the LGBTQ+ community as an openly bisexual woman – a bold move for the 1900s that was definitely taboo. Ann Roth has helped convey Ma Rainey’s story and so many others through her ability to express emotion and time periods through her costumes. We will be talking about costuming the Mother of The Blues and Ann Roth’s work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottomwhich earned Roth an Academy Award nomination for “Best Costume Design.”  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a sensational biopic filled with powerful storylines, clever characters, and much-needed reflection on America and its unsettling history. It’s based on the 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom written by August Wilson (notably known for Fences). With many of his works based in the early 1900s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in 1927, Chicago. The story follows Blues singer Ma Rainey and her band as they meet for a reimagined recording session at a music studio up North. As the day progresses, they exchange stories and learn lessons about race, culture, relationships, religion, and the music industry.

Because the film mainly takes place on one day, each character mostly has one specific look. It’s the 1920s, meaning we can expect to see many pin-stripe suits and flapper dresses. This is Ann Roth’s specialty. Roth has done much research and works regarding the 19th and 20th centuries, having over 100 credits in Broadway and film. Her credits include The Prom, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Royal Family, The Iceman Cometh, Midnight Cowboy, The Bird Cage, and Mamma Mia! She has worked with many well-established individuals, such as Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Robin Williams, and Glenn Close.

Graduating from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University), Ann Roth began as a scenery painter for the Pittsburg Opera. She moved on to costume design after meeting costume designer Irene Sharaff. They worked on the musical Brigadoon together, and it became one of her first jobs in the movie industry. From then on, Roth fell in love with the costume side of things.   

Interestingly enough, Roth declined the offer to work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at first. Ann Roth recently finished a project four weeks before she got the call. With the amount of work she likely had to do, she deserved a break. But after a few calls and her passion for fashion, Roth agreed. Little did she know that that decision would earn wins at the Costume Designer Guild Awards, BAFTA awards, and an Oscar nomination.

The style of dresses at this time was very straight and loose, different from the trends of today with tight-fitted, body-hugging wear. The makeup was dramatic, using heavy amounts of eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, contrarily keeping their eyebrows minimal – an overly arched thin pencil-drawn line. To keep a more masculine, curve-less look, their hair was kept short as well.

This style is well represented in the opening scene where Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis) on stage with a square collared, jam-colored dress. The collar is aligned with many narrow beads crossing each other in a diamond-shaped pattern. A cluster of sequins comes down the center of the dress, which seems to burst out towards the middle and bottom of the dress to make it look fuller. The dress is loose and flows gently as she performs in front of the crowd. The cuffs on the sleeves are outlined in silver, and sequins continue from the dress to the sleeve but are more spread out. The long bell sleeves exaggerate movement since they fall against the dress.

This is an interesting detail to note because Roth had mentioned the use of movement in an interview while talking about Broadway costumes for shows set in the 1920s. She stated that “the construction is different. Also, you are aware of how they move on a stage set. If somebody is coming down the stairs, you have to worry about a train and all the technical stuff you have to worry about. You have to worry about the lights and whether dancers can put their arms up like this…a lot. The construction’s different. Very different.” Roth is right. Even though Ma Rainey’s moves weren’t as flamboyant, she still needed room to sway her hips and interact with the audience.  

With under a month’s deadline to create the entire cast’s costumes, Roth had to think quickly. She used singer/songwriter and Civil rights activist Aretha Franklin’s measurements for Davis’ rubber suit. Thank goodness Roth had plenty of experience with this, noting in an interview with W Magazine that she “probably [had] 100, 200, 300” rubber suits made throughout her entire career.

After Roth did that, Roth just had to worry about accessories and hair. That couldn’t be too hard, right? Wrong. In fact, the wig that Davis wore with the jam-colored dress was made of horsehair! In an interview with Variety, lead hair designer Mia Neal stated, “The book said her performance wigs were made from horsehair, and that was something costume designer Ann Roth had found in her research, and we decided to keep that authentic.” Roth and Neal worked together to find the wig, which came from Europe. Because of how the hair was packaged, Neal ended up having to build the wig strand by strand. The wig was decorated with a scarf tied around Davis’ head and fell down the back of her head.

Dangling from Davis’ ears were gorgeous earrings that held a stone in the middle and three leaf-like detailed dangling stems. Roth also mentioned Ma Rainey’s necklace. Ma Rainey made many fashion statements in her time, proudly boasting feathers, wigs, and much jewelry. Some of her most notable pieces were her $20 coin necklaces. Roth was able to find real 1920s coins and put those together to create such an iconic work of art. Lastly is the ombre feather fan that Davis uses to cool herself off and intrigue the audience while her large smile flashes her gold teeth and captivates the room!  

Davis also wears two other looks throughout the film. During the next performance in the movie, we see Ma Rainey wearing a blue v-neck velvet dress. Roth maintains the bell sleeve look but adds in a slit for variety. There are also shooting stars all over the dress, and one fascinating detail is that the stars towards the bottom of the dress are arranged diagonally to the left and have fringes hanging from them. Fringe is also a prevalent 1920s trend. Davis continues to wear the $20 coin necklace and scarf as she waves around the ombre feather fan.

The last look we see Davis in throughout the rest of the film during the recording studio session. She wears a golden short sleeve deep v-neck dress with very intricate brown and linen-colored detailing and matching earrings. The collar is lined with interconnecting swirls of the same color. Tied around her waist is a golden dress sash that lays against her sides. Whenever she is outside of the recording studio, she dons a fur scarf, pale yellow gloves, and a plaid newsboy hat – possibly to maintain her elite presence.  This time though, Ma Rainey’s finger wave wig is made with European hair.  

One more thing that I do have to mention is the shoes worn by Levee Green (played by the late Chadwick Boseman). Levee Green is the determined yet arrogant trumpet player in Ma Rainey’s band. Being more experienced, the other members’ Toledo (played by Glenn Turman, who reprised his role as Toledo from the 2016 Broadway version), Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts) try to guide Levee through life, offering him life lessons and advice. But Levee has other motives and disregards everything that is being told to him.

Levee’s shoes first establish this foolishness. Levee spots these eye-catching yellow, pointed-toe wingtip, Broque Oxfords, in a store window right before the recording session. He impulsively purchases the shoes, spending more than he can afford and what the shoes are worth. Now I don’t want to spoil the rest of the plot; however, I will say that these shoes finally made Levee come to his senses. They might be the line between life and death.

Roth states where she found them in an interview with The Times, “in a store on Orchard Street – or maybe just off Orchard Street,” which is in New York, where they happened to be filming.  Roth also added that she wanted the shoes to specifically be yellow, telling the Times that in the 1920s, most men had a brown pair of shoes and a black pair of shoes. Adding to the rarity of the shoes and establishing importance, yellow shoes would stand out the most. Roth also persisted in keeping the shoes one color instead of the two-toned, a usually black and white style that we commonly saw around this time. Roth believed that the visual would not be as powerful with two different colors. So thank you, Ann Roth, for being as passionate as Levee (but not TOO passionate) in creating the shoe that left everyone speechless.  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Colman Domingo as Cutler. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to dive into such a fantastic work of art. I wanted to give a special thanks to everyone who was a part of this wonderful movie. The cast did such a great job portraying this story; Ann Roth, Mia NealMatiki Anoff (make-up department), and Sergio Lopez-Rivera (make-up department) did an amazing job bringing these characters and the audience back to the 1920s.  The amount of work that goes into researching, fitting, shopping, and creating is incredible. I am wishing the entire team the best at the Oscars and am hoping for Roth to bring home the Oscar for Best Costume Design.  

Along with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘s nomination for Costume Design, actor Chadwick Boseman and actress Viola Davis were nominated for Best Actor and Actress in a leading role. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also received a nomination for Makeup and Hairstyling along with Production Design. That’s a total of 5 Oscar nominations! 

Like the characters in the film, we can all take a lesson from these three inspirational figures. Mother Nature’s beauty and innocence teach us how to be nurturing and protect those around us. Ma Rainey was not afraid to break barriers and stay true to who she was, even though she lived during a time that worked against her. She did not view herself as inferior, and she made sure that others viewed her the same way. Most importantly, she was also not afraid to stand up for her loved ones – a value that many of us have been demonstrating over the past year.

Last but not least, Ann Roth makes sure that she takes pride in her skill and work. Like the shoe color, she does not let anyone tell her otherwise when she believed strongly in something. As an 89-year-old costume designer, she surely proves that age doesn’t limit your abilities. I admire these values and hope that others will follow in their footsteps to make this world a better place.   

I am sending all of my love and condolences to Chadwick Boseman’s family, friends, supporters, and everyone else he has wonderfully impacted. This may have been his last work, but his legacy will continue to live on.  

Please tune in to the Oscar’s on Sunday April 25, 2021 to see who will take home best Costume designer!  And stream Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix!


Check out these sources to learn more Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the process behind it! 

Eckardt, Stephanie. “How Viola Davis Physically Transformed Into Ma Rainey.” W Magazine, W Magazine, 22 Dec. 2020, http://www.wmagazine.com/story/ma-raineys-black-bottom-costumes-ann-roth.

Grobar, Matt. “Greasepaint And Horsehair: How ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Makeup & Hair Designers Captured Essence Of A Trailblazing Blues Singer And Her World.” Deadline, Penske Business Media, 15 Jan. 2021, deadline.com/tag/matiki-anoff/.

Hoo, Fawnia Soo. “’Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Costume Designer on Dressing Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.” Fashionista, Fashionista, 18 Dec. 2020, fashionista.com/2020/12/netflix-ma-raineys-black-bottom-costumes.

Lin, Alex. “Who Was August Wilson, The Playwright Of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?” ScreenRant, ScreenRant, 29 Dec. 2020, screenrant.com/ma-rainey-black-bottom-august-wilson-playwright/.

Maitland, Hayley. “5 Truly Wild Details About The Costumes, Hair & Make-Up In ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’.” British Vogue, British Vogue, 8 Apr. 2021, http://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/ma-raineys-black-bottom-costumes.

Regensdorf, Laura. “Inside Viola Davis’s Swaggering Transformation Into Blues Icon Ma Rainey.” Vanity Fair, 21 Dec. 2020, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/12/viola-davis-ma-raineys-black-bottom-transformation-hair-makeup.

Tangcay, Jazz. “How Costume Designer Ann Roth Helped Viola Davis Transform in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’.” Variety, Variety Media, 6 Nov. 2020, variety.com/2020/artisans/production/ma-raineys-black-bottom-costume-designer-ann-roth-1234823273/.

Tangcay, Jazz. “Why ‘Ma Rainey’s’ Creative Team Used Horsehair to Reflect Authentic Black Hairstyles of the 1920s.” Variety, Variety Media, 19 Dec. 2020, 9:36am PT, variety.com/2020/artisans/news/ma-rainey-hair-viola-davis-1234867032/.

Trojan, Judith. “Ann Roth Oscar Shoe-In for Ma Rainey’s Pitch Perfect Costumes.” FrontRowCenter, 20 Apr. 2021, judithtrojan.com/2021/04/20/ann-roth-oscar-shoe-in-for-ma-raineys-pitch-perfect-costumes/.

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