If I had to sum up my entire childhood in two words, it would be Michelle Cole, the talented costume designer behind many of the shows that I watched and was inspired by growing up. She worked on some of my favorites, such as Martin, The Steve Harvey Show, and The Bernie Mac Show. She even styled two of my favorite musicians: Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder. All of her hard work and dedication paid off, earning her 8 Emmy nominations in total, with 4 of those being from from the costumes of Black-ish — a show that’s been such a huge part of me and my family’s lives for so long.
Black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, is a show that Barris’ own family inspires. It centers around the Johnsons: an upper-middle-class African American family consisting of Andre ‘Dre’ (played by Anthony Anderson), Rainbow ‘Bow’ (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) and their five children — Zoey (played by Yara Shahidi), Andre Jr ‘Junior’ (played by Marcus Scribner), twins Diane (played by Marsai Martin) and Jack (played by Miles Brown) and Devante (played by twins Berlin and August Gross). It follows the family as they navigate life while dealing with racism, work, school, relationships, and finding their identity. The entire cast is phenomenal, and I love how real the show is. Filled with much-needed life lessons, it’s not afraid to “go there” with serious topics, and it isn’t concerned about what others will think of it.
That’s exactly why I admire Cole. Her ability to step outside of the box and try new things when it comes to her designs is what makes her so iconic. Cole demonstrates this throughout the show, especially in some of the most unforgettable episodes, such as “Purple Rain,” where she pays homage to Prince by recreating looks from his career. “Juneteenth,” where she sends the Johnson family back in time to commemorate the significant holiday, and “The Prank King,” where she helps the Johnson family win Halloween in their costume as, The Jackson 5. But she also does so in a more recent episode titled “Our Wedding Dre,” where her latest Emmy nomination for Outstanding Contemporary Costume comes from.
This episode focuses on Dre’s mother, Rubeline “Ruby” Johnson (played by Jenifer Lewis), and father Earl “Pops” Johnson (played by Laurence Fishburne), who is getting remarried after their rekindled romance. Pop’s brother, Uncle Norman (played by Danny Glover), makes an unexpected appearance with his family before the wedding, stirring problems between the two. But after some emotional talks and reconciliations, the families come together at the end for a stylish and heartwarming, socially distanced wedding.
I am fascinated by the colors and patterns in the wedding scene. Black-ish always manages to make their episodes visually appealing, especially with its radiant and eye-catching costumes. Cole makes a complete 180 from typical wedding color palettes and creates something new and exciting. Because of all the time and effort that she’s put in to bring this show to life, it’s a must that we applaud her and her work in this episode, as well as appreciate how much work goes into contemporary costume design.
Contemporary costumes can be overlooked and forgotten in the fashion industry. Because they’re not typical period pieces, connecting to them can be more challenging for people. Some people may view them as simple or boring, and they may not be able to bring out as many memories or feelings of nostalgia as period pieces would. But there’s more to contemporary design than we think. Cole describes the entire behind-the-scenes process in an interview with Kevin Jacobsen from Gold Derby, stating that, “It’s a very fast-moving show” and “We have a lot of fun doing it, but it is a lot of work and you really have to concentrate.”
She also walks through each step, starting with the script where she and her team, including her talented ACD (assistant costume designer) Stanley Hudson, whom she never fails to mention, break it down to figure out what each character is going through to wear. Next, the team goes through the actors’ closets, and once they’re finished, they go shopping before the scenes are shot so that when it’s time to start filming, they can pull from what they already have. While the show is filming, Cole continues to shop with her crew, where they set off in search of fabrics and later move into colors and textures. And this is all done within five days or even less!
A fascinating approach that Cole talks about is how she attempts to dress Tracee Ellis Ross first and then has everyone else’s costume be based on hers! And each character is said to have about 6-8 outfit changes or more per show, which adds to the intensity of the process. Now keep in mind that this episode was aired during the pandemic, so not only did the crew have to be super cautious while working, but they also had to get super creative. There weren’t many clothes in the stores, so they didn’t have many options to choose from. But they still managed to work with what they had and did a stellar job! And to top that all off, Cole was working on two other shows: #BlackAF and Grown-ish at the same time. Talk about a superwoman!
Now that we’ve been backstage let’s talk about the final looks onscreen! Ruby’s wedding dress — or should I say work of art — immediately caught my eye. Even Jenifer Lewis herself talked about how excited she was about the dress more than anything else. It’s not a traditional, white wedding gown that most people are used to. Cole and Hudson completely reinvented this classic attire, adding vibrant colors, multiple pieces, and a striking pattern – which perfectly matched Ruby’s powerful personality. And they did so in 2 weeks!
A big part of making the costume was getting input from Lewis herself, which is such a great practice, especially since it makes the actors feel more comfortable and connected to their costumes. Hudson came up with some drawings of their designs for the dress and showed them to Lewis, noting that she loves pants and loves to cover her elbows. Cole and Hudson incorporated those features into the outfit, with the off-the-shoulder peplum pantsuit shaping Lewis perfectly and emphasizing her beauty and grace. The ruffled sleeves at her elbows and the train on the skirt add volume to the look, creating a dramatic effect and accentuating her. The skirt is detachable, too, allowing Ruby to dance freely for the reception.
And both Cole and Hudson made sure to tie in African culture as well, using African Kente cloth fabric alongside the other African references in the episode, including “Jumping the Broom” and the “Money Dance” tradition. The fabric came from an African clothing store, Ashanti Fabrics, that Cole and her team found in downtown Los Angeles. Ruby wears a matching Kente cloth headwrap as well, which she personally requested.
A little black-ish lesson on Kente cloth: it actually has a mythological background. It’s said that two young men stumbled upon Anansi the Spider (also known as Ananse) and were captivated by the beautiful web that he had spun. After completing a few favors, Anansi taught the men how to weave like him, and the men brought their knowledge back to the village of Bonwire in Ghana – where Kente weaving most notably originated. At first, the cloth was reserved for the royals of the Ashanti people (a major tribe of the Akans who are an ethnic group in West Africa).
Still, it eventually spread out, being used worldwide from HBCU (Historically Black College/University) graduations to huge movies such as Black Panther. The colors of Kente cloth have significant meanings as well. The ones in Ruby’s dress represent peace and love (blue), purity (white), royalty (gold), and ancestral spirituality (black), which perfectly sum up the elements of marriage. Along with orange, which is seen throughout the dress, there’s also a stunning orange lining in the dress, with the fabric being from Mood Fabrics in New York.
Alongside Ruby is her groom, Earl. Earl is a pretty straightforward man who is never afraid to share his opinion. He’s been through a lot and puts up a tough front, but deep inside, he has a soft spot, and we’re able to see him put his guard down at the wedding. The contrast between Ruby’s flamboyant outfit and Earl’s solid suit also shows his love for Ruby, in which he was willing to take a step back and let her shine on their special day. But this African-inspired, navy-blue suit with silk pockets still speaks volumes, portraying Pops as an African King. The well-tailored suit captures Pops stature perfectly, and the asymmetrical design gives it the right amount of uniqueness.
The two costumes complement each other so well, even much so that Lewis herself commented on her impression of the suit with The Root, stating that “When I saw Laurence in his groom attire, we both teared up. It was as if we were getting married. As if Jenifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne were getting married.” That is how much of an effect Cole, Hudson, and the entire team had on the actors — and the audience too!
Following Ruby and Earl, are Dre and Bow, who never let me down in the fashion department. Dre wears a custom-made classic suit similar in color to his father’s. His striped button-up shirt, patterned tie, and handkerchief add variety to the outfit. I also love the double pocket detail on the right side, which you don’t usually see on suits. And just as Ruby and Earl’s costumes match their personalities, Dre’s does too with his white sneakers. He’s known to be a sneakerhead, owning an impressive shoe collection that’s displayed in his closet. So it was very fitting that he’s not wearing Oxfords.
This is another factor that costumers have to think about when it comes to contemporary costume design. You have to know each character well and keep up with their life, ensuring that their style is consistent with their personalities and development, even if they’re already adults. Cole and Hudson do a great job of this, making sure that each character’s costume stays true to their identity. This is shown with Bow as well. She has always been fashionable, displaying a classy and timeless style with high-end pieces from brands such as Balenciaga and Zara. And this wedding wasn’t an exception. Not only did she serve as the wedding officiant, but she served looks in this Rachel Comey outfit featuring a metallic Mirar Jacquard tie-knot top and matching pleated pants along with a fuchsia-colored, marble print blazer.
Just like their parents, the Johnson kids are always in style. What’s so fascinating about them is how each of their personalities is so similar yet so different at the same time. It’s almost as if each character is influenced by at least one other family member’s style while also trying to find their own fashion sense. For example, the eldest siblings Zoey and Junior.
Zoey is very sophisticated, laid-back, and independent. She mirrors her mother in her wear, trying out different prints and patterns while also maintaining a business look full of button-up shirts and blouses. This style continues through her spin-off show, Grown-ish, along with some experimenting, where Zoey is actually a stylist herself. Zoey returns home to celebrate the special day in this episode, wearing a green, A.L.C, long-sleeve Tavi pleated dress with a black belt and gold buckle. This dress is so beautiful, sleek, and elegant, perfectly matching Zoey’s poise.
On the other hand, Junior is very quirky, nerdy, and at times uptight, making him the butt of the family jokes. But he’s matured a lot throughout the years: taking care of his siblings, standing up for himself, and even handling being in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Olivia Lockhart (played by Katlyn Nichol). And although Junior is a mama’s boy, his style is close to Dre’s, where he tends to wear a lot of hoodies, polos, and button-up shirts as well as floral and graphic prints. Here, Junior wears a well-fitted bright red suit, representing his lively nature. He also wears an abstract button-up shirt. And just like his dad, Junior swaps out dress shoes for multicolored Nikes – which look fantastic with the whole ensemble. This is something I’d wear.
Reflecting both Zoey and Junior, the twins Diane and Jack are also complete opposites. Just like Zoey, Diane is very independent – so much so that you forget she’s among the youngest. She’s also intelligent, blunt, and eccentric to the point that it’s a little scary. She wears many hoodies, sweaters, long sleeve tops, and jumpsuits filled with bright colors, stripes, camouflage, and animal prints. In this scene, Diane wears a Valeria floral silk wrap dress by All Things Mochi. The dress resembles Ruby’s costume with its ruffled sleeves and hem, which is interesting considering that Diane has a similar personality to Ruby’s.
Jack is similar to Junior in a way. They’re both sweet, sensitive, and gullible at times. They also both wear the same types of garments and prints. But Jack has another side to him. He’s a great dancer, which boosts self-confidence, turning him into a more outgoing version of himself who’s not afraid of what other people might think about him. And nothing says confidence like this suit. This conversation starter is covered entirely in pink palm trees, standing out against the white button-up shirt underneath. It’s gorgeous, and I’m absolutely in love with it and want one for myself! And for the Johnson men, a suit is never complete without sneakers. Cole pairs multicolored white sneakers with this look.
The last thing I wanted to touch on regarding the Johnson kids is an interview with the wonderful costume designer, Mandi Line, where Cole and Hudson talk about working with the cast. When it comes to contemporary costumes, sometimes designers will have to work with younger actors. And because you’re spending most of your day on set, the cast and crew become a family. It’s so important to recognize that not only are these designers making the cast look good, but they’re also making them feel good. They’ve seen the actors grow up, hit milestones, and face new challenges, and as a result, they play the role of a parental figure in their lives.
Hudson talks more on this, applauding Cole and her relationship with both Yara and Marsai, who both have “such a love for her and respect for her that you don’t see a lot of.” He also talks about Instagram, body image, and how Cole “has managed to sort of lead her [Marsai] and guide her in a way where it’s been sort of seamless in her growth as a young woman, as a producer, as a young black woman.” I think it’s so essential that Cole was able to establish that connection with the cast because it builds trust and, in today’s society, can really help people gain a healthier self-image. And what better way to hype yourself up than with a fabulous outfit?
Overall, I am genuinely blown away by Michelle, Stanley, and the entire costume team, along with the cast and crew behind Black-ish. They have done such a great job bringing Barris’ vision to life. There are specific ways that black families are portrayed in the entertainment field, and it’s not always done in a positive light, nor is it a correct representation of our lives. We come from very diverse backgrounds, and we must recognize that.
This show has helped so many people by teaching us valuable life lessons, bringing laughter into our lives, and tackling taboo and challenging topics that many avoid talking about. As a result, it’s opened up a discussion that will allow us to better the world and make it a safe space for everyone, no matter our differences. I wish you all the best! Thank you so much for everything you’ve done, and congratulations again for the well-earned Emmy nomination.
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