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A Celebration Of The Most Iconic Fashion Moments In Black Film

Clothing

From 'Do the Right Thing' to 'Black Panther'

Ruth E. Carter's historic win for Best Costume Design at this year's Academy Awards for her work on Black Panther was monumentally deserved—and, ahem, long overdue. We wanted to celebrate not only Carter, but also the many iconic moments of fashion in Black films, and so we asked a group of writers, actors, stylists, and costume designers, from Lena Waithe and Deborah Ayorinde to Kris Harring and Marci Rodgers to weigh in on their favorite looks throughout the years.

Admire them all, below. And then plan on rewatching every single one of these movies as soon as possible.

Coming to America

"Designed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the regal costumes Eddie Murphy wore in Coming to America were the precursor for what African royalty could look like onscreen. Taking care to position the fictional Zamundan character in a then-contemporary context, the suits with animal print shawls and golden-plated jewelry became a visual touchstone for the film and an iconic image of Black men onscreen."—Cate Young, writer

"Coming to America from beginning to end: the furs, the prints, the gold, the feathers, the flowers. But my favorite scene is when Prince Akeem and Semi were dropped off in Flushing, Queens: they turn around, and all their luggage is gone. They come outside the next day, and everyone on the block had it looking like Zamunda, Queens."—Kris Harring, designer

"Coming to America's wedding scene when the bride-to-be has a whole royal African performance before her entrance, and the guests are draped in African print cloths and head wraps with vibrant colors and oversized fine gold jewels. It's exactly what I knew African weddings looked like but I was happy to see it getting beautifully covered in America."—Nana Agyemang, social media editor at The Cut

"They're all giving you all the looks that could be given. Especially the scene where Vanessa Calloway was being introduced to Eddie Murphy's character as a potential wife. That whole celebration and all of that. Just amazing." —Deborah Ayorinde, actress

"My favorite moments are the scene where Eddie Murphy's character gets married the first time and second time—both are iconic. To me, that was the precursor to Crazy Rich Asians, if you will, it just took an African spin to it."—Marci Rodgers, costume designer

Dreamgirls

Anika Noni Rose, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson

"The screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical gave costume designer Sharen Davis ample room to play with the iconography of the '70s and '80s to dress Deena and The Dreams. Ranging from old-world glamour with matching bouffants to disco-inspired bodysuits and massive afros, the costumes of Dreamgirls were resplendent and gave a view into the music world and culture of the time, dazzling audiences with the very spectacle it sought to critique." —Young

Set It Off

"Cleo from Set It Off with the straight backs wearing a baggy sweatshirt, denim overalls, holding a 40 oz. in one hand and her girl in the other. I watched Cleo in awe, not because I aspired for a career in crime, but I wanted to evoke that much self-confidence when I grew up with a woman just as fine in my arms, too."—Harring

Purple Rain

"Prince, the master of androgynous style and that iconic purple satin suit and ruffles. The confidence, the bold self-assurance that he could and would take your girl. Game, blouses."—Harring

Pariah

"This is a subtle but poignant fashion moment in Black queer cinema that brought me to tears. The scene on the bus, when teenaged Alike is on her way home from the lesbian club in a baggy polo, durag, and fitted hat, and takes off both to show a 'feminine' top (I think it had glitter on it, LOL) and puts her earrings back in her ears. That conflict between the head and heart, trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in this world, was very personal and powerful that took me back to my own coming out in high school."—Harring

Love Jones

"Nia Long in Love Jones is the whole '90s vibe I am living for currently. The flipped ends on her hair, the leather oversized jacket, and heavy lip liner with a nude or clean lipgloss is my current beauty and fashion routine. When I look for inspiration for my outfits, I think '90s Nia Long, carefree and confident in her loose-fitting clothes and cute hair flip."—Agyemang

The Color Purple

"I was always in love with Shug Avery from The Color Purple. (I wrote an ode to her.) She had this very glamorous style—glitter, feathers, lingerie as dresses. And this was in a time (said to be between 1910 and 1940) when, not only were women not [allowed] to be this sexually liberated and open, but to be a Black woman and have the means to own those fabulous pieces? I was impressed."—Danielle Young, writer

Poetic Justice

"Janet Jackson as Justice in Poetic Justice. The braids, the jeans, the white top and white head tie—everything was just so simple, like I could find it in my closet. I wanted long braids and a crop top so bad as a kid, and I couldn't get them because my momma was all about age-appropriate looks and that wasn't it. Now, I do what I want! Crop top, mom jeans, and braids forever!"—Young

Mahogany

"Tracy Chambers, Diana Ross's character in Mahogany, is the prototype for how my adult life would look in a fantasy. When the movie opens, and Tracy [goes from being] in a chic knit cap, trench coat and cognac boots to spinning in her rainbow-esque dress in the factory where her aunt works to begging for her man back in that beautiful white fur coat, it was love for the entire one hour-and-46-minute runtime."—Channing Hargrove, fashion writer at Refinery29

"A film that has been both an inspirational story as well as a cautionary tale. It offers a positive role model of a Black woman who puts herself through school and, through the hard work and perseverance as well as being in the right place at the right time, rises to the pinnacle success of the fashion world through education and her own sheer will to succeed. The costumes, designed by Diana Ross herself, were both breathtaking and daring for the time and it's a film that has served as a style point for me each time I get the chance to see it. The fashion of Mahogany is a touchpoint and an inspiration that still resonates today."—Deirdra Govan, costume designer

"Mahogany gave us some of Diana Ross' most iconic looks, including her purple fur sleeve gown and headpiece that you can still wear (and look phenomenal in) today. I also loved that striking braided updo and bib necklace she wore. It calls to mind Solange's braided halo created by Shani Crowe for her Saturday Night Live performance."—Jessica Andrews, fashion features editor at Teen Vogue

"I think the first time I saw this movie, was in the mid-'80s. I was working in a fabric store and designing pieces on the side for some small local boutiques. As an aspiring Black fashion designer myself, it was so incredibly inspiring to see a character like Tracy Chambers' journey through the fashion industry. I was completely enthralled by every piece of clothing Tracy wore in the film, but I think my favorite is the gold, Asian kimono Tracy designs and wears in the fashion show toward the end of the film."—Gersha Phillips, costume designer

Eve's Bayou

"When Eve's Bayou came out, I was maybe 10 years old, and while I was scared of Elzora (the voodoo lady), what stood out to me the most was the way Mozelle's and Roz's characters style played off each other—sultry and prim, respectively. That scene when they are walking by the water in those beautiful dresses? It made me gasp it was so picturesque"—Hargrove

Boyz n the Hood

"Cuba Gooding Junior in a gold silk shirt with jeans when he rolls up to a barbecue celebrating his friend Dough Boy's release from jail. The look defines what it means to be cool. It also represents the vibe of having a part-time job and being able to buy your own clothes. Who didn't want to be Trey in that movie? We all did."—Lena Waithe, actress, writer, and producer

Boomerang

"Jacqueline might've been a savage, but her clothes were always on-point. There's a scene in which she tells Marcus she'll get back to him on when they can see each other again. He's so brokenhearted by it, not just because of what she's saying, but because of what she's wearing. She's dressed in a stunning burgundy suit that's perfectly tailored to her thin frame. It's a look that always takes my breath away."—Waithe

"You can't talk about memorable fashion moments in film without mentioning Grace Jones as Strangé in Boomerang. She looked every bit the supermodel, wearing a patent leather skirt set and a matching helmet. Her look was so iconic that Kelly Rowland wore it as a Halloween costume recently."—Andrews

The Bodyguard

"Whitney has a bunch of iconic looks in this movie, but the one that stands out the most is the scarf around her head and the long coat she's wearing to kiss her true love goodbye. She looks like something out of the '30s. It's a timeless look and a moment movie-goers will never forget."—Waithe

Do the Right Thing

"I think I learned how to dress by studying Mookie. The jersey, the Jordans, the shorts—it was a look that was so authentic that we couldn't help but want to copy it. Mookie was us, and we were Mookie."—Waithe

"The epitome of what street style was. Filled with rich colors and in-your-face graphics, these costumes were filled with messages without being contrived. I loved the purity of various characters looks. It was the dawn of the '90s, and this film was at the front in ushering in Afrocentric trends and translated what was happening with street culture during that time in Brooklyn, New York."—Govan

Black Panther

"The Dora Milaje costumes are an incredible feat of African iconography and majestic warrior, while also being sexy AF. I also loved that Ruth E. Carter incorporated African symbols and graphics in the design of Queen Ramonda's Isicholo crown and collar—both of which were 3-D printed—grounding the costume in the African diaspora, while also looking to the future!"—Gersha

"It actually makes me emotional because they just got so many things right in that film. Ruth E. Carter is amazing."—Ayorinde

The Wiz

"I loved the textures that were used, I think those characters were very iconic. When Mabel King has on all of these adornments [while singing 'No Bad News'], that was amazing to me."—Rodgers

"The Emerald City sequence in The Wiz is pure cinematic genius. As a fashion obsessive since a young age, I immediately fell in love with the green shiny suits and sequin headpieces, the shimmering gold skirts, the red gowns and feather boas. It's been the inspiration for so many photo shoots I've worked on since."—Andrews

"I instantly burst into tears when Lena Horne sings 'Believe In Yourself' surrounded by beautiful Black babies dressed as stars in The Wiz. It is one of the most beautiful depictions of Black women and children as the actual universe! Gowns! Beautiful gowns!"—Amber J. Phillips, political strategist and cultural critic

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

"The opening scene of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is one of the most iconic moments in Black beauty and fashion, period. As Salt N Pepa's '[I Am] Body Beautiful' plays, Ms. Noxeema gives a master class in Black femme beauty as she flawlessly applies her eyelashes, rolls up her thigh high tights, and selects her outfit for the evening. A sick transformation and display of a femme beauty ritual."—Amber

The Preacher's Wife

"Whitney Houston does not get enough credit for giving us Black hair updo goals in The Preacher's Wife. When our Nippy walks down the steps for her night out with Dudley in what became known as 'The French Roll,' first Sundays at Black churches were never the same"—Amber

Bessie

"Lest we not forget when Mo'Nique and Queen Latifah break and throw away the gender binary as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in Bessie. It reminded me that Black women have always been the leaders in culture when it comes to gender and sexuality as performance."—Amber

Harlem Nights

"What I found the most intriguing about the looks in the movie was the simplicity of it. It kind of juxtaposed to the story itself."—Rodgers

Belly

"I think [costume designer] June Ambrose did a good job of sticking to a simple palate, especially for DMX's and Nas' characters. There were moments here and there to bring along the story via costumes, with softness, like with Nas' girlfriend, who was played by T-Boz."—Rodgers

BlacKkKlansman

"My costumes for BlacKkKlansman definitely allowed those who lived in the '70s to revisit the '70s... I think I brought back the '70s in a way that still feels cool, it doesn't feel dated. I did that with the rich colors and patterns and suede and leather. Even with the use of jewelry, for Ron Stallworth, being a masculine man but still wearing jewelry."—Rodgers

She's Gotta Have It

"Everyone wanted to adopt Nola Darling's style, especially me. She was the ultimate in hipster chic before it was even considered cool. She was effortless without trying too hard. True to its indie roots, each frame served up a true sense of independent realness in enduring style."—Govan

B.A.P.S

"Yes, B.A.P.S is pretty problematic looking back, but I haven't been able to get Halle Berry's orange Latex jumpsuit out of my head since I saw the film way back when. The best fashion is the kind that burrows into your brain and stays there."—Taylor Bryant, senior editor at NYLON

Waiting to Exhale

"I know the scene in Waiting to Exhale, when Angela Bassett sets her cheating husband's clothes and car on fire, has become something of a meme lately, but has the world stopped to appreciate the lingerie she wears while committing the act? I've always thought you can recognize a real adult by what they wear to bed, and Basset is a true, capital-W woman."—Bryant

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She considers herself "one of the luckiest kids on the face of the earth"

Dani Okon, NYLON's associate creative director of video, sat down with her great-aunt, May Okon, to talk about their shared experiences—despite vastly different time frames—living as queer women in New York City. Prior to retirement, May was a journalist for the New York Daily News, having first entered the male-dominated workforce when "the boys were all at war." And, of course, she absolutely killed it. Her only regret? "Retiring at 55," she tells Dani, joking, "Who the hell knew I was gonna live to 100?"

Upon retiring, she moved out to the Hamptons with her partner and bought a home. If she had to do it all over, May says "there are a lot of things I wouldn't do," but she still considers herself "one of the luckiest kids on the face of the earth." Get to know May in the video, above.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Marlene Colburn and Naima Green
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by: Alexandra Hsie
Camera: Gretta Wilson + Katie Sadler
Edited by: Madeline Stedman

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FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEB

Here's how they're making sure it doesn't happen

Lauren Morelli, the showrunner and executive producer for the new Netflix show Tales of the City, is fostering a space where multiple queer realities can be shown on-screen. She spoke with one of the cast members, trans actor Garcia (who plays Jake Rodriguez on the show), and, in the video above, they explore why it's wrong to treat queer stories as representative of the entire community. Tokenization is something that they both want to avoid at all costs, and they're on the right track.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Naima Green and Marlene Colburn
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
Shot by Gretta Wilson + Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson

True

"Nothing is truly a binary"

We put non-binary activist Eddie Jarrel Jones and The Phluid Project founder Rob Smith in conversation with each other, and the two spoke some powerful truths about the continued gendering of products like makeup and clothing. Smith recalls that 30 years ago, the only way that he was able to experience the joys of playing with makeup was to work at a beauty counter. Even today, Jones notes that it's hard for non-binary femmes like them, or even trans women, to get that experience in stores.

In the video above, get a sense of why Smith created a genderless store, and see how important it is for people like Jones to have a space where they don't feel criticized for dressing like they want.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Naima Green and Marlene Colburn
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
Shot by Charlotte Prager + Dani Okon
Edited by Gretta Wilson

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We put the two activists in conversation

Marlene Colburn, one of the founders of the Dyke March, and Naima Green, an artist currently working on a project and archive called Pur·suit, which will document queer people of all identities, agree that it's really hard to find lesbian spaces that aren't bars. Just as hard, it seems, is to find lesbian representation that isn't white. In the video above, the two talk about how they are creating space for queer people and what that looks like within two different generations.

Check out the other videos in our series where we placed queer people from different generations in conversation with one another:

Dani and May Okon
Rob Smith and Eddie Jarrel Jones
Lauren Morelli and Garcia
Ashlee Marie Preston and Devan Diaz

Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Directed by Charlotte Prager
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