Black Venus: Historical Fashion on (Fictional) Black Women

On Wednesdays, we wear shirtwaists. SOURCE: Library of Congress

Listen, I love a good historical period film. Ever since I was a little girl, although I was too young to understand the intricate plot points, I was swept away by the gorgeous gowns, sumptuous wide-shots of cinematography, and subtle dialogue I couldn’t quite grasp. It’s what fostered my love of writing; I wanted to use the written word to make people feel how I felt, make them see what I saw. And of course, the key component of any period piece is the clothes. This is the key aspect that makes us all feel transported into the past, after all, and the main thing we notice even if there’s no background music or the characters are just silently staring at each other.

But after a while, I noticed something. They were all a bit…white. And okay, by “a bit” I mean completely. As a Black woman in America, after consuming dozens and dozens of media adaptations, I only ever saw a handful of depictions with people who looked like me, and almost none of those were female characters. And eight-year-old me certainly noticed they didn’t get to have pretty outfits.

Think about it: the casts of nearly all the classic reigning (western) historical movies and TV shows (Dangerous Liasions, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth, Room With a View, Little Women (1994), Emma…) are almost blatantly white, in such a stark way that most other movies and shows in Hollywood couldn’t get away with in a post-Civil Rights era film world; it has only been in the past two or three decades that we’ve seen any people of color as minor or supporting characters (as seen in Valmont, A Little Princess, and now Outlander) or even as silent background extras (as in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Nicholas Nickleby). And the idea of a Black, or indeed, any non-white person being a main character (let alone the main character) in any period adaptation seemed like a pipe dream for little brown girls like me draping themselves in bedsheets and pretending they were yards of silk petticoats.

Many people may claim that this is because prior to about 1900, the western world was all-white, with the exception of antebellum slavery. Besides the fact that history itself disproves this repeatedly, the beauty of living in the modern era is that we should understand that fiction can- and should- be used to include everyone. Thankfully, the new millennium did not come to play; I’ve noticed a marked trend of more and more characters of color ever since the late 1990s, and after 2010 the idea of a period piece featuring Black characters was no longer the stuff of fantasy- it was popping up right in your local streaming service. While we clearly still have a ways to go in terms of Black and other people of color being represented, this increasing Black representation is a step in the right direction and I hope to see more!

And because Black women are the most underrepresented in on-screen media, I thought what better way to celebrate this fact by sharing the fashions of my top 5 fictional Black women in history? *curtsies* Shall I begin?

[Mild spoilers ahead. You have been warned.]

Georgian England: Harriet Lennox of Harlots (2017- present)

The 18th century is often depicted as the height of genteel refinement. Hulu’s original series Harlots comes along to remind us that that simply wasn’t true for the majority of London’s population, chronicling the trials and tribulations of two rival madams. Harriet Lennox starts out as a timid- but cunning- American ex-slave trying to live out her freedom in England, but quickly discovers after being suddenly widowed that being a woman without a man makes that almost impossible. As she begins to make her way in the world through less…orthodox means, her fashion changes as well, showing her confidence as she increasingly claims autonomy of her life.

When we first meet Harriet (left), she is dressed as a perfectly respectable merchant’s wife. One wonders just how much the pressure to be seen as a legitimate wife and not simply a mistress might have played into her clothing choices. Photo from https://www.coffeerhetoric.com
Bland and unfashionably narrow-silhouetted, Harriet’s initial clothing is so respectable and unassuming to the point of almost being dowdy. It seems as if she was trying to avoid drawing attention to herself in case someone noticed and stole all her good fortune. Close-up still from https://tiny-librarian.tumblr.com/Hulu, 2017.
As Harriet decides to navigate life alone, she knows she must look the part of an assured, confident woman. Her outfits in public make an abrupt switch to the more ostentatious- like this black lace and red satin (maybe even silk?) number shown here- as she knows she could easily be overlooked otherwise. Photo screenshot from https://www.hulu.com
Later in the series, we see Harriet display her own style now that she is free to live as she wishes. With its multicolored charm choker and floral stomacher pinned accidentally-on-purpose haphazardly in front, this look is clearly more for the spotlight than an every day look, showing us that Harriet also enjoys having some fun as she revels in being a businesswoman and taking her life into her own hands. Source: Hulu

Georgian England: Dido Lindsay of Belle (2013)

Based on the true story of Englishwoman Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, depicted in the famous portrait by Johann Zoffany, this film focuses on the life of the wealthy but culturally isolated heiress as she navigates her mixed race background, belonging neither to her father’s white upper class who spurn her but neither to her Black mother’s class of the enslaved or impoverished who cannot relate to her. As she learns to accept herself, she refuses to suffer being merely tolerated and she takes an interest in the legal case of the Zong slave ship, leading to a trial that changed England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade forever. Her clothing is utterly resplendent throughout the movie, but becomes more unique as she stops trying to blend in and becomes more comfortable with her Blackness in a white world.

Dido (left) and her cousin Elizabeth Murray. We see them dressed quite similarly in the first half of the film- nearly identical- perhaps signifying Dido’s desire to be seen as white or wanting to avoid drawing attention to herself. Source: Belle, 2013
The two cousins are often dressed alike in the movie, as seen in here in twin florals. Source: https://www.theransomenote.com
As her prospects improve, we begin to see Belle more uniquely dressed and less mirroring her cousin. Although they both wear jewel tones in this scene, Dido’s deep raspberry choice possibly suggests she is now more comfortable dressing as to what suits her as opposed to what makes her look like everyone else. Source: https://film-costumes.com
Here Dido wears a Brunswick hooded gown in a lovely charcoal gray as she attempts to remain unnoticed while sneaks around the city to gain news of the trial. It is notable that she wears this towards the end of the film, when she has learned how to unapologetically be her own person. Source: Belle, 2013

Regency England: Georgiana Lambe of Sanditon (2019)

Georgiana is the willful teenaged ward of the show’s main love interest. It is heavily implied that she’s the illegitimate daughter of a white West Indian merchant and his enslaved Black “mistress,” giving her quite a large fortune, and thus making her one of the upper class. Unlike in Belle, it is hinted at that this young woman has spent some time around other Black people earlier in her life and so doesn’t struggle with the self-hate and self-acceptance that Dido does. Instead, she seems to revel in her high status, seemingly feeling as if she deserves it for what other Blacks endure under the hardships of slavery. While she is subjected to some rude and humiliating remarks, for the most part she enjoys the same access to society as her white counterparts. So her outfits are always in-style and even outlandish at some points, hinting that perhaps Georgiana enjoys retail therapy just as much as any spoiled teenager might today.

Seen here in casual attire of a sheer, pointed collar chemisette and plain gown with no bonnet or jacket, it is only the fabric that gives away Georgiana’s high rank- her powder blue overdress might be silk taffeta or chiffon. SOURCE: PBS
Georgiana wears a large lace bonnet that was the height of regency fashion. We can see that she misses no opportunity to use her hefty allowance to dress in the latest trends, right down to her matching accessories. SOURCE: PBS
Miss Lambe’s ensembles are always so carefully picked out from head to toe, and although Charlotte Heyward (left) is the series protagonist, it is Georgiana’s outfits that always command the viewer’s attention. This cream dress with coral accents is an obvious example. SOURCE: PBS

Civil War America: Charlotte Jenkins of Mercy Street (2016)

Whenever you mention the Civil War, Black depictions usually turn to the enslaved, which can (but not always) be rather limiting, fashion-wise. But it’s important to remember that there were many free Black and people of color living their lives well before the Emancipation. Charlotte Jenkins in Mercy Street is based off the real-life abolitionist of the same name, who was a nurse during the war and championed for all Americans having access to medical care. Abolitionists wanted to look good too, and I appreciate PBS for giving Charlotte her own style that reflected her status and assertiveness in a world that denied her agency, but while still being decidedly fashionable.

Here we see Charlotte plainly but still stylishly dressed, as indicated by her large bonnet and full, solid white bishop sleeves. Although her outfit is all neutrals, she makes a clear effort to have her gloves and jacket trim match each other. (Photo source: PBS)
In a promo shot from PBS, we see Nurse Jenkins in a more colorful look. In a printed dress with simpler sleeves and pinner apron and gorgeous black trim, she’s doing well enough to afford a bit of crisp white lace at the neck.

Edwardian Canada: Mary Lacroix of Anne With an E (2017)

As an American I hardly ever see Black women depicted outside of England so it was a real treat to become acquainted with the fictional Mary, a washerwoman in the outskirts of Canada during the late 19th century. Unlike the other characters I’ve chosen, Mary is neither highborn nor devoted to any great cause, emphasizing that for marginalized people of any era, sometimes merely surviving is an achievement in and of itself. As her trade suggests, her clothing is plain but always neat and clean; as her circumstances improve however, we her see her have a little more fun with her outfits and add a few more details here and there.

Mary and her beau Sebastian attempt a date on her little free time. Although she is dressed modestly in an oversized coat (maybe forgotten item from a customer?) with a shawl on top- clearly preferring function over fashion- she tries to spruce up her look with some ribbon trim on her hat. SOURCE: Netflix
Here on her wedding day, Mary wears a plain button-front blouse but with a checkered jacket with velvet trim (perhaps another customer castoff?) and paired with her favorite hat. It makes sense that she would save her best clothes for one of her life’s grandest occasions. SOURCE: Netflix
In an Easter scene, Mary wears a pastel blue dress, a straw boater, and an informal cardigan, which in the early 1900s were gaining more popularity with working women, as they were cheaper than ladies tailored jackets. Mary’s hat game is STRONG. Source: CBC

As much as I enjoy fashions of previous centuries, there is no other time I’d want to live in but the present, where we are coming closer each year to media that represents us all. For example, I’ve been noticing more Asian depictions in western period films and I’m excited to see it increase and hopefully one day, this won’t be notable at all, but the standard. I am so glad to live in a time where everyone is being included.

Have you watched any of these? Or do you know of other shows and movies that have incredible fashion and accurate representation? Drop me a line anywhere on social media and let me know- I’m always on the hunt for more gorgeous gowns.

Published by

Ayana

I'm a daring writer by night, master hustler by day, and history nerd obsessed with midcentury fashion.

8 thoughts on “Black Venus: Historical Fashion on (Fictional) Black Women”

  1. This was an excellent presentation of characters in movies that I’ve seen but never considered how important the images are to girls and women of color, in particular. Plus, I was fascinated by your descriptions of their clothing and the significance of their style in relation to their evolution as depicted in the films. Thank you for sharing your creative and critical eye.

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  2. This piece is eloquently written, and captures the conundrum frequently encountered by women of color who enjoy historical period films/shows and fashion. The author respectfully addresses historical factors (alluding to racial and gender inequities) while highlighting fashion-related issues (a very daunting endeavor). Her analysis is detailed, yet presented in a very engaging manner. It is clear that her passion for this topic is both professional and deeply personal in nature; and her passion is contagious! I have not yet viewed all of the films identified in this piece, but am now motivated to do so… with a special eye on how fashion is used to communicate information about the identified main characters (all Black women coping with various life challenges through history). My overall reaction: Well done, and I am looking forward to more of her writing!

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  3. I love this piece so much! I wish I had read this before my podcast recorded our episode on Jane Eyre–we discussed the issues of race within the novel and BIPOC representation in “classic literature” and period dramas. This would have been a perfect source. Maybe we need to do a follow-up discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

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