“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
August 15, 2013
An all-star cast commands the screen in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a new film chronicling the life of black White House butler Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) and his experiences amid racism and the civil rights movement spanning from Eisenhower’s administration to Reagan’s. Loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served its inhabitants through eight presidential administrations, the film delves into Cecil’s strife in the Jim Crow-era South as a child, his experiences as a White House butler, and his interactions with various commanders-in-chief and fellow White House service staff. It also paints a portrait of his relationship with his family, including his bond with his wife Gloria, (played by Oprah Winfrey) and the generational rift and tension he experiences with his sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley).
The film amounted into an expansive research project for Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter—as a precursor to being officially hired for the job, she produced a 60-page electronic “photo bible” for her and her crew to reference during the design process. This included a sketch of Whitaker modeled after real-life butler Eugene Allen, and images culled from The Library of Congress, vintage Ebony Magazines, Butterwick Catalogs and The Sherlock Photographic Collection of Washington DC’s black middle class through the ages, among several other sources. She also consulted technical advisor Admiral Stephen Rochon (a former Chief Usher of the White House).
The most prevalent costume throughout the film is, undeniably, the butler’s tuxedo—and how it transformed over the decades. “I was creating a fashion time line—how the tuxedo changed and how it did not change throughout the years. That also meant, ‘what can I get away with using over and over again to save money?’” Carter says.
After researching both White House history and the history of the tuxedo for style and etiquette pointers, Carter learned that at state dinners, butlers are generally required to dress in the “White Tie Service” tradition, which includes a black tuxedo tail coat, trousers, a starched white cotton wing collar shirt, a white cotton pique vest and a white pique tie. This look was supplied and tailored by Western Costume Company. To denote the shift in the decades, Carter tweaked fabrics, cuts and embellishments: for the film’s start in the 50s, Carter “started with a heavier wool fabric, and [Western Costume Company President] Eddie Marks found a set of 50s tuxes used in the movie ‘Cinderella Man’,” she says. The designer opted for lighter weight wool tuxedos with flat front pants and narrow lapels (donated by Hugo Boss) for the 60s look, created a handmade butterfly bow tie and modified the lapel for the 70s look, and for the 80s look, lengthened the jacket and added a shawl collar.
Aside from the tuxedos, Carter notes locating authentic vintage items for leading lady Oprah Winfrey among her greatest challenges. “There were a couple of concerns with regards to designing for her and her character. One was she’s a full figured gal—and let’s admit it, most and the best vintage pieces come no larger than a size 8,” Carter says. “Even with what the best costume houses have to offer in their ‘large and lovely’ areas, it’s mostly a hit or miss.” Ultimately, Winfrey’s wardrobe—crafted with the help of an exceptional team of cutters including John Hale, Barbara Marko, and John and Fahima Atrundi—was a combination of rented, purchased and custom made garments, including a stunning orange dress Carter sourced from New Orleans-based collector Steven Fitzgerald.
“He lived in a traditional New Orleans style home that was a side-by-side two family house called a ‘pass through,” Carter share. “One side housed his vintage clothing collection and the other side was his residence. So he was always there! He had exceptional pieces.”
Carter’s team also includes the following individuals:
Dana Hart – Wardrobe Supervisor
Paul Simmons Jr. – Key Costumer
Wendy Talley – Key Costumer
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens in theaters nationwide today.