"Selma" - Costume Design by Ruth Carter



January 16, 2015

Valli Herman

Sometimes the simplest garments can make the most powerful statements. Today’s “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts have shown up on basketball courts and on street protestors. In 1965, the message was carried more subtly by a different garment, the overcoat.

In “Selma,” Director Ava DuVernay depicts the story of demonstrations for equal voting rights that included historic marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King. The film features David Oyelowo as King, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Tom Wilkinson, Stephan James and Tim Roth.

Nominated for a Best Motion Picture of the Year Academy Award this week, “Selma,” follows King’s attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., including the pivotal attempt on March 7– “Bloody Sunday”–when 17 people were injured by police, including future Congressman John Lewis.

Costume Designer Ruth Carter researched many elements of Southern society to depict the familiar scenes of the Alabama demonstrations and conflicts. Religious leaders and reporters were part of the mix that included hundreds of regional residents and student protestors. At the head of the lines of protestors, Carter found that King and his supporters consistently wore overcoats.

“They wore respectable clothes in marches. It was a form of peaceful protest. They wore their trench coats buttoned up and their hands in their pockets as a form peaceful protest,” she said. News footage of Bloody Sunday shows King and Lewis in coats buttoned up to reveal their neat ties and dress shirts, as if they were strolling to church or a day at work.

“They put their hands in pockets when they knew they were facing an opposition police force,” Carter said. “And also, the people who were behind them would wear some form of coat, not always a trenchcoat, but a layer underneath because they knew they could possibly be hit with a stick.”

The blustery weather of March also compelled many marchers to wear extra layers. “But that,” Carter said, “was also a form of armor.”

“Selma” is now in theaters.

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