The Costume Designer Who Got Oprah Winfrey To Wear A Jumpsuit And Afro

Photo courtesy of © 2013 The Weinstein Company

Entertainment Intern

Watching Lee Daniels' The Butler is like opening a time capsule of American fashion history. The movie follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as he works in the White House as a butler from the Eisenhower to the Reagan Administration, a period of more than thirty years. Because of the large timespan, the audience is taken on a journey through timef, all the way from '50s pleats to '70s hair to '80s tracksuits.  Ruth Carter, the film's costume designer, had to make sure all the outfits in the movie were not only decade-appropriate but made smooth transitions from one president to the next. This challenge was met in her designs for Oprah Winfrey's character, Gloria, who plays Gaines' wife. "There always has to be one person that actually follows the trends," said Carter, "and helps you tell the timeline of the story, and Oprah's character did that. Her character was a fashionista. She's that woman who everyone in the neighborhood knew had it going on. She could sew, she had all the magazines, she followed fashion in a very consumer kind of way. It was very helpful for me, too, because she kind of rooted everybody else around her."

Winfrey's wardrobe mostly consisted of authentic vintage pieces, but there was one piece that was designed especially for her. After browsing through an old Esquire magazine, Carter uncovered an ad with a man and woman dressed in matching jumpsuits. "When I showed the picture to Lee [the director], he just fell out of his chair!" For Carter, these were the perfect couple's outfits for Cecil and Gloria. How did the pair feel about the groovy look? "Forest was a little shy, but Oprah loved it. Loved it. She couldn't wait. It's like having a good costume at a costume party, even beyond Halloween. You can't wait to get there and you can't wait to play your character, so she put the big afro on and she was ready."

While Winfrey wore vintage, Carter decided to make Jackie Kennedy's (Minka Kelly) wardrobe from scratch because of the former First Lady's trend-setting history. "I tried to honor her taste," said Carter, "She was the first woman to wear fur at the White House. That first hat she wears when she meets the staff is fur-trimmed and I tried to keep it in the spirit of what she actually did." The same went for Nancy Reagan played by Jane Fonda. "I went to a collector and found her suit.  It was a very specific red that Nancy Reagan wore," Carter explains. "I think when you're recreating someone who existed, there are already people out there who are staunch followers of that person's life, as with Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy. They've been photographed in every way possible so you have a plethora of clothes to choose from right from their own closet. Why try and reinvent something when what's there is already perfect?"

Because the movie is about Gaines' time as a butler, Carter also had to do a little digging into the evolution of men's fashion. Following the history of the tuxedo, Carter saw that the bow tie and cut of the pants, among other things, changed through the years. "In the '50s there were more pleats and it was a bigger pant, in the '60s everything narrowed down, in the '70s the tuxedo became affordable and it became popular to wear them to your prom and the '80s gave us more shoulders."

Carter has worked on period movies before, but her favorite era has got to be the '60s, think Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston in Sparkle, also a project she headed up. "After Sparkle, I really loved the '60s. I loved the mini dress, it was mod, there were flare pants and The Beatles and The Temptations. You could actually play around with the '60s, there's such a range. I could do another Sparkle right now!"

See all the fashion for yourself when the movie hits theathers August 16!

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