© 2013 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

Blaxploitation Dress Codes in 1970s Cinema

Fabric of Cinema is Clothes on Film editor Chris Laverty’s regular column in design journal Arts Illustrated. Its second issue has recently gone to print covering the subject of activism in art (subtitled ‘Wake up, stand up’). Fitting neatly around this theme from a costume perspective is the movement known as Blaxploitation, the subject of Laverty’s latest column, analysing how young people in America, particularly males, assumed the dress codes of gangsters and outlaws on screen. Was this actually an artistically progressive movement in cinema or ultimately regressive? The following are extracts from the article in question, which can be read in full on pages 94-97 of Arts Illustrated volume 2:

‘Costume was an essential part of blaxploitation. What these characters wore on-screen had to represent and entice. In a sense it was social progression, the essence of the self-made man; readable entirely by what he wears. Narrative was indirectly powered by the coveting of clothes as visual representation of having ‘made it’. Stories would either begin with the protagonist at a point of success, immediately positioning the young black audience as admiring spectators.

Pam Grier was by far blaxploitation’s biggest female star, headlining a string of like-for-like hits throughout the seventies including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (’74). Foxy Brown is the archetypical female blaxploitation film, centring on a tale of violent revenge against gangs and drug pushers. Unlike male blaxploitation, Greer is objectified as a curvaceous clothes peg while reinforcing rather than threatening masculinity. “She don’t let no man down” exclaims Willie Hutch’s title song that Grier dances over during the opening credits. Foxy Brown is unusual for having a separate costume credit to Ruthie West for all of Grier’s outfits, which she changes in practically every scene. Each is fashionable, though more crucially tight and revealing. Grier’s clothes may appeal to a female audience, presumably on the filmmakers’ assumption that all women covert fashion, but her attire is directed solely at men; in blaxploitation she exists only as a form of titillation…’

Arts Illustrated can be purchased as a hard copy or digital download (for iOS, Android, etc).

You can watch Pam Grier in Foxy Brown at LOVEFiLM.com.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.