Well I Don’t Own Pearls: The Heroic Costumes of “Hidden Figures”

Posted on April 16, 2018


When we came up with the idea to do this “Mid-Century Women” series of costume design posts, we wanted to provide distinctly different versions of costume design along with the distinctly different types of women being highlighted. But when we got to Hidden Figures, we almost abandoned the idea, mainly because we didn’t think there was enough material to support a deep analysis.

This is not a criticism of the approach taken by the film’s costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, however. First, she had the task of bringing actual people to life onscreen, with some sort of nod to historical accuracy being required of her choices; something not needed in the other two films. Second, the film itself is a lighter, more overtly inspirational form of entertainment than Brooklyn or Carol, both of which displayed different degrees of a heavy seriousness that occasionally dripped with symbolism. Hidden Figures has something far more direct in mind with the story it’s telling and subsequently, the costume design itself is direct, basic, and fits itself well within the style of the film.

The story of the black women who worked behind the scenes at NASA doing incredibly difficult and important work at a time when their own civil rights were not assured and the very institutions they worked for routinely stripped them of their full humanity is a serious and important story that deserved to be told. But director Theodore Melfi also wanted a film that popped with energy, style and music, in order to give the film a lightness that matched the energy of the three actresses at its center. In response, the costume design is pretty, stylish and abundant. It is not necessarily realistic, however. And that was the main reason why we almost dismissed it – quite wrongly. 

But before we get further into that, let’s look at the three women in the story, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, to see how each of them were portrayed through costume design.

 

Katherine favors full skirts, defined waists, prints and traditionally feminine detailing. It’s that latter phrase that sums her style up best: traditionally feminine. This helps render her as the somewhat romantic figure the film positions her to be while at the same time giving her a look distinct from the other two women and setting her as far apart as possible from the men who surround her.

Note the large bead necklace she wears the first time she reports to the Task Force lab, a  reference to the stated dress code and a foreshadowing of her own furious declaration that NASA doesn’t pay her enough money to put her in the pearls they expect her to wear.

 

Dorothy dresses the most business-like of the three women, a tip of the hat to her ambitions to land a supervisor role and her skill with computers, not to mention her more go-along attitude (on the surface, at least). Note how she tends to dress mostly in one color, with highly coordinated detailing. She gives off an overwhelming sense of being utterly composed and professional. She has an admirable collection of brooches, to boot .

 

As the youngest of the trio, Mary Jackson’s costumes tend to have just a bit more energy and even sex appeal to them. She favors body-skimming dresses with bold print details, like oversized plaids, stripes or paisleys. She also favors brightly patterned head scarves, which tend to position her as the more youthful and forward-looking of the women, adding to that overall “sixties” feeling of her style. And she’s the only of the three to wear pants in the film.

Note how she smartly tones it all way down for an appearance before a judge, however. The boldness and bright colors are ditched for a smart but sober suit.

Okay, beads, brooches and headscarves. Feminine, professional, and modern. Now let’s see how those themes and others played out in various scenes.

First, we see Katherine playing out the theme we call “Sticking Out.”

Note how color is used to force your eye directly to the very few women in all of these man-heavy scenes, playing on the fact that men of this period and class rarely wore anything but white dress shirts to work. This is a good reason why Katherine’s silhouette is so feminine. She’s not just a different color, she’s a different shape in all these scenes; a shape delineated by the use of bright, eye-catching color.

Note that Dorothy, in one of the only character-based color motifs in the film, consistently dresses in pink whenever she tries to advance her career:

Color is used consistently throughout the film to single out the black characters from the white ones:

 

Quite literally: People of Color. As we’ll see, this can have several undertones to it, from racial to institutional to cultural. You could see it as the African-American community being portrayed as a vibrant and rich one, full of life and culture, as born out by the use of several distinctly African-American forms of social events, from church to cookouts to house parties. And while we think that’s at least part of it, there’s also a way of reading it as a way of denoting privilege. Put a pin in that.

As noted, the men at NASA dress solely in grey suits and white dress shirts in order to draw this line of distinction, but the white women of NASA tend to dress no more colorfully than the men do:

In every scene with white and black people in it, your eye is directed to the black people through color selection and costume design. This is of a piece with a point we’re going to make at the end of this post. All of this: the silhouettes, the bold, racially based color motifs, the differences in each woman’s style, and the fact that they seem to have limitless wardrobes plays into the one main directive of the costume design for this film. Put a pin in all of that too.

Note how Mrs. Mitchell’s relentless black ensembles (which tend to imply she’s a widow) suddenly change to lighter and even patterned suits after Dorothy gently reveals her own biases to her, forcing her to change her perspective. She literally sheds the dark parts of her to become more of an ally. She doesn’t suddenly start wearing bright colors, because that would break the theme already established, but she does change and, pardon the pun, lighten up a little. Character growth through costume design.

The flipside of this racially based color motif; the view that it’s about privilege rather than racial differences, comes during those times that Katherine and Dorothy are both dressed in order to look like they belong where they are. First, when Katherine finally loses her shit and all but demands she be taken seriously, in a dress that swirls with a pattern that underlines her emotional turmoil, but more importantly, is rendered in a business-like gray:

The effect is even more obvious when she’s finally allowed into the meetings and stands up to wow a room full of suited and uniformed men with her skill and her right to be in the room – all while wearing a sober gray suit that matches Kevin Costner’s.

The “Privilege of Colorlessness” motif was picked up again when Dorothy was caught figuring out and fixing the mainframe:

When the women encroach on male spaces or white spaces and make advancements on those fronts, the costume design sheds the colorful motifs that set them apart for one that speaks of the rightness of their advancement. In that sense, the neutral dresses and gray/white suiting of the white characters are less about their race than the privileges that come with it. In other words, it is a privilege to live and work among the institutions and levers of power and not have to think about color. 

As we said, we originally found a lot of these motifs somewhat obvious on the surface. Coupled with the eye-candy fashions of the main characters and the fact that they had way more clothes than most middle or working class women of the time would have had, left us thinking we didn’t have much to say outside of noting a few things about their differences and pointing out that the lightness of the film’s style practically begged for a lightness in the costume design.

But it occurred to us that there’s a specific way of costuming your protagonists; one that we haven’t actually touched on in all our writing about costume design analysis. Which is kind of ironic, because it’s the most common approach to costume design: the heroic one.  This became most obvious to us when we started examining what happens when the three main characters are together. We’ve already noted how they’re dressed to show their differences, but take a look at just how meticulously rendered those differences are:

It’s not just that they’re dressed differently, it’s that every element of each look is distinct from the same elements in the others. Every neckline, sleeve, waist, skirt length, silhouette, jewelry choice and color story differs from the other two. Not just different; meticulously distinct. In this way, when they stand together, there’s something broadly rendered, almost iconic about the image. They become the figures the title refers to.

The stylishness and well-curated details of their looks elevate them, giving them the heroic status the film works so hard to highlight and bestow upon these women, but the way each of them are so broadly rendered in such distinctive ways raises them even further. It took us a while to truly figure out what it was we were feeling when we noted all of this, until it just clicked. Bold, distinct, eye-catching, flattering, iconic, pedestal-raising looks that set the heroes apart from everyone else? Of course the approach to the costume design is simplistic and maybe even unrealistic.

These are superhero costumes.

 

 

[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]

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