(Thurgood) Marshall Is Full of 40s Fabulosity

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Marshall — the 2017 biopic about a pivotal case tried by later Supreme Court justice (and first African-American to be appointed as such) Thurgood Marshall — isn’t one that would obviously appeal to me. Sure, I’m always interested in history, and shamefully, I didn’t know a lot about the man. But my first thought was “conventional biopic.” Well, I had an 11-hour flight to pass and a dearth of interesting movies on in-flight entertainment, so I fired it up. And I was so glad I did! The movie is compelling — well acted, written, and directed — and the costumes were on point to character and — special bonus — GORGEOUS.

The movie focuses on the case of Joseph Spell, accused of raping and attempting to murder his employer, Eleanor Strubing, in 1940. It’s shown in light of NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall’s work to combat anti-black discrimination by the legal system. The story is a bit fictionalized for dramatic effect — you can read about what was real and what wasn’t in articles like these at History vs. Hollywood, Time, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Hollywood Reporter.

The costumes were designed by Ruth E. Carter, who has done a number of period films with an African-American focus, including RootsSelmaAmistad, and Malcolm X (and, yes, she’s the designer behind the recent Black Panther). She’s done a lot of press about Marshall, but the most interesting to me is The Woman Behind Chadwick Boseman’s Impeccable ‘Marshall’ Attire, in which she talks a lot about the specifics of her costume designs.

Chadwick Boseman (hooooot!!) plays Thurgood Marshall, and he is dressed impeccably in fashionable (but not overly so) suits. Carter mentions that Boseman doesn’t much resemble the real Marshall, so she used his costumes in order to help channel the character:

“I felt like it was many black men that we have had in our lives and our history that go to work, that put the uniform on and that perform a service to the highest level … When you look at the 1940s pictures of Thurgood Marshall, he’s wearing all of the accoutrements that we put on Chadwick. In many ways it gave him a little bit more of a forward presence during that time. People could look up to him. He was a representative of the NAACP and so he was a national leader in that way. He put them on the map.”

She also mentions that Boseman’s suits are vintage, but fellow lawyer Sam Friedman’s suits were custom-made using patterns and materials from the era.

Here’s the real Marshall:

Thurgood Marshall 1950s

On the right, ca. 1950s, via http://thurgoodmarshall.com/gallery/

Charles Teenie Harris photo

Carter also mentions being inspired by the work of Charles “Teenie” Harris, who photographed Pittsburgh’s African-American community in this era. Here’s an example from 1940, via https://cmoa.org/art/teenie-harris-archive/

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Boseman as Marshall. LOVE the lapels and the perfect pocket square!

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Check out that tie on Marshall!

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

I loved this more casual look on Friedman (Josh Gad, right).

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett, right). His boyfriend (left) had a bit of extra flair with the scarf.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) plays the conservative prosecutor Loren Willis.

The main female character is the accuser, Eleanor Strubing, a wealthy Connecticut wife. Instead of looking at the real Strubing, Carter says she was inspired by period advertisements from upscale department stores like Bullock’s and I. Magnin. According to The Observer article, “Carter found original suits made by costume designer Adrian and outfits from the now-defunct brand Lilli Ann for Kate Hudson in her role as Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing” (The Woman Behind Chadwick Boseman’s Impeccable ‘Marshall’ Attire).

I Magnin women's suit advertisement 1941

A women’s suit advertisement from I. Magnin, 1941, via ebay.com.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Kate Hudson as Eleanor Strubing. Great suit, but also note THE HAIR. <3 <3 <3

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

A little bit more of that look…

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

And a little bit more!

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

This was my favorite, but sadly I can’t find any better images. It has a similar white piping at the cuff.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Note the fabulous feathers on the hat, but once again, THE HAIR OMG DIES

Hudson wasn’t the only well-dressed woman in the film. Feast your eyes on:

Charles Teenie Harris photo

For comparison, a few more images from the Charles “Teenie” Harris archive, 1940, via https://cmoa.org/art/teenie-harris-archive/

Charles Teenie Harris photo

More from the Charles “Teenie” Harris archive, 1940, via https://cmoa.org/art/teenie-harris-archive/

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Marshall stays with a local couple while trying the case, and the wife’s blouse IS. TO. DIE. FOR.

Marshall 2017 movie

Another cute blouse on the same character.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Marshall’s wife Buster gets dressed up for a night out.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

I loved her stitched satin bra!

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Fellow lawyer Friedman’s wife.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

The hat she wears to synagogue.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

More great feathers!

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Andra Day as a nightclub singer.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas — from TLC — as author Zora Neale Hurston.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

A juror in cute stripes.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

Later in plaid.

Thurgood Marshall 2017 movie

A random woman who flirts with Marshall at a bar.

 

Have you seen Marshall?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

  1. ljones1966

    I was originally tempted to ignore this movie when it first came out, because I thought it would be a conventional biopic. Thankfully, my curiosity got the best of me and I saw the movie. Not only did I enjoy the plot, I also enjoyed the costumes. And the ironic thing is I had worn out my interest in 1940s fashion a long time ago.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Yes, I saw the movie. I enjoyed it immensely for its acting and the Ruth E. Carter 1940s costumes and hair. Kate Hudson’s Eleanor Strubing’s waves and the upper crust juror’s hair and costumes were among my favourites. But my favourite costumes were the men. Chadwick Boseman’s suits were stylish, sexy and in character. Josh Gad’s Friedman’s were nerdy, shy (if a suit can be considered shy) or unassuming and un-WASP-ish.

    Now that Lena Horne has a stamp, maybe well see a biopic on her.

    Reply
    • laBelleNoire

      God, I hope so! A Lena Horne biopic is well overdue. Pivotal question is: Who would play her?

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        I would love to see a GWTW ‘Scarlet OHara’ search for the actress.
        Do you have a suggestion?

        Reply
        • laBelleNoire

          That type of search would be EVERYTHING! Apparently, others have been pondering this question, and here is a link to a list:

          https://www.imdb.com/list/ls004796198/

          Out of all the ones on the list, I could see Thandi Newton. She’s got some serious acting chops, and, actually favors Lena. With the right make up, the resemblance could be remarkable.

          My first thought was Halle Berry, cuz I think she favors Lena, but I don’t know if she has the acting chops. Salli Richardson-Whitfield could be a contender. She even has (had?) a Kickstarter to finance bioplay:

          https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/782467956/a-lady-must-live

          Who could you see playing her?

          Reply
          • Susan Pola Staples

            My first thought was Halle Berry who does have an Oscar but then I thought Gugu Mbatha Rau from Belle and Julee Smolett and Tony winner Patina Miller.

            Reply
            • laBelleNoire

              Gugu Mbatha Raw would be good. I loved her in Belle.

              I wish we could make this happen!

              Reply
  3. Frannie Germeshausen

    Can’t go wrong with I. Magnin and Lilli Ann, San Francisco originals both.

    Reply
  4. Nzie

    Ooh! I heard about this one but then never really saw anything about it again. Will have to look out for it as it looks good—glad to see the good review here. loving that 40s look, too.

    Reply
  5. Hawke

    I’m generally not a fan of courtroom dramas or biopics, but for Chadwick Boseman in vintage suits, I’m going to have to check this out.

    Reply

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