Antebellum Shows Slavery’s Horrors

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Antebellum (2020) was one of the many feature films that got caught in the COVID-19 storm. It was originally slated to be released in April 2020, but in reality came out for streaming in September. I finally got a chance to watch it, and despite the fact that critics mostly have hated it, I found it a compelling watch. Yes, it’s technically a horror movie, but not in the sense of jump scares, and actress Janelle Monáe is a strong lead. The film splits between the 1860s and modern day, and I found Mary Zophres’s costume designs very successful in both periods.

Because the film is based on a bit of a mystery — how are these two periods connected? — I’m going to discuss the costumes specifically, and then discuss the film and plot itself at the end in a specifically labeled spoiler section. I think you’ll enjoy the movie more if you go in NOT knowing the answer to its mysteries, so I strongly suggest you wait to read anything spoiler-y until after you’ve seen it!

 

Antebellum‘s Costumes

… were designed by Mary Zophres, who also designed O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), True Grit (2010), Hail, Caesar! (2016), Battle of the Sexes (2017), and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

The standouts are the modern costumes, for which Monáe wanted to feature Black designers — which makes sense not only because their designs are fabulous, but also because of the themes of the film. Monáe told Insider that she collaborated with Zophres on this:

“She [Zophres] worked hard to figure out how to get local, Black-owned designers to contribute. She went out of her way to make sure that we were highlighting Black designers because this is a film speaking about Black life” (Janelle Monae wanted her ‘Antebellum’ character’s wardrobe to champion Black-owned brands, and the film’s costume designer delivered).

Meanwhile, Zophres told the same publication,

“I was determined because I really felt it was something Janelle’s character would actively pursue and promote. Veronica would help empower Black businesses … I’m hoping that the clothes help tell the story that her life … was one of a very positive influence and a person that promoted being true to oneself. Veronica’s purpose and what she’s doing in her life is helping the race of her people. I wanted to reflect that and I hope her clothes do.”

Monáe wore the work of Black designers that included FKSP, Minku, ZAAF, odAOMO, Ozwald Boateng, and Ivy Park x Adidas — and honestly, they were serious eye candy and the visual highlight of the film:

2020 Antebellum 2020 Antebellum

Of course, Frock Flicks’s focus is on historical costume, and at least half the film is in period dress — mostly clothing worn by the enslaved people and army uniforms, with one upper-class woman.

The opening shot starts with what I assume are those enslaved as domestic workers:

2020 Antebellum

Looking neat and tidy, all dressed the same — the fantasy of enslaved life?

But then we move on to the field slaves, where things are less white/pressed/starched:

2020 Antebellum

I liked that those who worked in the fields weren’t in colorless rags, but rather serviceable clothes that incorporated color, pattern, and some elements that coordinate to fashion.

2020 Antebellum

Monáe’s dress here has the gathered bodice and fuller sleeves that echo high fashion styles, even if they’re made in much more serviceable fabric.

2020 Antebellum

Julia (left) similarly has full sleeves, with a dropped sleeve cap.

2020 Antebellum

Monáe wears two different checked patterns here. Her dress has a standing collar and buttons.

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At one point, those who work in the fields are pulled into domestic duty, and they’re given matchy pressed uniforms as seen previously.

2020 Antebellum

An enslaved man who works in the fields is in much more serviceable clothes, but again he has buttons and a hatband.

I know zero about military uniforms, but there are many Confederate ones:

And then there’s one upper-class lady and her daughter:

2020 Antebellum

The little girl’s yellow dress is the opening shot, and meant to show the fantasy of life in the pre-Civil War South. Mom’s dress and bonnet coordinate.

2020 Antebellum

Later mom wears this dress, which confused me a bit. I like all the ruffled elements, but the bodice basque seemed too fitted…

2020 Antebellum

…and WHAT happened with the fit of the skirt over the hoop here? My only hope is it’s something caused by movement, but otherwise that skirt does NOT have enough fabric in it. Note the swooped overskirt, which hints at the coming line of bustle skirts.

2020 Antebellum

I do hate this era, but this is a nicely executed bonnet.

2020 Antebellum

At a more formal dinner held outside (hence the bonnets?) mom wears this pale striped number (I couldn’t tell the color because it’s all sepia-toned). The cut-in-one dress, with bodice and skirt cut together without waistline, again hints at the transition happening in women’s fashion in the mid-1860s.

2020 Antebellum

Square neckline with a chemisette?

 

Spoiler-y Thoughts on Antebellum‘s Plot

Please, if you haven’t seen this film and think you may want to, DON’T READ THIS UNTIL YOU DO. MAJOR PLOT TWISTS ARE GIVEN AWAY.

Antebellum has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the summary review:

Antebellum fails to connect its images with any meaning, making for a largely unpleasant experience lacking any substantial scares.”

I admit, I’m not much of a review reader, but my brief skim seems to show that most critics felt the same. Note the film also has a 58% audience review rating, and was one of the most-viewed films on streaming for a while.

So why the poor ratings? I feel like many reviewers may have missed what I took to be the point of the movie: I think we tend to think about history’s horrors as, “Well, yes, but that was another time.” Taking truly modern people and putting them into one of history’s horrors to me demonstrated just how horrific the slavery system was. The Black people who were enslaved were similarly real people with real emotions, many of whom were people of status and learning in their communities. Why should slavery be less horrific in 186-whatever than today? Taking a modern, successful, fully actualized woman and putting her into forced labor, beatings, rape, renaming her/removing her identity, etc. is just as horrific today as yesterday or a century or millennia ago.

[Side note, the whole “waaah no substantial scares” — THE WHOLE PREMISE OF THE MOVIE IS FUCKING SCARY. You need a jump scare because BEING BRANDED isn’t scary enough?]

Furthermore, when you cut it down to the core, isn’t the point of racism to be (at least in part), “Get back to your place”? And isn’t the definition of “your place” “where you used to be”? And where did “you” used to be? In the Jim Crow South? Enslaved? Yeah.

And finally, I want to touch on the fact that this film says something about reenactment, something many Frock Flicks readers engage in (I certainly have, although not of this era). WHAT exactly are we reenacting when we chose eras in which horrific things happened? Okay, maybe you can plausibly say “But does that mean we can’t reenact ANY era, ANYWHERE in which something bad happened?” There’s some hair-splitting and grey areas to be explored there. But if you’re reenacting THE CIVIL WAR, and I’m sorry, but especially the South, then this is what you are reenacting. Maybe you’re portraying a camp follower or a soldier, and never portraying plantation life or enslavement. But that’s the society in which your persona would have lived. And that’s the cause and society that your persona is fighting for. Does this mean we shouldn’t thoughtfully explore reenacting such eras? Of course not. But emphasis on thoughtfully.

And yeah, maybe the premise of the film is slightly implausible. But connect the thinking behind the issues it raises, and this is one iteration of where you end up.

 

Have you seen Antebellum? What did you think about the issues it raises and the costumes?

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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.

12 Responses

  1. Roxana

    I’m not at all sure house slaves wore neat uniforms. They would probably be better dressed than field slaves, often in hand me downs from the family, but starched uniforms?
    One of the things you notice about slaveowners from the sources is they don’t want to be bothered. They want service now but they don’t train or organize and then take their frustrations out on the slaves who responded with massive passive resistance. And sometimes active as in the two slave women who made trouble over the theft of their good iron cauldron by their owner until he gave in and returned it. Another slave woman took advantage of a legal question over who owned her to declare herself free. She wasn’t of course but since nobody had clear title to her nobody could enforce their authority and she took full advantage. Slaves were not broken spirited and not submissive. They used what little power they had and their owners’ weaknesses to wrest a bit of agency for themselves. That subtle psychological resistance is all too often ignored in favor of oppression porn.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      PS. The take away from a reading of primary sources is that this was a horrible system to live under for everybody. Worst for the actual slaves but not at all good for poor whites looked down on for doing slave work or even slaveowners living in constant fear.

      Reply
      • Rosemary

        I’ve seen this movie and it makes my blood boil. Because as a black woman watching this l, the overall jab is “Oh ahahah this how blacks are supposed to be , out them in a field and watch them get to work” like nothing about this makes sense. You telling all the high profile black people get snatched up put here and not once do they actively attempt to fight back or truly come together as a plan?

        And god the torture and rape scenes are abysmal. The fact that it’s black women who suffer the most are demonized and THEN expected to be ones to save everyone is bullshit. Once again we’re just there for visual pain and there to carry the burden.

        This movie is nothing more than a pathetic cash grab jumping on the coattails of “Get Out” and the book “Kindred” but instead of it being nuance and informative, it’s nothing more than another blacksploition movie who doesn’t even have a clear audience.

        Who was this movie made for? Fucking who?

        Reply
        • Rosemary

          The only go thing to come out of this movie is that its the final nail on the coffin for explotive slave movies that want to be an action thriller blockbuster

          Also this is exactly why I’m uncomfortable around civil war reenactments, like I cannot look at you don’t care if you’re trying to be a scarlett ohara, you make me feel unsafe to be around

          Reply
          • Saraquill

            Then there are people like Michael Twitty and Cheyney McKnight who go “our ancestors were people too. We’ll make sure people remember who built this country.”

            Reply
  2. Lexy

    I watched that movie with at my side a bunch of teen girls who expected an Insidious like movie; they kept laughing ( especially at Gabourey Sidibe) and cracking jokes about the non white characters, which pissed me of a lot

    Reply
  3. Ashley

    Sounds kinda reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s Kindred novel. The horror elements initially put me off so this might actually boot me into giving it a shot.

    Reply
  4. Lee Jones

    Weren’t the 19th century scenes supposed to be set during the Civil War and not the Antebellum period?

    Reply
  5. Roxana

    True enough. People coped in all kinds of different ways, or failed to cope. A lot depended on the personalities involved.

    Reply
  6. Andy

    Yeah the ending was all kinds of wrong and way too quick/easy.
    But what was even worse is that this movie, in my eyes, exploited the suffering (far worse than what even was depicted in Antebellum) of real life people during a dark period in history to make “horror thriller”.
    Sorry to be crass, but it’s like setting an Action movie in Auschwitz.

    Reply
  7. lesartsdecoratifs

    Any error in costuming is covered by the twist even the skirt not having enough fabric, so judging the costuming as a period movie is difficult. The problem I have with this movie is that it’s basically “Hostel” with a different setting. Reducing a historic injustice of this magnitude to the set dressing of a elegantly-shot torture horror movie is… a choice.

    Reply
  8. Sam

    May have to check this one out actually – premise certainly sounds intriguing.

    As for critics hating it, were they the same people who went gaga over the utterly godawful Midsommar (both infuriating as a film AND for its costumes – ‘Swedish’ cult all in the cheapest Hungarian/Romanian/Ukrainian folk outfits?)

    Reply

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