LBJ, MLK, and Selma


Portraying historical people on film and in TV is always open for criticism, even more so if it’s people within living memory. Thus the 2014 film Selma was criticized for not putting Lyndon Baines Johnson in the most flattering light. But the timeline of events in the film is accurate, and multiple sources rebut the Johnson supporters pointing out that, yep, Martin Luther King, Jr. did pressure LBJ to speed things up on voting rights.

Selma (2014)

We at Frock Flicks have often criticized films based on actual historical events for not getting things correct, and we’re totally on the side of movies and TV using historical facts whenever possible. And while I wasn’t there on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, nor was I in the Oval Office overhearing LBJ and MLK discuss events, I can say that watching this film gives a deeper insight into what happened at those times than just watching Eyes on the Prize (1987), for example, an incredibly well-researched documentary that I also recommend. Selma is one of those rare fictionalizations that carefully and appropriately fills in the gaps and leaves you with a better sense of historical events than you might have started with. Even if you’ve read up on the Selma marches, this film’s depiction of the events has something new and relevant to say.

Selma (2014) Selma (2014)
Selma (2014)

These little girls are discussing hairstyles before tragedy strikes. The scene is at once charmingly realistic and gut-wrenching.


Costumes in Selma

As with recreating historical events, recreating the look of actual people who are well-known and who were extensively photographed raises the bar. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter used her own collection of Ebony magazines from the period as well as news footage of the marches, most of which was in black and white, as reference material. She also depended on authentic vintage clothing to make sure the crucial crowd scenes looked accurate. On MassLive, Carter described this process:

“Principal actors usually get costumes that are reconstructed. Sometimes they wear vintage. … There’s no way, in the time span and budget that we had, to give any one actor all custom-made clothes. … I was resourceful and tried to cut corners where I could because when you find something real from the period it’s better than anything you could find that’s been produced now to look like it was from that era.”

It was also important to make the costumes relevant to the place and character of the people, whether they were in crowds or at the White House. For example, Carter said: “Because of the nature of the marches, we paid careful attention to what the actors wore. These were poor people so we pulled a lot of plaid shirts, overalls, and work clothes. You know, dresses that a lady might wear at home.” And while all the men are wearing suits and ties, accessories were chosen carefully. Carter explained:

“Skinny ties were trendy. I was dressing religious leaders and government leaders so I didn’t want the people who were in office, like Lyndon B. Johnson and George Wallace, to look like they were following some young trend.”

Selma (2014) Selma (2014) Selma (2014)
Selma (2014)

This dress on Coretta was a modern fabric, overdyed to get a more period shade.

One character who was not dressed precisely according to the historical research was Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo). Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife was often called “the first lady of the civil rights movement,” and Selma‘s director Ava DuVernay wanted the first time Coretta is shown in the film to be impressive. The film opens with Mr. and Mrs. King dressing before he accepts his Nobel Peace Prize. For that event in real life, Coretta wore a simple dark suit with a matching black hat covered in feathers. In the film, she is glamorous in an evening gown that Carter constructed from a 1960s beaded bodice attached to a new full-length skirt. Carter explained to WEBN: “Ava felt like we should dress her in something a little more opulent, we thought she would look a little unusual in that dark suit.”

Selma (2014) Selma (2014)


For more about the costumes in Selma, watch this interview with Ruth E. Carter:


Have you seen Selma? What did you think?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

20 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Yes, I’ve seen Selma. What impressed me most, besides Ms Carter’s ‘right on’ clothes was the sense that I was living the events along with MLK & CSK and the other leaders, women & children.
    Furthermore, seeing how far we’ve come as a family and how far we still need to go. Civil Rights are not history alone, they are on going and must be fought for and never taken for granted.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Selma made me cry, even tho I knew almost everything that was going to happen in the plot. The performances were amazing. And yes, it’s an ongoing struggle.

      • MoHub

        There’s a tendency to lump the whole of the 1960s into a single fashion profile when there’s a clear dividing line between the earlier and latter halves of the decade. I’d say the watershed year was 1964, with the British Invasion, which included Mod fashion.

        Very often, someone will refer to the ’60s and totally ignore the earlier part of the decade with its knee-length skirts, bouffant hairstyles, and armor-like underpinnings like panty girdles.

        • Andrew Schroeder

          Which is one of the many reasons why the costume design on Mad Men is so fabulous – it captured the shift in styles over the years and different social groups so perfectly. Of course this is coming from someone who wasn’t actually there to see it first-hand lol.

          • MoHub

            Mad Men was spot on. I was born in 1951, so I remember the ’60s well and can assert that the fashions and their evolution were portrayed perfectly.

    • Kendra

      I think there’s more reverence for mid-century, if not all of the 20th century, and more “we need to get this right,” since it’s such recent history.

  2. Susan Pola

    Maybe that’s why I felt Hairspray was more late 1950s than JFK 1960s.

    • MoHub

      Not really. I felt Hairspray—at least the original—nailed 1962 and brought a lot of memories to the surface.

      • NPHooks

        I feel the John Waters original film version (the 1988 one, starring Divine and Ricki Lake) was most authentic to the early 1960s in part because Waters was remembering his own teen years and wanted the costumes and hairstyles accurate to his memories (and Divine’s character, Edna Turnblad’s look is pointedly older until she gets a modern-to-the-’60s makeover) The Broadway show and the subsequent 2007 movie (which was essentially the movie version of the Broadway show) were more over the top as far as costumes, imo, not an easy fete for John Waters fare.

  3. Susan Pola

    There are only 2 I remember clearly. The Michelle Pfeiffer/John Travolta one & the one with Kristin Chenowith. I don’t really remember the Ricki Lake one.

    • MoHub

      You must see the original. John Waters got absolutely everything right, and the casting was brilliant. Not only did we get Divine (both in and out of drag) and Ricki Lake, but we were treated to Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as the snobbish von Tussles and Jerry Stiller as Wilbur Turnblad. We also got a host of real Baltimoreans, adding further authenticity.

      The stage musical was okay, and the movie of the musical was a joke.

  4. Saraquill

    Mildly OT, but has Frock Flicks considered covering the show “Underground?” the costumes are meh historical wise, but they fit characterization pretty well.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yes! I have a review coming up soon — season 2 of Underground starts in early March, & I hope to finish season 1 in time. The costumes are killing me, but the story is worth it.

  5. Kathleen Norvell

    It might be interesting to compare “Selma” with “Loving,” which took place sometime before the events of Selma.