In contrast to the romanticism and adventure of Outlander are the costumes from a more sober production, Roots. First produced in 1977 and remade in 2016, Roots broke new ground with its story of an African man sold into slavery and shipped to America. It’s a tragic story and depicts a dark aspect of American history that has been downplayed for many years. It’s definitely a story that needs to be told and while the specific elements of the plot may be fictional, the institution of slavery is factual and needed (and still needs) to be told. Costume and fashion are often viewed as frivolous things bearing no impact on the “real world” but here that’s not the case and in fact, provoke discussion and consideration. With that said, let’s proceed…
Today we continue with our visit to the “Art of Television Costume Design, 2015-2016” at the FIDM Museum last weekend and today we promise not to say anything more about Outlander. 🙂 In contrast to Outlander were costumes from the remake of the Roots miniseries. When it was first released in 1977, Roots was considered to be ground-breaking in that it dealt with slavery and its consequences.
Based on the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Hailey, the show starts in 1760s and follows the life of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka from West Africa, who is captured by slavers, shipped across the Atlantic to Virginia, and sold to a plantation master (although the book was originally marketed as non-fiction, there were subsequent allegations of historical inaccuracy and plagiarism). The story is then continued down through several generations ending in 1865 (a subsequent miniseries called Roots: The Next Generations carries the story further into the 1960s). In 2016, a remake of the original 1977 series was released that fairly faithfully follows the story with some of the story elements updated and/or reworked. However, no matter what the provenance might be, Roots is a testament to a dark part of American history whose legacy still affects us today.
Turning to the costumes themselves, we first see Kunta Kinte’s Mandinka outfit:
In comparison with the original 1977 version, it seems that more concerted effort was made to capture the distinct ethnic clothing worn by the peoples of Gambia rather than simply putting them in breech-cloths. It was a little disconcerting looking at these costumes the way they were staged for display so here are a few pictures from the production to give it life:
One of the more fascinating costumes was the coat worn by the character Fiddler, who acts as a mentor/father figure to Kunta when he first arrives in Virginia:
No, that’s not the picture pixilating- the coat is constructed of a brocade or lampas that has been severely distressed, reflecting Fiddler’s decline in the plantation hierarchy. We had to open and close our eyes several times- it was hard to focus on the material. Here are some more views:
And the same coat in better days:
And here we see a variety of the costumes. Slave clothing was either hand-me-downs from the master and his family or manufactured expressly for the slaves from cheap cloth of various types, typically osnaburg, fustian, linsey-woolsey, and cheap cotton. The indigo blue color and fabric of Kunta’s coat is very striking, especially combined with the traditional turban.
And here are a few more of the costumes:
This one is interesting in that it’s clearly a hand-me-down from the master.
The distressing that was done on these dresses is amazing and is definitely a testament to the costumer’s art.
The costumes from the 2016 Roots were compelling and thought-provoking and we’re definitely going to view this show in the near future. Stay tuned for Part 3 of our trip to the FIDM Museum. 🙂