The Powerful Fashion In ‘Shirley’ Leans On Pattern-Heavy Ensembles And Eloquent ‘70s Suits

Glen Wilson/Netflix

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, was an outspoken changemaker and a political icon. In Shirley, Netflix’s biopic detailing many of Chisholm’s historic moments throughout her political career, Regina King plays the beloved woman who was unafraid to express herself. King also produced the film. As a working-class woman of Caribbean descent, Chisholm had many strikes against her but through dedication and hard work, she was able to evoke change and impact her community. This is perhaps what makes the costume design by Megan Coates compelling: the designs allude to the power dynamics always at play in Chisholm’s personal and professional life.

The Costumes In ‘Shirley’ Highlight The Innate Power Of The Political Icon
SHIRLEY. (L to R) Regina King (Producer) as Shirley Chisholm, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Stanley Townsend and Michael Cherrie as Conrad Chisholm in Shirley. Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2023.

For instance, in one of the early scenes in the film which sticks out she wears a standout grey houndstooth cape, boots, and gloves to Congress. In fact, this is what she dons for a photograph with all of her white male Congressional peers who seemingly all blend together–and she is a unique fixture in this scene. This play on office attire is a pivotal stylish moment that points to Chisholm’s vibrant take on the attire she often wears to work, no matter where she is, she steps out in her best. Notably, this ensemble speaks to her level of self-belief.

In another poignant moment following her election to the House of Representatives, she announces her bid for the presidency to her political team: Arthur Hardwick played by Terrence Howard, and Wesley “Mac” Holder (Lance Reddick). In this moment which falls on Christmas 1971, Chisholm wears a maroon turtleneck sweater accentuated by a plaid vest and midi balloon-esque skirt. The plaid pattern appears in red, navy, and dark green–an oversized gold pin and gold clip-on earrings are the sole accessories she dons. Even in her home, she opts for stylish attire. This alludes to the fact that she rarely gets a moment to kick back and relax, even on a holiday she chooses to showcase her fascination with vibrant, expressive clothing.

The Costumes In ‘Shirley’ Highlight The Innate Power Of The Political Icon
SHIRLEY. Regina King (Producer) as Shirley Chisholm in Shirley. Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2023.

Separately, Chisholm’s ability to switch her ensembles up a bit is showcased in a scene with Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers who is unsure of her run for the presidency. To lean into a powerful outfit she shows up in a green jacket with golden buttons which evoke elegance and power. For conversations like this, it’s important to exude not only confidence but also to prepare for battle, hence the somewhat militaristic inclinations this outfit alluded to. 

While striving to make a difference in her Brooklyn community and for the nation Chisholm embraced the vibrant prints of the ‘70s. The use of color and bold prints in the costuming presented her as a direct opposite of the men she worked alongside in Congress and also on her political team. Especially since they were often wearing tailored suits in grey or dull tones not limited to dark brown or black. Whether in a floral patterned wrap dress in orange and black tones paired with a chic statement belt or a two-piece suit in pale yellow with a turtleneck the clothing choices by Coates painted a picture of Chisholm as a self-expressive style icon.

The Costumes In ‘Shirley’ Highlight The Innate Power Of The Political Icon
SHIRLEY. (L to R) Lance Reddick as Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder, Regina King as Shirley Chisholm and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Stanley Townsend in Shirley. Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2023.

As a whole, the use of vivid and color-filled outfits in Shirley bestows a special light on its titular character. It succeeds in highlighting the power that lies in Chisholm’s clothing, these choices were her armor against the sexist, racist, and discriminatory world she faced as a Black woman. By choosing to subvert notions of what women of influence should wear, Chisholm was able to further step into her innate strength. This vigor and her wardrobe carried her to some of the most powerful rooms in the nation.

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