The fashion rags-to-riches story is always potent for the celluloid treatment. It’s a Gatsby ‘American Dream’ trajectory that captures the complications our popular culture has with wealth and fame (Biggie said it best: “Mo Money, Mo Problems”).
In 1975, Diana Ross was at her Sasha Fierce zenith: an Oscar nomination for her turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues, the #1 hit “Touch Me In The Morning”, a duets album with Marvin Gaye. She was Motown’s reigning ‘Supreme’ Diva — the original Beyonce template, the “I’m Coming Out” gay icon, a halo of Medusa frizz with yes, that requisite off-kilter misbehavior (there has to be something to off-set the Mackie sequins).
Which is precisely why Mahogany stumbled as a semi-autobiographical rumination on black stardom: Miss Diana was allowed to overact the heightened version of herself. It was the first misstep of a ten-year-old brand: Time Magazine blamed director/Motown honcho Berry Gordy — who took over directing duties after firing British director Tony Richardson for misunderstanding the ‘black experience’ — for “squandering one of America’s most natural resources”. But just like you don’t watch Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest and Showgirls with the oh-so-serious film theory approaches — you gotta delve into Mahogany with the explicit understanding that it’s camp with a fabulous wardrobe that has something rather profound to say about fashion and cultural/racial politics.
Mahogany in a nutshell is Diana Ross going from a poor Chicago secretary who dreams of being a fashion designer, to becoming a Pat Cleveland in Rome who is the muse of a Psycho photographer (played by… Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins), to becoming said fashion designer, who then realizes that “success is nuh-THING… without someone you love to share it with”. Is it sad that after so many years — I watched this scene on a Motown 25 Beta tape 15 odd years ago — that line still makes me swoon?
But let’s talk about the fashion. Oh my. Miss Ross designed the entire wardrobe her self (and her daughter, Tracee Ellis-Ross, keeps it stowed away in her closet … and I am therefore patiently waiting for the museum retrospective). The film presents an interesting snap-shot of a time when black femininity was gaining acceptance in the fashion world — see aforementioned Pat Cleveland, Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Quiet French Revolution’ in breaking down those high fashion racial barriers — and cinema was just coming out of its blaxploitation throes. New York City was a year or two away from Studio 54 madness, from seeing Grace Jones’ flat top challenge the singular mainstream representation of blackness being a light-skin vs. dark-skin debate (which unfortunately, is something that still holds up, just as much as the prevalence of white privilege — have we seen the promised Vogue Italia Black Issue diversity come into effect on the runway?).
Purely from a fashion stand-point, the above montage is wonderful: Diana as a Nefertiti, a glittery oceanic siren, an Arabian drifter. Some film theorists have called this shape-shifting an example of a play “against darkness” — that Ross’ fashion shoot transformation actually illustrates how “her body colour is washed out in bright light or powdered over…her long-haired wigs blow around her face, she becomes suddenly ‘white’.” Other theorists argue that the entire film is an example of the greater political of a black woman caught between two worlds — “the struggle over the sexual objectification of Tracy’s body in the face of commercial exploitation and the struggle of the black community in the face of class exploitation” (there’s an early scene where Ross helps crazy Psycho photographer take a ‘gritty’ high-fashion shoot in the Chicago West Side slums).
But this is precisely why I love this film so much. It’s stimulating on a purely visual level, but is ripe for far more in-depth re-interpretation of how Ross — in her initial positioning as that one-time ‘only’ acceptable representation of mainstream blackness — gave us girls of colour an ‘in’. The film was hugely marketed, and even had a Revlon Touch & Glow make-up tie-in, which including a line of ‘earthy tone’ shades of bronze, copper and rust.
In Jamaica Kincaid’s Talk Stories — a collection of her New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces — she writes of going to a Revlon party celebrating the make-up line, and asking a Revlon representative whether the “China Bronze” colours were only for “black women”. Another Revlon beauty consultant cut-ins: “They’re not black cosmetics. People are no longer into that. There is no longer such a thing as black cosmetics. We don’t believe there is a different makeup for different people. There are many different skin tones in the world, and black is just one of them.” There’s something to be said about that even today.
And lest we not forgot how Mahogany has impacted us today: it’s been a longstanding inspiration for Marc Jacobs (the above are shots from his Fall 2007, which he admitted was totally a Mahogany tribute), who has been quoted as saying he’d die to do the costumes if a remake ever occurred (which would be brilliant, but please let there not be a Dreamgirls redux and Beyonce in the role). It has even inspired a fierce V Magazine Fall 2008 shoot between Sessilee Lopez and Tyra Banks. It’s a wonderful send-up of Mahogany’s original subversive intent (if you sink yourself well enough into the camp) — that the girl of colour ain’t an object, that she can drip of luxury and style any old time, and maybe we need to name-check something like Mahogany to remember the legacy of that struggle.
– Rea McNamara