Supreme effort channels Motown's diva

The Baltimore Sun

Is Deena Jones Diana Ross? Are the Dreamettes really the Supremes?

Dreamgirls, the much-buzzed-about movie version of the 1981 hit Broadway musical, doesn't say so flat out.

But the costumes in the film (in theaters nationally Christmas Day) -- from the many extravagant gowns to those used for the transformation of the once-meek lead character into a fabulous, fashionable diva -- say it all too well.

"This is pure, unadulterated glamour," says Jacqui Stafford, executive style director for Shape magazine, about the outfits worn in the film by Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). "And in that era, the Supremes, they were the first girls to be really incredibly glamorous, to have a very stylish wardrobe."

Deena, Lorrell and Effie's girl group, the fictional Dreamettes, dazzle in the film, wearing jaw-dropping numbers in rich jewel tones and sparkling metallics -- glittering, body-hugging gowns and cocktail dresses in shades of ruby, turquoise, mother of pearl and aquamarine.

In a memorable scene at the end of the movie, the group performs onstage in elaborate gowns with heavy boning and chain mail formed from platinum sequins. The dresses are so tricked out that each weighed 15 pounds.

Such intricacy and sophistication is not just reminiscent of the Supremes; it was the Supremes.

"Even today, the Supremes gowns are legendary," says Tom Ingrassia, a pop music/culture historian who specializes in Motown's impact on society in the 1960s. "The gowns became part of the image and part of the whole package."

Wardrobe credits for the film, which spans 13 years in the lives of the characters, go to Sharen Davis, whose work designing costumes for the movie Ray earned her an Oscar nomination.

For Dreamgirls, Davis combed through archives of photographs, old issues of magazines such as Ebony and Life, and spent hours viewing shows such as American Bandstand for footage from the Motown era.

In a Paramount-distributed production booklet about the film, the studio says Davis' challenge was "to produce clothes that would evoke a sense of period, but not exist merely as reproductions of the clothing of the '60s and '70s eras."

But some ardent students of that time period say the Supremes' famous glamour clearly influenced Davis -- in a big way.

"It seems to me that the producers of the Broadway show really went out of their way to say that this really was not the story of the Supremes, that it was really a generic story about the era, about girl groups and black performers in general. The film version seems to be going in just the opposite direction," says Ingrassia. "There are so many direct connections that make it very obvious. And one of them is some of the costumes are direct knockoffs of actual costumes that the Supremes wore in the '60s. When I look at the clips I've seen of the movie, and the stills, they are dead on with the look and the feel of the era from a fashion point of view."

Ingrassia says female groups that predated the Supremes -- such as the Marvelettes, the Chantelles and the Shirelles -- were elegantly turned out but fairly plain.

"They weren't wearing cocktail dresses or sequin gowns. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells usually performed on stage wearing bell-bottom pants. The Shirelles wore just very basic black dresses," Ingrassia says.

But it was clear after the Supremes' early years -- of homemade frocks and off-the-rack dresses -- that Ross and her group were aiming higher.

"As the popularity of the group skyrocketed, they started wearing designed gowns, gowns designed by Michael Travis and Bob Mackie," says Ingrassia. "They were in head-to-toe sequins, very glamorous. That was what set the Supremes apart from the other girl groups of the era. They went on stage dressed to the nines, and that's what fans came to expect."

As Dreamgirls moves into the 1970s, it becomes especially clear -- through fashion as well as other cues -- that Ross is the inspiration for Knowles' Deena.

A brief fashion montage of Deena -- of beautifully backlit photos on a wall -- is reminiscent of a similar one in Mahogany, the 1975 movie starring Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Mahogany was produced by Ross' Svengali at the time, Motown founder Berry Gordy, who was clearly the inspiration for Curtis Taylor Jr., Jamie Foxx's character in Dreamgirls.

Ross, who designed many of her own costumes in Mahogany, was the epitome of black glamour in the 1970s. And it's apparent that the costume designers for Dreamgirls used the Motown diva as the style template for Knowles' character.

In Deena's fashion sequence, her makeup (the heavy lashes, the bold eye shadows) and hair (the mushroom Afro, the pretzel braids) mirror Ross' classic look in Mahogany.

"Diana was very chic," says Jackie Rogers, a New York-based couture designer who made many dresses for Ross in the 1970s. "She's very knowledgeable about clothes. She's got more style than any of those girls walking around who had stylists. She didn't need a stylist. She knew what to wear."

The ever-confident Ross was incredibly tiny, but her expertly made clothes fit her in a way that was sexy and sophisticated. But women need not be Ross' size, or Knowles' even, to wear Supremes-style dresses, fashion experts say.

"The great thing about the movie is that it shows you don't have to be skinny or starve yourself to wear a glamorous, form-fitting dress," says Stafford, of Shape. "Jennifer Hudson will never be a size 0, but she is easily as gorgeous as the other girls in the show because she loves her curves and that works for her.

"I think this movie will hopefully herald the return to glamour," Stafford continues. "It's beautiful to be feminine, it's beautiful to show your curves, it's beautiful to show them off in a sexy form-fitting dress. It's not about being safe. It's about loving your body. So wear that dress. Own it. Love it."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Sun Pop Music Critic Rashod D. Ollison contributed to this article.

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