This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As costume designer for The Weinstein Co.'s Lee Daniels' The Butler, due out Aug. 16, Ruth Carter had the daunting task of suiting up four decades of famous political players, civil rights leaders and U.S. presidents. The two-time Oscar-nominated designer (Amistad, Malcolm X) insists, however, that her biggest challenge on the film -- which is based on a real-life African-American White House butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1987 -- was re-creating the iconic styles of first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. Carter also tackled outfitting Oprah Winfrey's character, Gloria Gaines, the wife of Allen (renamed Cecil Gaines in the film and played by Forest Whitaker).
"Each era had its own set of rules, so it really was like doing three completely different movies," says Carter of the fashion timeline, which spans the polite and buttoned-up 1950s, the more relaxed, free-spirited '60s and '70s and the big-shouldered power dressing of the '80s.
For Winfrey's character, Carter based her designs on what Gloria might have seen in the African-American magazine Ebony, which began publishing in 1945. "To have a husband who worked in the White House would have been a huge social-status [marker] for a black family in Washington, D.C.," says Carter. "Every middle-class and upper-middle-class black family had a subscription to Ebony."
Knowing that Allen's wife loved to sew and was a stay-at-home mom and churchgoer active in the community, Carter gave Winfrey Butterick-inspired dresses, accessorized with matching shoes and handbags, Sunday church hats and, of course, short white gloves.
When it came to designing the wardrobes of two of the White House's most fashionably influential first ladies, Carter relied on two books, 2001's Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years and 2007's Entertaining at the White House with Nancy Reagan.
"I wanted to pay homage to the first ladies' favorite designers, but I had to design and craft a lot from scratch because we didn't have a big costume budget," says Carter, who hit up private collectors and L.A. vintage stores, including her favorite vintage couture boutique, The Paper Bag Princess in Beverly Hills.
To wardrobe Mrs. Kennedy (Minka Kelly), Carter created pieces inspired by the first lady's love of Oleg Cassini, Chanel, Givenchy and Rodier, finding vintage pieces by the designers, as well as such signature style statements as her three-strand pearl necklace and kitten heels. "The '60s look was more modern, A-line, with shorter skirts," says Carter.
For Mrs. Reagan (Jane Fonda), Carter used the boxy status-symbol suit to help re-create the Dynasty era. "Nancy was all about the tailored suit," she says, noting that she loved a particular shade of crimson, later dubbed "Reagan Red." She favored outfits by Oscar de la Renta as well as James Galanos. "We finally found and fitted Jane Fonda in three Galanos originals," says Carter, pointing out that Reagan wore a satin one-shoulder column gown by the designer, paired with long white gloves, to the 1981 inaugural ball.
"One day we were on set, and Jane put a tie-front dress -- very big in the '80s -- on under a suit because we had to show the costume to [director] Lee Daniels later to approve," recalls Carter. After he OK'd it, Daniels decided to add Fonda to another scene, so she simply unzipped her suit in front of everybody and was standing there in her next costume ready to go. "We had a quite a few days like that!"