Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green, ambitious blues cornetist
Chicago, Summer 1927
Film: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Director: George C. Wolfe
Costume Designer: Ann Roth
The late Chadwick Boseman was being named as an Oscar contender for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the August Wilson play of the same name, even before it came out. We’re still two months away from the Academy Award nominations being announced, but Boseman has already received posthumous Best Actor wins from the Chicago Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and Music City Film Critics’ Association for what turned out to be his final screen role.
The praise is well-deserved as the actor delivered a powerhouse performance as the hotheaded horn-blower Levee Green, an ambitious (and fictional) member of a four-piece band backing Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the Mother of the Blues herself. The North Side neighborhood in my hometown of Pittsburgh was transformed to resemble roaring ’20s Chicago when production came to the Steel City two summers ago; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only one of the ten plays in the Hill District-born Wilson’s “Century Cycle” not actually set in Pittsburgh.
Chadwick Boseman had been diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, never speaking publicly about his illness all the while delivering some of his most iconic performances in Marshall, Black Panther, and the two Avengers films to follow. Indeed, Boseman’s vigorous performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom belies his health at the time, and his fellow cast members remained unaware of his ongoing treatment for the cancer that would progress to stage IV before it ended his life at the age of 42 on August 28, 2020.
What’d He Wear?
Levee: I knows how to play real music, not this old jug band shit! I got style.
Toledo: Oh, everybody got style! Style ain’t nothin’.
Clothing—and, in particular, shoes—make up the major emphasis on personal style in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma herself commands her nervous nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) to “tuck your clothes in, straighten them up, and look nice… look like a gentleman.” Levee may be referring to his approach to music when he celebrates his style during one of many arguments with pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), but we know appearance is important to the swaggering young cornetist who was late to rehearsal as he was busy buying an $11 pair of yellow shoes. (In 2020, $11 shoes would cost more than $160… not unreasonable but also not advisable for a musician living paycheck-to-paycheck.)
Given the emphasis on style, it’s fitting that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom engaged the services of one of the most eminent costume designers in the business. Ann Roth, who co-designed the iconic costumes in The Talented Mr. Ripley among many other credits in her prolific stage and screen career, shares the story’s spiritual roots in Pittsburgh as her own career started as a scenery painter for the Pittsburgh Opera in the early 1950s.
“They have to wear a shirt and a tie and they travel on buses and on trains and they travel a lot and their clothes take a beating,” Roth explained to Fawnia Soo Hoo for Fashionista. “If they perform at night, those suits either hang over the back of a chair in a rooming house somewhere. They don’t have a wardrobe lady and they don’t have a valet. Some of them take their pants off, folded them and put them between the mattress and the bedspring. That often happened. It takes the crease out!”
As most of the action is set over the course of one day, we get to know the quartet’s sense of dress intimately as they slip off their jackets and loosen their ties for “band room” rehearsal before straightening up again when rejoining Ma to record their sessions. The only other outfits prominently seen on screen are the band’s dinner suits from the previous evening’s stage performance, consisting of midnight blue dinner jackets with broad peak lapels worn with wing-collar shirts and coordinated waistcoats.
The next day, the four men arrive ahead of Ma at the Hot Rhythm Recordings studio, Levee bringing up the rear while also bringing the most individualized sense of style. Roth told Fashionista that she had begun designing Boseman’s costume remotely (even in the days before COVID!), though they instantly connected when meeting in person for his fittings. “He got into it,” Roth told Fashionista. “He enjoyed the process of [determining the origin of] the clothes: ‘Where did they come from? Who paid for them? How much did they cost? Where did he pick them up? Tennessee? Alabama? Arkansas? How did the pants fit?’ All that. [Levee] wanted to look good. And [Boseman] was very responsive; a very, very good actor to play with.”
Unlike his bandmates in their matching two- or three-piece suits, Levee uses his clothing to communicate his individuality, pairing a boldly striped odd jacket over a matching gray plaid waistcoat and trousers.
The dark gray twill flannel jacket is patterned in a bold and widely spaced white chalk-stripe. Sports coats were just beginning to be accepted during the 1920s, beginning with the tweed country-wear meant for sporting pursuits. Given that pinstripes and chalkstripes are generally meant for business dress anyway, it’s likely that Levee’s jacket was meant to be orphaned from a full suit but worn here with the underpinnings from another suit for a visually interesting contrast.
The ventless single-breasted jacket has a three-button front that flatters Boseman’s lean, six-foot-tall frame, detailed with a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and two-button cuffs. The shoulders follow a natural slope with shirring at the pronounced sleeveheads that resemble the Neapolitan-style spalla camicia shoulder.
Levee wears a gray-on-ecru striped cotton shirt that coordinates with the rest of his gray-scaled outfit. The gray stripe looks like a typical bengal stripe, though each is detailed with two darker hairline-width stripes within them. The shirt has a point collar, front placket, and button cuffs.
Levee’s two-color silk twill tie echoes the Art Deco-era with its organized but askew geometric print of slanted tiles. To me, the pattern resembles a scattering of undeveloped Polaroids as each tile is cream-colored with a large chestnut brown square in the center that matches the narrow border along the edges of each tile. Although the pattern may look chaotic, the tiles are neatly organized in an “uphill” direction.
The foundation of Levee’s outfit is a matching six-button waistcoat (vest) and trousers, almost certainly elements of a full three-piece suit. The wool suiting is a black-and-gray broken twill that creates an overall gray effect, overlaid with a unique multi-color plaid consisting of sets of three vertical charcoal pinstripes that run perpendicular to sets of three horizontal pinstripes colored in pale gray, pink, and pale gray.
The satin-finished lining is gray with a pinkish hue, reflecting the suiting’s unique colorway, with an adjustable strap across the waistcoat’s lower back. Levee keeps a white handkerchief in the left of the waistcoat’s two lower welted pockets, handy for polishing his horn as well as his shoes. We rarely see the waistcoat fully buttoned aside from his arrive and a brief continuity error when he finally breaks through the mysterious door.
Made from the same gray-toned plaid as his waistcoat, Levee’s flat front trousers rise fashionably high to Boseman’s waist, where they are held up with a set of suspenders (braces) striped in a dark slate blue and cream cloth and fastened to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband with light brown leather two-prong hooks. He leaves the belt loops unused, appropriately avoiding the redundancy of belt and braces as well as the oft-unsightly bulge created by a belt buckle under a waistcoat.
The full-fitting trousers have on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms that gently flare.
“Look here, Cutler! I got me some shoes,” Levee sings as he strides into the band’s basement rehearsal, showing off his new $11 brogues. While everyone shares their admiration at first, Cutler (Colman Domingo) later grumbles about “any man who takes a whole week’s pay and puts it on some shoes… you know what I mean?”
Despite Cutler’s admonition, Levee remains proud of his wingtip brogues, constructed of golden-hued leather uppers consistent with Ann Roth’s original vision as she outlined to Fashionista: “In that period, most men had a pair of black shoes and a brown pair. When you went to church, those were the black shoes, and the brown shoes were working shoes, but yellow shoes were extraordinary. You had to be a high-stepper to have them, or to wear them, or to pay for them.”
I’m sure Levee would agree, as he touts “a man gotta have some shoes that dance like this!” as Slow Drag (Michael Potts) lays down a bass beat for him, Levee having already outlined how they differentiate him from the otherwise natty Toledo’s well-worn black “clodhoppers”.
Levee’s yellow leather brogues are detailed with medallion perforated wingtips and oxford-style closed lacing, wearing flat orange laces through the five sets of eyelets. He’s drawn to the shoes as they tilt from a prominent display in a Halsted Street store window, though Roth explained to W Mag that she found them on Orchard Street in Manhattan: “I used to know who made them. But I don’t remember now that I’ve had this drink.”
Levee wears an olive felt fedora with a nearly matching olive grosgrain band and grosgrain piping along the edges of his upturned brim. His sole jewelry is a gold ring, worn on his left index finger, an affectation suggestive of self-esteem, confidence, and leadership and thus perfectly suited for the ambitious cornetist who aspires to lead his own band sooner rather than later.
How to Get the Look
Ever the individualist, Levee dresses to suit his own style in a boldly striped orphaned jacket over a waistcoat and trousers, even wearing his ring on an unorthodox finger, but he adds a coda to his jazzy ensemble after spotting a pair of shining yellow brogues in a store window.
- Dark gray chalkstripe flannel twill single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Gray-on-ecru striped cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Cream-and-chestnut brown tile-patterned silk twill tie
- Gray plaid broken-twill wool single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with two welted pockets
- Gray plaid broken-twill wool flat front trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Slate-and-beige striped cloth suspenders with light brown leather hooks
- Yellow leather 5-eyelet wingtip oxford brogues
- Charcoal-blue, white, and black vertical-striped socks
- Olive felt fedora with grosgrain band and grosgrain-edged brim
- Gold ring, left index finger
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, currently streaming on Netflix. You can also pick up a copy of August Wilson’s play.
Life ain’t shit. You can put it in a paper bag and carry it around with you. It ain’t got no balls. Now death? Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you’d never been born, that’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.