“Mahogany” Draws Inspiration from Opera, Dance, and Art

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There are several classic films that come out of the archives folder during Black History Month. “Sounder,” “Claudine,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “Raisin in the Sun” are just few films that give voice to the African American experience resurrected during Black History Month. Most of us have seen these films countless times with some us able to recite lines word for word.

Of all these classic films that speak to the African American experience in the diaspora, perhaps, “Mahogany,” is one of the only films that speaks to navigating success in a white world and the cost of the success. Another unusual aspect of “Mahogany” is that it one of few films of the 1970s that uses fashion as backdrop for a storyline about the African American experience. And the fashion montages in “Mahogany” draw inspiration from theatre, dance, and opera.

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One of the most significant fashion injections in “Mahogany” is the charity auction runway scene that uses beautiful jersey and silk chiffon gowns designed by Princess Irene Galitzine. Princess Irene Galitzine is actually in the film. Princess Irene Galitzine came to prominence in the fashion industry in the mid-1950s, establishing her atelier in Rome in the late 1940s.  Galitzine saw the launch of her palazzo pyjamas which were wide-legged evening trousers made of soft silk. Evening pyjamas became a firm fixture of the fashion scene during the 1960s. Galitzine dressed many top celebrities, aristocrats, and society ladies of the 1960s—Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis, Princess Lee Radziwill, the Duchess of Windsor, Marie-Helene de Rothschild, Claudia Cardinale, and others.

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“Mahogany’s” opening fashion montage contains a lot of fashion inspired by Asian culture. All of the garments in that opening fashion montage were designed by Diana Ross. (Special note: Pat Cleveland is one of the models in that opening fashion scene. In fact, Pat Cleveland coached Diana Ross on her runway walk for the film.)

In the photoshoot montage, it is very clear that the fashion references are based on opera, ballet, and art. Which is where most stylists and fashion photographers go to find incredible sources of inspiration.

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The Cleopatra/Nefertiti reference that inspired said look in the fashion montage, may have come from the beautiful costumes in Samuel Barber’s opera “Antony and Cleopatra.” This opera premiered in 1966 at the Metropolitan Opera House starring the great African American dramatic soprano Leontyne Price. It should also be noted that Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra” opened the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

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The “Mahogany” costume and wardrobe department also looked to dance for inspiration. In 1967, the Joffrey Ballet premiered the ballet “Astarte” at New York City’s City Center. “Astarte” is the first multimedia ballet of its kind and referenced the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, hippie culture of the late 1960’s. The unitard worn by ballerina Trinette Singleton in the ballet looks very close to the unitard worn by Diana Ross in the “Mahogany” fashion montage.

Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham was known for expanding the lexicon of modern dance. From her “Letters to the World” to “Medea” to “Appalachian Spring” Martha Graham has set a standard in dance world that cannot be surpassed.

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In Graham’s modern dance solo “Lamentations,” the dancer is enveloped in this very stretchable fabric as she goes through signature Graham emotive contractions. Ross is similarly attired in stretchable fabric and goes through familiar Graham movements.

“Mahogany” is, perhaps, the first film with fashion as a backdrop that draws heavily from the worlds of dance, opera, and art. And though this film was not recognized as a critical success in 1975, “Mahogany” is now a cult classic enjoyed by generations of viewers.

—William S. Gooch

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