The Story Behind the 8 Most Fabulous Looks in The Butler

It was hard enough to outfit a cast of hundreds over the course of a century for the civil rights drama The Butler, but director Lee Daniels was most worried about costuming just one of those actors. “He would say, ‘You cannot make her just Oprah,’” laughs Ruth Carter, the costume designer on the film. “I said, ‘I know, I know. I have to look beyond her celebrity.’” Fortunately, Carter did such a good job outfitting her famous lead actress — as well as Forest Whitaker as the titular butler, and David Oyelowo as their militant son — that the compelling period clothes rate as one of The Butler’s biggest assets. “I don’t want to say that she’s the black Edith Head, because that sort of defines her as a black costumer,” Daniels says of Carter, “but she’s an absolute, unequivocal genius.” Here are eight of the best Butler looks that Carter and Daniels came up with.


Let’s not even beat around the bush: You clicked on this article hoping it would feature the amazing matching jumpsuits that Oprah and Forest Whitaker wear all-too-briefly in the middle of the movie. Well, your wishes have been answered! And according to Carter, this dual black-and-white look almost didn’t happen: Originally, Winfrey was fitted with a colorful patterned dress. “The dress was wearing her instead of her wearing it,” explained Carter. “So I went back to my research and found this old ad in Ebony magazine for Eleganza. Not many people know Eleganza, but those who do have an a-ha moment when they hear that brand! It was one of those catalogues that sold the hippest clothes in the seventies, and I think Richard Roundtree from Shaft was even one of the models.” This particular Eleganza ad had a man and woman in matching black-and-white outfits, and as soon as she saw it, Carter presented Daniels with a clipping of the campy look. “She gave it to me,” recalls Daniels, “and I was like, ‘I’m on the floor! I’m slayed.’”

During one very awkward dinner party scene, David Oyelowo’s Louis shows up at his parents’ table wearing a sheer mesh shirt and black beret, a strong and sexy look born from his newfound allegiance with the Black Panthers. “We wanted him to show off his Panther-ness to his dad,” said Daniels. “We could have had him understated, in something that was not so sexual, but it was important for me that he made a statement in that outfit.” Louis is chided by his brother, who laughs that his “nipples out” look won’t get him an invitation to the White House, but Carter says that sheer shirt has a secret familial backstory. “This was something I was going to keep to myself, but some people might have noticed it: David Oyelowo’s shirt is made out of the same fabric as Oprah’s Eleganza jumpsuit,” Carter said. “I had probably 50 yards of that fabric in black and white and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I made David’s Black Panther top with it. My subtext there is that Oprah’s character Gloria is the one who made David that Panther top! He asked her to make it for him and she did, but she didn’t know what she was making.”


Oyelowo isn’t the only one who makes a strong impression in that scene: His girlfriend, played by Yaya Alafia, sits across from Oprah wearing a giant Afro, skimpy shirt, and no bra. “This was the era after people were burning their bras, when they were saying, Black is beautiful, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!’” said Carter. “It’s such a bold statement, and one of the hilarious things to me as a woman is when she takes the jacket off and she’s got this bush of hair under her arms. It really showed a division in the generations, that she didn’t understand the manners of being at that table with his parents. She’s inappropriate.” Carter laughed. “Totally inappropriate!”

Later, Alafia’s character grows ever more militant, and her look becomes even fiercer. “She’s such a persona in that movie!” said Carter. “She’s serious from beginning to end, and she was serious in the dressing room, too. And it really does transfer on film.” Still, Daniels wanted to be sure that Alafia retained her feminine side: “It was really important to capture something I saw in my aunts and uncles who were Panthers,” said Daniels. “They were prideful, sexy creatures, but some of the other pictures I’ve seen depicting the Panthers give off a very militant, dark, not-so-sexual vibe.” Added Carter, “We had those moments where the clothes just spoke to us, where we thought of our brothers and sisters and our families. This was a family journey for us in a lot of ways.”

Winfrey’s character Gloria may not get out of the house much, but make no mistake: Even when she’s in the middle of this meal, she’s decked out in glamorous orange. “She’s sitting there in what’s almost like a negligee! How many women do you know who do that?” laughed Carter. “The only woman I knew who dressed like that was friends with my mom, and I thought she was so cool growing up, because I felt like I was getting this peek into her private life. That’s Gloria.” Once again, Carter delved into a period magazine to hone the inspiration for this look. “There was no Internet then, so Ebony provided you a look into the lives of other people around the world, but especially the black middle class,” explained Carter. “Oprah’s character is the Ebony woman, who’s got the wig on and the orange dress. It’s a little bit unrealistic, but it’s what everyone aspired to be like then. The butlers back then were the pillars of their community, and if you were the wife of a butler, you were in, too! So Gloria was like the First Lady of the Gaines house. Often, when people ask to see the illustrations I made for the First Ladies, I include Gloria’s illustrations, too.”

In this scene, where Winfrey’s Gloria resists the come-ons of her amorous neighbor (played by Terrence Howard), Daniels hoped to evoke the feel of Wong Kar-wai’s immaculately costumed infidelity drama In the Mood for Love. “Wong Kar-wai is certainly an influence of mine, and though he’s not part of the African American civil rights experience, he’s part of my filmography,” said Daniels. “Subliminally, we see that the color of her dress maybe matches with the wallpaper.” Added Carter, “That flower-pattern dress, in particular, was one that we felt bridged the gap between her feeling that she didn’t want this anymore, that she was done [with Howard], but also that something could have just happened between them. She’s got this feminine pattern with a little sparkle in it, and it unbuttons a little so you can see her slip showing inside. It was the perfect dress to be on the fence in.”

Later, Gloria goes to the White House for the first time at the invitation of Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda), but for a soiree this fancy, the dress had to be just right. “My first thought was to come up with an eighties gown for Oprah, complete with that whole Dynasty feel of shoulder pads and pleating at the shoulders,” said Carter. “But it needed more. It was a little too plain.” Eventually, Carter designed this gold-beaded number, and it’s a real stunner … even if Gloria has to constantly adjust her bust line during dinner. “That’s Oprah!” laughs Daniels. “That’s Oprah acting, doing her tricks. It was a perfect storm of Oprah really understanding that character and Ruth cutting the cleavage just a little too low. She’d never been to the White House before, she didn’t know what to wear!” Carter concurred: “It’s like, ‘Wait a minute girl, you’re serving it up here at the table!’ I’ve talked to a lot of women who relate to that, when she starts pulling at it. She didn’t know she needed to be so conservative, that it would have so much more cleavage than everyone else. We’ve all made that mistake!”

And now we come to the look that Daniels says is his favorite in the film: the matching tracksuits worn by Cecil and Gloria during a visit to the plantation that Cecil grew up on. “Oprah and I were discussing the road trip that Gloria and Cecil go on, and she said, ‘Let’s wear those eighties jumpsuits. You know the ones,’” recalled Carter. “And I knew exactly what she meant, so I got three of them for her, and she wanted to wear the ugliest one. It was perfect!” And if there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance caused by costuming the actors in such colorful outfits during such a serious scene, Daniels says he encouraged it. “When they walk into the slave camp with those tracksuits on … it’s a weird sort of thing, because it is a very serious moment where we’re talking about how African Americans are slaves and what our people went through, and yet they’re coming out there dressed like what our parents and grandparents wore, in those ridiculous, Rayon, fluorescent outfits,” said the director. “You want to laugh, but you’re not laughing, because it’s a serious moment.” Still, Daniels chuckles affectionately: “People really wore these things and they were serious about it! It scares me to think that in that era, people took that shit seriously! What kind of clothes are we wearing that twenty years from now, we’ll be laughing at them?”

The 8 Most Fabulous Looks in The Butler