In Lee Daniels' The Butler, Oprah Winfrey portrays Gloria, a sassy, well-to-do woman who as the “first lady” of a White House butler would have been a pillar of her community. The Butler tells the story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler in the White House for 34 years. Allen was on the front lines of some of the most important events in American history, from Jim Crow to the assassination of John F Kennedy, from Birmingham to Watergate.
In the film, Allen is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a dignified, honest man who serves a changing cast of presidents (Robin Williams, Liev Schrieber, and more), while his wife, Gloria (Winfrey), presides over the home. She is the first lady of the Gaines household — and her style tells the story of what it meant to be a person of colour living a stone’s throw from the White House in the last half of the 20th century.
During one pivotal scene in which she and Cecil send Louis off to college, Gloria goes to the bus station with her hair covered by a scarf. According to the film’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, director Lee Daniels was adamant that Gloria’s hair be in curlers during the scene. “Oprah kept saying, ‘She wouldn’t do that! She wouldn’t go out of her house and let her neighbours see her looking like that — because she was married to a man that worked as a butler at the White House!’” Carter recalls. Eventually, the scarf was selected as a compromise.
But perhaps the funniest outfits of the films are the 1980s tracksuits Cecil and Gloria wear to visit former slave quarters, which are matching and equally hideous. Carter remembers that Oprah directed her to find the “ugliest” tracksuit she could find. As Lee Daniels put it, “I think [those tracksuits] were indicative of where we were going in the film, that though we’re talking about very serious subject matter in the film, we still aren’t taking ourselves seriously when they get out of the car wearing the ’80s tracksuits. You don’t know whether to laugh or to take it very seriously.”
* The Daily Beast