TV is like a portal to other places and times. It gives us a front-row seat into other people’s lives. When I turn on my TV these days, I can be quickly transported back in time to the 1950s, seeing Deborah Ayorinde as Livia ‘Lucky’ Emory in a bold lip and vibrant mod dress as she combats racism and horror in THEM. A quick channel flip brings me to present-day London, where Michaela Coel’s ‘Arabella’ stays wrapped in oversized cardigans while sporting a bright pink wig in I May Destroy You. A button push on my remote thrusts me back in time to the ballrooms of 1980s New York City in Pose, where Black transgender women like Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) turn acid wash jeans, tulle, and satin into breathtaking high-glam moments. With Starz’s recently premiered show Run The World, we’re introduced to four new characters with effortless style who represent the modern day Black woman’s desired to slay, get paid and party with her gals. Run The World is a fashion party every Sunday night at 8:30pm EST (or turn up after the after party on the Starz App where you can catch the replay).
Black women are appearing on TV in all of our varied and nuanced selves like never before. However, it took quite some time to get here. Before the 1960s, with Nichelle Nichols’ role on Star Trek, Black women were relegated to portrayals of domestic workers or enslaved people on TV. Across the decades, things began to shift with shows like The Jeffersons and 227. The debut of The Cosby Show presented Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) and her four daughters, showing up with their district world views and sense of style.
However, the ’90s, with characters like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks (Karyn Parsons) and A Different World’s Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), began to showcase who Black women are, not simply through dialogue but through these characters’ unique fashion choices.
Later, ensemble shows like Girlfriends and Living Single allowed audiences to see diverse Black women on TV concurrently. Everything from their hairstyles to the fabric they chose to drape their bodies in revealed who these Black women were. From wig-loving Regine (Kim Fields) on Living Single to couture-draped Molly (Yvonne Orji) on Insecure, Black women on TV have been speaking to us all from their unique life experiences and most visibly through their fashion.
Long before Sex and the City, Khadijah (Queen Latifah), Synclaire (Kim Coles), Regine (Kim Fields), and Maxine (Erika Alexander who also appears on Run The World) were giving us looks in the Brooklyn-set ’90s sitcom, Living Single. Khadijah was known for her casual tom-boy chic style, while Synclaire kept it feminine and relaxed in an array of flowery dresses. For Max, who was in a courtroom when she wasn’t intruding on her best friends’ brownstone, fitted suits, sky-high heels, and her signature bob of locs were her uniform of choice. However, the fashionista of the group was undoubtedly Regine. Taking a page from Whitley Gilbert, Regine didn’t believe in being overdressed. She always aimed to make a statement in bold colors and patterns, with earrings, a stacked heel, and a sharp wig to match. Regine was the queen of accessories, never shying away from an ornate purse, belt, and jewelry. As she once said, “I don’t wear outfits. I create looks.”
Ushering us into the 21st century, the Mara Brock Akil created Girlfriends picked up right where Living Single left off. Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), Maya (Golden Brooks), Lynn (Persia White), and Toni (Jill Marie Jones) opened our eyes to Black women living in Los Angeles. The women’s unique identities didn’t deter them from being sisters and showing up for one another when they were most needed. These four women knew precisely who they were, and though they stumbled at times (as we all do), they refused to be placed in a box. Maya wasn’t afraid to talk about her weave when it was still a taboo subject. Lynn was a carefree Black girl personified. And for Toni, it was luxury or nothing. However, it was Ross’ Joan who kept the looks coming.” Tracee Ellis Ross influenced a lot of Joan’s style, but it took fighting for a Black woman costume designer (Stacy L. Beverly) to allow these characters to take flight,” Akil told Repeller. None of the women were afraid to show off their bodies, get sexy on date night, or dapple in trendy drip.
Set in the decade after Girlfriends, Insecure presents Los Angeles from Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly’s (Yvonne Orji) perspective. The besties couldn’t be more different personality-wise, or when it comes to their sense of fashion. For high-powered attorney Molly who is built like a supermodel, she’s giving bold New York Fashion Week vibes with the bomb wigs and designer bags to match no matter where she goes. In contrast, her bestie Issa is never seen without her natural hair and gravitates toward vintage pieces and tees that often have bold political statements. Fashion is truly a character in and of itself on the beloved HBO dramedy. As soon as Molly, Issa, or their friends Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) appear on-screen, viewers can spot the women they most relate to or point out their homegirl who gives off a similar vibe.
Run the World
In modern-day Black Harlem, Starz’s Run the World showcases another group of 30-something girlfriends, trying to figure it all out. Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), the group’s romantic dreamer, could be on the cover of Vogue at any moment. Her striking features are made more prominent by her low-cut fade. Catching her in anything less than structured custom pieces with bold statement jewelry would be sacrilegious. In contrast, Renee (Bresha Webb) won’t let her troubled in her marriage kill her vibes. She delivers daring and elevated around-the-way girl moments in her animal prints, hoop earrings, and pink leather. Her outfits scream fun. Then there’s Whitney (Amber Stevens West), the perfectionist of the group who keeps it chic and elegant with her simple looks. Whitney’s style is in direct contrast to the bold and color-loving, Sondi (Corbin Reid), whose personal life is just as lively as her fashion choices.
Black women have been forced into a box for a long time, especially on TV. However, with the legacy of shows like A Different World and Girlfriends, and with Kerry Washington shaking the floor for a new generation of women in Scandal, we’re finally starting to shine not just by sharing our experiences but in the complex ways we present ourselves to the world through our attire.