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The Costume Designer Behind 'Dear White People' and 'A Different World' Reflects on Dressing Multidimensional Black Characters

And why the industry hasn't gotten better about representation.
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Logan Browning as Sam White. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Logan Browning as Sam White. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Turn the volume down during any scene of the hit Netflix series "Dear White People" and you'll notice that the clothing tells a story about each character: Reggie (Marque Richardson)'s militancy is reflected in his leather, high-collared jacket; Coco (Antoinette Robertson)'s faux Louboutin heels are a nod to her desire to be a part of the upper echelon. The clothing matters just as much as the compelling plot of the 10-episode series that opens with a blackface party on a college campus and touches upon the hot-button issues of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, interracial dating and colorism throughout.

Costume designer Ceci (who professionally opts to go by her first name, and identifies as black Hispanic) was met with a unique task in dressing each of the lead characters — as well as the extras — to reflect which side of the movement they were on. She designed a "Formation"-esque outfit for Coco to go as Beyoncé to the blackface party; she printed graphic T-shirts for Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) to wear in an effort to reflect her carefree black-girl look; and she frequented thrift stores in order to mix vintage pieces with modern ones to help bring Sam to life and signal the dichotomy of her character — her militancy and her softer edge.

"I really credit Justin [Simien] with the brilliance of writing," Ceci says of the creator behind both the television series and the 2014 film of the same name. "And the fact that black people aren't just this one group. We're diverse. We're eclectic. We're militant. We're conservative."

Marque Richardson as Reggie Green. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Marque Richardson as Reggie Green. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Dressing characters that encompass the multidimensionality of young, middle-class black Americans makes up a great deal of Ceci’s resumé. She began her career as a costume designer for “A Different World,” an opportunity she says she manifested. "I distinctly remember standing in my living room looking at 'A Different World' and I said, 'I'm going to work on that show.'"

About a week later, Ceci received a phone call from a friend working on the show who told her that they were looking for a new costume designer. She interviewed with producers and Debbie Allen — who she says was very supportive, despite her lack of television experience — and went on to work on the television show for five seasons. She has dressed a host of celebrities including Queen Latifah and Tia and Tamera Mowry, on the shows "Living Single" and "Sister, Sister," respectively. "Dear White People" has brought her career full circle, as she is once again working on a television show that unveils the complexities of black college students facing cultural issues that are as present today as they were in the '90s.

So how does a costume designer go from dressing a Whitley to a Coco? Dressing students at a historically black college to reflecting the experiences of black students at a predominantly white university?

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Antoinette Robertson as Coco Conners, Logan Browning as Sam White, Ashley Blaine Featherson as Joelle Brooks. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Antoinette Robertson as Coco Conners, Logan Browning as Sam White, Ashley Blaine Featherson as Joelle Brooks. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Ceci says that for characters such as Whitley on "A Different World," it was as simple as walking into a store like Neiman Marcus and picking a look off the rack because the character could afford those types of luxuries. For Coco, however, it was more challenging because she had to figure out how to reflect the character's wannabe disposition through clothing. Instead of looking to labels like she would for Whitley, she had to consider things such as fabrication, fit and other "key things that indicate that you’ve spent some money on it."

As her career has come full circle, so have many of the style trends that she helped to usher onto the small screen in her early days in costume design. As we all know, fashion is prone to repeat itself. The current widespread quest to find the perfect pair of mom jeans at thrift stores is no happenstance as trends from the '90s are being referenced from the street to the runway. Brands such as Reebok and FILA have reemerged with people scourging for original finds at resale stores, and stores such as Urban Outfitters are collaborating with these brands to play on our collective nostalgia. It is easy to look to characters from ‘90s sitcoms for inspiration, and those dressed by Ceci are certainly not being overlooked. After "A Different World" became available to stream on Netflix in 2015, Pinterest boards and odes to the show’s most stylish characters had the internet abuzz. Ceci says she is a little bit oblivious to the impact of the television shows she's worked on, yet she is still proud of her work. "If I didn't get to work on another show, I'd be able to say. 'Wow, look I left a little bit of a legacy or a body of work that people are still looking at.’”

Similar to the phenomenon of trends going in and out of style, Ceci has noticed another trend in the representation among black characters on television shows: While it wasn't uncommon to see black people represented on television in the '90s, there was a significant decline. "During the '90s, we were hot," Ceci says. "And then all of sudden we're not. It's like fashion."

Ceci's comparison rings true. The trend of racial representation in the fashion industry is constantly being stumbled over. Recently, Gucci released an advertising campaign featuring all black models, which left people puzzled about whether or not it was true representation or the temporary use of blackness as a marketing tool. Similarly, Marc Jacobs's fall 2017 presentation paid homage to hip-hop, yet just a season prior, the brand sent a cast of predominantly white models down the runway in faux, multicolored dreadlocks, which was met with a vitriolic response on social media. It is not simply enough to resolve issues of diversity through temporary campaigns and collections; rather, it's about creating opportunity to ensure that diversity permeates consistently beyond the runway and magazine pages and is reflected on design teams, among editors and writers, PR and more.

Ceci says there has been a push for diversity since she began her career and that, despite the recent increase in television shows and films directed and written by black directors and those that include predominantly black casts or black leads, those working behind the scenes remain largely white.

"You need to make an effort and you need to look for black costume designers, black makeup artists, and give them an opportunity," Ceci says.

The reemergence of shows and characters that Ceci has dressed for more than 20 years is a reminder of the importance of seeing the black American experience on television. After streaming on Netflix, "A Different World" is being syndicated on other television networks, and both "Sister, Sister" and "Living Single" have been confirmed for reboots. Meanwhile, Ceci hopes to continue telling stories through costume design, creating timeless characters that not only inspire style trends but also impact culture in a bigger way. 

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