Throughout her life and advocacy, Coretta Scott King was known for her calm demeanor and well-dressed attire. In high-stressed situations, she always kept her grace, all while in days suits that were popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s. She emphasized her ladylike style with curled hair, a well-manicured face, and a striking hat. Coretta’s style was not only a sign of her good taste, but it also signified that an African American woman could be well-dressed despite the social, political, and economic hardships placed on Black Americans.
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King was born in a rural town in Alabama and studied under a scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston. There she studied singing and met the man who would change her life, Martin Luther King, Jr. Their dates consisted of conversations about race and politics, and although she wanted to have a career in singing, she gave it up to marry him.
About their early life, Coretta is quoted, “After we married, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Before long, we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance.” This catapulted Coretta into a role that was a combination of First Lady and civil rights advocate. While in this role, she understood the importance of appearance in correlation to one’s character and social position, especially in the formal days of the mid-twentieth century.
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For her 1953 marriage to MLK Jr., Coretta wore a cap-sleeved, A-Line gown made from lace and tulle with a matching veil and set of fingerless gloves. When in the iconic March on Selma, Coretta stood out against the crowd in a coral-colored suit set, which was a visual statement. She appeared as a proper and professional woman of her time, which was a direct comment to the prejudice against Black Americans.“I feel like she definitely related to Jackie O. When you see her in that orange suit in that final march, she felt like she was the First Lady of the march. No one else is really dressed like that.” said costume designer Ruth Carter about recreating Coretta’s style for the film, Selma. “ She really wanted people to know that she cared, and that she was there in the foreground in support of the movement.”
The icon always accessorized her ladylike looks with eye-catching hats, like a white beret at a candlelight vigil for her husband or a black feathered piece she wore in 1964. She always wore some type of adornment around her neck, whether it was a string of pearls or a brooch. Her clothing was never too tight and always pulled away from the body, like when she wore a satin frock with Ed Sullivan.
Her fashion choices were feminine, yet strong. She wore all of her accessories and colorful outfits with an unapologetically graceful ease. Instead of being a figure that was defined by her style, Coretta Scott King used fashion as a form of self-expression and educational tool.