In January, America celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. This public
holiday allows citizens to reflect on the past and apply lessons learned, hopefully, to the present and future. Walking beside MLK Jr. throughout the 1950s and 60s was another influential American civil rights icon, Coretta Scott King. Although often overlooked, Coretta offered a quieter approach to civil rights by appearing at MLKF Jr.’s side and speaking with a subdued strength at events. She also used fashion and appearance as a statement against hate.
Throughout her life and advocacy, Coretta developed a reputation for her class and well-dressed attire. In high-stressed situations she always kept her grace, all while being well-dressed in boxed suits that were popular during the time. 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, it signified that an African American woman could be well-dressed despite the social, political, and economic hardships placed on Black Americans.
Coretta 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 saying, “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 combined the position of First Lady with civil rights advocate. 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.
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. This was a visual statement. She appeared as a proper and professional woman of her time, which gave a direct comment to the prejudice against African 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 an 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 wearing 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.