Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, is not the only contestant on the new season of “Dancing With the Stars” with a special kind of celebrity wattage.
Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, is also a competitor — at age 75. Viewers should get ready for liberal lashings of old-school dazzle and a sense of déjà vu. There is barely a black female pop act — Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson, Janelle Monáe, Solange Knowles — (let alone a white one) that hasn’t taken a page from the Supremes look book.
“Millennials love our style,” Ms. Wilson said during a recent interview in London. For anyone wondering why this younger generation has joined older fans of the group’s look, a new book, “Supreme Glamour,” out just in time for the show, makes it all clear. The volume chronicles how the Supremes in their original incarnation (Diana Ross, Ms. Wilson and Florence Ballard) and in their later form as Diana Ross and the Supremes (or DRATS) became agents of cultural change in the 1960s, breaking the race ceiling by weaponizing fashion and defining the way many women — black women, white women — wanted to look. It has photographs of mannequins in 13 of their designs, plus dozens of concert snaps, promotional portraits and album and magazine covers. It is replete with seed pearls and mushroom pleats.
Before the Supremes, as Harold Kramer, the former curatorial director of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, notes in the book, no black act “had ever set out to utilize visual signifiers that made them palatable to a white audience.”
Ms. Wilson agreed. “Our glamour changed things,” she said. She was wearing all black — leggings and a stretch top with cold-shoulder cutouts — and one of her many wigs, a dead-straight chestnut number with full bangs. “We were role models,” she continued. “What we wore mattered.”
Her claim is that she and her partners knew exactly what they were doing from the beginning.
Ms. Wilson said that when she, Ms. Ross and Ms. Ballard were signed to Motown Records in 1961, they already had style. “They had a lot to work with,” she said. “As Maxime Powell, who ran the label’s famous finishing school, used to say: ‘You girls are diamonds in the rough. We are just here to polish you.’”
Ms. Wilson remembered that one of the earliest Supremes dresses, with a fitted bodice and stiff balloon skirt, “Diana and I sewed from Butterick patterns.”
When the Supremes broke in 1964, black singers like Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt performed in deliberately seductive evening dresses, but they were older, solo artists. Ms. Wilson and her colleagues were barely out of their teens and wielded the visual power of three, often in grown-up second-skin gowns freighted with beads and sequins.
DRATS maximized the look with increasingly baroque confections, some with improbable wings and trompe l’oeil jewelry, like paste crystals sewn into the neckline. Anyone who saw them live will recall the frisson produced by such young women in such sophisticated designs. Then, just when you thought you had them figured out, they turned up on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1969 in fantastical, swishing ponchos and pants seemingly made of dégradé tinsel.
For Whoopi Goldberg, writing in the foreword of Ms. Wilson’s book, the Supremes “were three of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. These were brown women as they had never, ever been seen before on national television.”
Ms. Goldberg said she was encouraged to think that “I too could be
well-spoken, tall, majestic, an emissary of black folks” who, like the Supremes, “came from the projects.”
Oprah Winfrey had similar memories, as recounted in “Diana Ross: A Biography” by J. Randy Taraborrelli. “You never saw anything like it in the 1960s — three women of color who were totally empowered, creative, imaginative,” she is quoted as saying. As a 10-year-old black girl “to see the Supremes and know that it was possible to be like them, that black people could do THAT …”