Conflicting costumes: Lena Horne and colourism

The inconsistencies of Lena Horne’s star image bespeak the star system’s complex relationship with race and ethnicity.

Although Lena Horne spent most of her professional years singing with big bands, and at famous nightclubs including Café Society and the Cotton Club, today she is best remembered for her on-screen turns in Hollywood musicals such as of Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), Words and Music (1942) and Panama Hattie (1942). One of only a handful of black performers signed to MGM in this period, Horne’s powerful and sultry voice captured the attention of producer Arthur Freed. However, for the studio it wasn’t just her voice that made Horne a valuable asset, but the lightness of her complexion, which Horne herself described as ‘copper colour’.

Janice Cheddie describes the colourist but ‘common sense’ discourse that understands ‘the overuse of the light-skinned black woman as being due to the light-skinned black woman’s alleged proximity to whiteness’. Such colourism was rife in the Hollywood of the 1940s and had a particularly powerful impact on how Lena Horne’s star image was perceived, shaped and disseminated: in the eyes of MGM, the star’s ‘copper colour’ not only made her a more acceptable on-screen presence, but transformed her into a vehicle for a cacophony of different ethnicities. Imposed onto the star through her dress and emphasised through the lyrics of her songs, these various identities criss-crossed with each other, intersecting with Horne’s own identity as a Black American to create a complex image that holds a mirror up to the culture of the Hollywood star system.

Horne’s carefully curated performance of ‘The Sping’ – performed in Panama Hattie – is typical of the studio’s treatment and exploitation of her image. The scene opens with a close-up shot of some bongo drums, before zooming out to show Horne standing over the drummer, wearing an elaborate costume. On her head she wears a light coloured turban, which is adorned with a huge conch shell and a delicate fascinator. Her earrings and bracelets are also made of pearls and shells, which have been threaded together. Her dress is many-layered, the bodice made of twisted fabric which forms a halter neck and crosses over her middle, and the skirt of a fitted scallop-patterned fabric and a mesh fabric embroidered with pompoms. Almost every element of this haphazard costume signifies something different. Items such as shells might signify the Caribbean, but Horne’s turban speaks to traditional African headwear, and the extravagance of Horne’s elaborately patterned, layered and embroidered skirt attests to the garment’s status as costume.

Lena Horne performs ‘The Sping’. Photo: Warner Archive.

In the song, the star is also ambiguously located. She begins by situating herself in Spanish Harlem:

Below the border line of old Harlem town

down to one-hundred-and-tenth,

there’s a dance that they do

of a true Spanish brew –

a twirly-wirly dance called The Sping.

Continuing on, she sings that ‘The Sping’ came from the West Indies, to be mixed ‘with an indigo blue’, describing it as a ‘Cubaninic, Harleminic, Carribbeanic, Castellinic thing’. The lyrics of the song identify this dance, and its proponent Horne, with the cultural melting pot that was early twentieth-century New York. However, as the song continues the first-person lyrics variously place Horne in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Trinidad.

In Panama Hattie, MGM pairs Horne’s light skin tone with carefully chosen costumes and lyrics in order to depict the star in terms of a white conception of the exotic. Elsewhere, however, Megan E. Williams points out that Horne’s light skin tone meant she was often enjoined to “pass” as Spanish. In ‘Brazilian Boogie’ from Broadway Rhythm (1943), a deliberate combination of dress, dancing and singing enables this passing. Performing samba-inspired dance moves and singing that ‘the Brazilian boogie is the dance to do’, the star wears a yellow cropped top and a purple skirt that is split up both sides and trimmed with gold rope [fig. 39].

Lena Horne performs ‘Brazilian Boogie’

Such identities, imposed on to Horne in her movies, are in clear conflict with the star’s own identity as a Black American. By embodying these contrasting and conflicting identities, Horne’s star image comes to reflect contemporary ideas about what Steven Cohan calls ‘the exchangeability of race and ethnicity’ not just in the studio system but in wider American society. The inconsistencies of Horne’s on-screen image are a crystallisation of the ambivalent attitudes towards blackness, race and ethnicity that dominated American culture, and that governed and informed the work of the film industry. Perhaps more importantly, however, an examination of Lena Horne’s image provides modern day viewers with a poignant glimpse into the Black struggle to carve out a place in an industry, and a country, which, despite its professions of liberalism, remained dominated by racist discourse.

Works cited

Negra, Diane, Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom (London:Routledge, 2001) <epdf.pub/off-white-hollywood-american-culture-and-ethnic-female-stardom.html>

Cohan, Steven, Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical (London: Duke University Press, 2005)

Williams, Megan E., ‘“Meet the Real Lena Horne”: Representations of Lena Horne in “Ebony” Magazine, 1945-1949’, in Journal of American Studies, 43 (April 2009), 117-130 <www.jstor.org/stable/40464352> [accessed 15 May 2020]

Williams, Megan E., ‘The Crisis Cover Girl: Lena Horne, the NAACP, and Representation sof African American Femininity’, in American Periodicals, 16 (2006), 200-218 <www.jstor.org/stable/20770958> [accessed 15 May 2020]

Cheddie, Janice, ‘The Politics of the First: The Emergence of the Black Model in the Civil Rights Era’, in Fashion Theory, 6 (2015), 61-82