Supreme Seams

Mahogany turns 40 this month, and she’s looking better than ever.

Diana Ross in Mahogany.
Diana Ross in Mahogany.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Do you know where you’re goin’ to?

Do you know the things that life is showin’ you?

Me neither. However, one thing I do know is that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the movie Mahogany and that the occasion deserves to be acknowledged, wildly and enthusiastically, and with individually applied top and bottom fake lashes.  

By the dawn of the ’70s, Diana Ross had quit the Supremes—the most successful girl group of all time—and established herself as an international beacon of afro-glamour and every other kind of glamour too. Fragile and sophisticated, Diana Ross was the woman all my girlfriends, and a good smattering of my male friends, wanted to look like. In 1972 multitalented Miss Ross almost won an Academy Award for her stunning portrayal of dope-addled songstress Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Then, in October 1975, she gave us Mahogany—or Mahog, as we friends of this film affectionately call it—and our minds were well and truly blown.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, Mahogany is the rags-to-chiffon-to-self-discovery story of Tracy Chambers, a gritty gamine from the Detroit hood who is mesmerized by the transformative power of fashion. Those of you who have also been mesmerized by the transformative power of la mode will be rooting for Tracy. Everyone else should probably Netflix The Terminator instead.

Tracy’s intoxicating ascent from shopgirl to shimmering supernova—paralleling Ross’ own life and mine, in my case minus the shimmering supernova part—is enlivened by mind-boggling montages; gloriously ungepatchke fashion shows; and by her conflicted relationships with three men, the hottest of whom is Brian Walker, played by Billy Dee Williams. Brian is a turtle-neck–wearing local activist who exhorts Qiana-crazed Tracy to stay grounded and use her energies to help her community. But Tracy has other plans, plans that involve sporting elaborate braided coiffures while writhing around on the Spanish Steps in a fashion-modeling frenzy.

Tracy’s trajectory—come to think of it, Tracy’s Trajectory would have been a fab name for her starter boutique, as in, Check out this cool pant suit I found on sale down at Tracy’s Trajectory—is thrown into fast-forward when she meets Sean, a creepy, Mephistophelean fashion photog, played by Tony “Psycho” Perkins. In a very literal example of the transformative power of fashion, Sean renames her Mahogany. Sean then thrusts Trace/Mahog into ever more Erte-esque outfits and hauls her all over Rome. (Sidebar: The frocks were designed by Miss Ross herself, who studied dressmaking and, in the early days, personally designed and stitched the Supremes’ snappy satin frocks. God, I love that woman!)

After Sean bites the dust, Tracy snags a Euro-sophisticated sugar daddy (Christian) played by Jean-Pierre Aumont. He bankrolls Tracy’s dreams, thereby turning her into a basic bitch on wheels. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will tell you that there is a heapin’ helpin’ of redemption. (Another sidebar: In real life Jean-Pierre Aumont had been married to Maria “Cobra Woman” Montez, which gives him more camp brownie points than anyone else in the movie, which is to say, beaucoup.)

Speaking of the C-word: This movie is always referred to as a camp classic and frequently shows up on those so-bad-it’s-good lists. Though it’s hard to disagree with these assessments, I feel compelled to point out that Mahogany, in addition to the corny campery, also offers some serious cultural insights.

In the 1970s, the fashion world became—suddenly, magically, fabulously—both black and beautiful. The style landscape reverberated with afro-positivity. All the top runway models—Iman, Pat Cleveland, Naomi Sims, Alva Chinn, Beverly Johnson, Beth Ann Hardison, Mounia, and more—were women of color. A new wave of talented black designers began to make their mark: Scott Barrie, Patrick Kelly, Willie Smith, Stephen Burrows, Jeffrey Banks, and my much-missed pal Harlem-born hat designer John Larkin, to name but a few. Today there is no shortage of black talent: I’m talking about Duro Olowu, Dexter and Byron Peart, Tracy Reese, Shayne Oliver, Olivier Rousteing, Maxwell Osborne, y mas, y mas—and let’s not forget Yeezy, our future pres. But in the ’70s, back when the U.S. schmatta business was a much smaller and more conventional place, that first creative surge of black style and black talent, electrified the fashion world and propelled it forward. Mahogany’s black-is-beautiful journey reflected that changing landscape, and Diana’s voice, singing the “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” theme song, floated out of transistor radios all over the garment center, and beyond.

And let’s not forget the tale of the two Tonys. Tony Perkins was a talented, beautiful bisexual who subsequently died of AIDS. Tony Richardson, the original director, was also a talented, beautiful bisexual who subsequently died of AIDS. Father of Natasha and Joely, husband of Vanessa Redgrave, Richardson was a brilliant and cultivated dude who directed all of my favorite movies, including A Taste of Honey and The Loved One. While Motown founder Berry Gordy ultimately stepped into the director’s chair himself, Tony Richardson was the original Motown Productions hire.

In his autobiography Richardson affectionately elaborates on his Mahogany moment. If Richardson’s descriptions are to be believed, Gordy’s larger-than-life personality makes Empire’s Lucious Lyon seem like George Jefferson. Richardson describes Gordy’s house as “part Playboy mansion and part fortress.” Members of his entourage packed heat and, according to Richardson, regularly kissed Gordy’s ring. The grounds of Gordy’s sprawling, fortified Bel Air mock-Tudor were filled with exotic animals including llamas—“suitably shampooed and deshitted”—Egyptian geese and peacocks whose vocal chords had been surgically removed, lest they annoy their owner. Suck on that, Mr. Lyon.

Perplexed by Gordy’s micromanaging and sensing that all he really wanted to do was direct it himself, Richardson amicably stepped aside, leaving Gordy to have his Cecil B. DeMille moment, and leaving we Ross-ophiles to speculate about what might have been. It is safe to say that Richardson would have delivered a more nuanced movie—his Mahogany would undoubtedly have avoided the camp that bestrews the Gordy version. But where’s the fun in that? A Richardson Mahog might have won critical acclaim, and maybe even an Oscar nomination for La Ross, but would it have had the enduring charm and communicative power of the corny-but-fabulous version we know and love? I doubt it.

The success of Empire—a gorgeously camp hypervisual black Dynasty of a show—coupled with the current global obsession with fashion renders Mahogany ripe for a remake. The star? Lupita Nyong’o would be my pick. She has the fragile elegance of La Ross. A new version would, however, require some updating. The ’70s depiction of the fashion world—a toxic, degrading place full of sexually confused sociopaths—could use a tweak of two. In my version—producer credit please!—the garment business would instead become Tracy’s savior, allowing her to have her cake and eat it too. Girl! You can become a fashion mogul and you can marry your smoking-hot community organizer.