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Look of the Week: Whoopi Goldberg's psychic sartorial Ghost gifts
Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics!
30 years ago, Ghost dominated the box office becoming the number-one film of 1990. A certified sleeper hit, the genre-bending romance blended comedy, tragedy, and thriller with a massive dose of the supernatural. Intimate pottery, Demi Moore in a sleeveless voile tuxedo shirt, and "Unchained Melody" are unforgettable, but the image of Whoopi Goldberg in an extravagant hot pink suit with a matching toque is just as memorable. To mark this big anniversary and Goldberg's birthday (November 13), this is a celebration of Oda Mae Brown's ability to turn it up in theatrical ensembles that rise to the occasion.
Oscar-nominee Ruth Morley has several notable and influential costume defining credits — including Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Tootsie, and additional costumes on Richard Donner's Superman — that have left a major mark on cinema and fashion. Ghost was her penultimate movie (she sadly passed away in 1991 at 65 of breast cancer) and the mix of casual attire with Oda Mae's ability to play dress-up is a vital part of the comedy and pathos of the Ghost tapestry.
Oda Mae fakes her way through readings and seances with a lot of guesswork. She is introduced during a session that falters before it goes off the rails when she realizes she can hear the dead — just not the spirit she is meant to be chatting with. The gold lamé tassel muumuu pulls focus and adds to the whole psychic persona. Before Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) shows up in her parlor, she has never actually been able to commune with the dead. "My mother had it. My mother's mother had it. They both had the gift. They always said I had it, but I never did. I never had it," Oda Mae explains to the ghost she can now hear. She has no interest in embracing conversations with the dead but she cannot switch off this unique communication channel. She can take the metallic homemade muumuu off, but this particular gift has a no returns policy.
"I had to rethink the costumes when I found out it was going to be played by Whoopi. I had to think of something more mad, more outrageous, so that she wasn't just another Harlem psychic," Morley told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. Designing for a specific actor can often shape the direction and in the case of Goldberg, it led to a knockout vision. The gold muumuu lends itself to Oda Mae's scam and looks fabulous. Viewed through a 2020 lens, this comfy looking garment would be ideal for working from home. It also means that when she is in her regular clothes she is separated from that persona, even if she cannot rid herself of the new ghost haunting her life — "You're white. I knew it. Why me?" she laments. But Morley did make sure to incorporate Oda Mae's casual garments in the seance room using the same hand-painted fabric as decor.
Pattern clashing is part of Oda Mae's off-duty costumes that points to remnants of the bold '80s aesthetic that is in contrast to Molly's (Moore) menswear-infused yuppie style. It is also notable that Oda Mae only interacts with Molly when she isn't dressed for deception. This emphasizes how trustworthy she is because everything in these scenes is from a place of sincerity. She doesn't need to adopt an alias, even if her story is hard to believe — her scam artist police record does not help Oda Mae's cause.
The romance is a big part of the Ghost success story, but the story truly sings during the back-and-forth squabbles between Sam and the only woman who can talk to him. Goldberg won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role, making her only the second Black woman to receive this award at the time — since Goldberg's win in 1991, six Black actresses have received this accolade — and the standout sequence also features her most audacious look. To get revenge and unmask his killers, Sam requires Oda Mae to put her fake ID skills to good use. Committing a mini-heist (or a small case of bank fraud) requires the outfit to match, and while Oda Mae has trouble walking in hand-painted leather pumps, she is scoring high on the Rita Miller rich lady sartorial scale.
Made by the tailors at Paramount, this Ruth Morley costume was part of the 2016 exhibition "Edith Head and Company: Costumes & Jewelry 1924 – 2015" that celebrated the work of the legendary designer and her peers (including Morley). Sam told Oda Mae to get a nice dress for this deception and decides it is fine to lightly mock her choice. For a man who dresses as bland as Sam, he should shut his spirit mouth because this look is as wonderful as it is extravagant. Is it over the top? Sure! But when closing an account boasting $4 million (equivalent to just over $8 million in 2020) an eccentric ensemble makes sense. Of course, Oda Mae didn't know she would temporarily be in possession of millions but she still goes all-in on the bank-ready look.
Hot pink and black is a killer combination that is definitely the opposite of blending in. The veiled and feather matching hat elevates the outrageous factor but the line between Edith Head's Hitchcock creations and this skirt suit is clear. The oversized statement earrings are pure late '80s, and this level of accessorizing is a thread that runs through Oda Mae's scamming and off-duty looks.
Three decades have passed since Ghost dominated at the box office and the costumes still hold up, as well as the strong performance from Goldberg — even if the narrative falls into a Black magic archetype — and weepy conclusion. Whether it is gold muumuu excellence to match the Academy Award Whoopi Goldberg would later win, patterned casual, or hot pink tailoring, the Ghost costumes prove that while Molly might be in danger, Oda Mae's closet is a safe bet.