“We’re gonna do the traditions we missed the first time,” says Earl a.k.a. “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne), the Johnson family patriarch on Black-ish, about his impending marriage to ex-wife Ruby (Jenifer Lewis). Then in Pops true form—with perfect comic timing and a mischievous smile—he adds, “…including keeping our vows.”
Sure, the Johnsons’ re-do nuptials, which have been a long time coming, take place in the upcoming episode of the ABC hit comedy. But Pops’s sentiment applies to real life, too. Because encore weddings—whether to a former spouse whose boat you may or may not have blown up or a partner to embark on a new life stage together—allow optimal opportunity for confident self-expression and a full celebration of heritage and culture. It’s the time to fully be yourself, without all those added pressures from the first time around.
For proud Black Americans, Ruby and Pops—who lived through the Civil Rights movement, and raised son Dre (Anthony Anderson) to become a successful advertising exec, now bringing up his own family with his doctor wife Bow (Tracee Ellis-Ross)—a celebration of heritage through wardrobe was an integral (and scripted) part of their second wedding.
In the episode, Ruby commissions a Kente cloth wedding dress with “angel wings” from a designer who supposedly created looks for a famous celebrity (hint, hint: Black is King). In real life, Ruby’s ensemble was created by veteran costume designer Michelle Cole. Obviously, her overzealous angel wings idea was ditched but the final look was something really special.
For seven seasons, the show is lauded and appreciated by fans for its ongoing mission of teaching important history, often neglected from school curriculums, and honestly addressing issues facing Black Americans today. The Johnson family micro-wedding—social distanced and outdoors—also reflects the realities of celebrating major life moments during the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic.
“In the midst of all of this, these two people get married,” Cole tells Brides on an early morning call while driving to set. “With all the hardship and challenging times—and everything that we’re going through—life still does move forward. In magazines and on my Instagram, I saw people still getting married!”
However, planning fake nuptials is still a massive undertaking, especially when it comes to the wedding dress. Usually, a bride enjoys six months to a year to find, buy, and tailor a wedding gown. But Cole and her team had approximately two weeks to build Ruby’s stunning African Kente cloth ensemble. Luckily, Cole, who simultaneously designs creator Kenya Barris’s two other shows, Grown-ish and #BlackAF, along with her key costumer and Project Runway season 11 runner up, Stanley Hudson, are used to excelling under extreme time pressure.
Cole, who earned three of her seven Emmy nods for Black-ish, first dove into research for African nuptials and traditional dress. She also drew from her past experience costume designing ensembles speaking to heritage and cited The Bernie Mac Show and In Living Color, on which she received her first four Emmy nominations. “We’ve always celebrated the culture on my Black shows,” says Cole.
“We’ve always celebrated the culture on my Black shows.”
Like real life, she needed to also consult with the bride. So Cole and Hudson, armed with his pencil and sketch pad, met with Lewis for her input. “She likes little pantsuits,” says Cole, who wanted to make Lewis feel the most her (and her character) on Ruby’s big day. Lewis preferred a sleeve extending past the elbow and a neckline to showcase her décolletage.
“Because she has a really pretty chest and a really pretty neck,” says Cole. The nipped-in waistline and trouser silhouette also showcase triple-threat Lewis’s Broadway bonafides. “So we emphasized all of that.”
Next up: Finding the vibrantly-printed Kente cloth, which originated in the 17th Century with the Asante people of West Africa, in what’s now the country of Ghana. Worn by royalty in Africa throughout history, the Kente cloth continued to hold political and diplomatic significance in the 20th century and special meaning for the African diaspora, especially to celebrate milestone events, like college graduations. Colors within the beautiful patterns convey meaning: red for passion, gold for status, and blue for pure spirit and harmony.
Cole and Hudson gravitated toward a bold orangey-red for the bride-to-be. They sourced a few options from an African Kente cloth supplier in Los Angeles to eventually land on the gold and blue enhanced print, which looks just stunning on Lewis. Cole also tapped into her early musical theater design experience to add a bright orange lining. The rich hue pops on-screen and amplifies the sculptural ruffles on the detachable ball-gown skirt with a flowing cathedral train. The added weight of the silk on the cotton Kente cloth helps give extra “bounce” for drama as Ruby walks down the aisle. Plus, the voluminous flounce at the cuffs and waistline “kept it a little bit sexy and still cute,” says Cole.
To let loose on the dancefloor during the reception, Ruby (or Cole’s team, rather) removed the ballgown skirt and train to transform the wedding look into a party-ready high-low peplum jumpsuit. The micro-wedding party included Bow, in chic Rachel Comey, who proved that a metallic pink pantsuit would make for an inventive bridesmaid look. Dre wears a bespoke suit and pristine low-tops from his extensive sneaker collection. Pops stunts in a royal blue African wedding suit, with a regal standing collar and asymmetrical cut. Chic glasses with a light tint of blue and matching velvet tasseled loafers perfectly finish off the groom’s dapper look.
“It’s a process,” says Cole, looking back on the whirlwind project, which was a true collaboration with the bride, Lewis, and fellow planners, i.e., the producers and production designer. “You’re still doing the same thing you’d do in your own real wedding.”