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Something magical happens when Black women come together for a purpose. This is the case with the creative masterminds behind the beauty and fashion looks for the highly anticipated film, The Woman King.
The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors who protected their African Kingdom, Dahomey, in the 1800s. Based on true events, the film aims to expose its audience to the impact of sisterhood, power, wealth, and profound beauty. The story’s leading lady, General Nanisca, played by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, is tasked with training the next generation of recruits to prepare them for battle with the enemy.
The Agojie warriors are resilient women who aren’t afraid to protect their heritage by any means necessary. Although their strength is the nexus of the story, their hair, appearance, and fashion also tell a tale of their status, wealth, roles, and more.
I got the inside scoop on the beauty and fashion from the film’s makeup and prosthetics designer Babalwa Mtshiselwa, costume designer Gersha Phillips, and hair designer Louisa Anthony. The three brilliant women discussed how their artistry contributed to telling the visual story of how the Agojie were not only fierce warriors but also women who celebrated their beauty and resilience through their hairstyles, flawless skin abrasions, and fashions.
Babalwa Mtshiselwa, unbeknownst to her, had been preparing for this opportunity years before she received it. She naturally took an interest in the stories of African women, and when she got the call to do makeup and prosthetics for The Women King, she was elated. “It’s a dream come true. I’ve been dedicated to telling, hearing, and learning stories about really powerful African women. It just came out of interest, and I really was hoping that the preparation was for something. And then I got The Women King, and I was like, this is exactly what it was for,” remarked Mtshiselwa.
African women are known for their impeccable brown skin. Mtshiselwa’s goal with this project was to highlight that beauty aspect and spotlight their cleanliness and war wounds. “It’s a very African thing to be clean, tidy, and beautiful. For me, the most important thing, especially when you’re dealing with Black skin, is to make it look as flawless as possible. A major thing for me was to make sure everyone looked completely natural but really beautiful and flawless. The second thing was to honor the fact that the women were warriors had battle scars, and they were proud of every scar they got from battle and from training,” stated Mtshiselwa.
Fashion would not be what it is today without the heavy influences of African culture. From beautifully woven fabrics to regal tunics, it was all birthed by the motherland. Gersha Phillips, like her colleagues, aimed to show how affluent pre-colonial Africa was through her custom designs. “There was always this idea that Africa was this poor country, and everyone was running around naked and so on, but in actuality, it was a very different place. It was beautiful,” said Phillips, who was tasked with creating the warrior uniforms worn by the Agojie women.
Because the research is limited regarding the Agojie women, Phillips had to piece several looks together to create a vintage yet lavish battle uniform. Phillips made sure the women were simultaneously chic and ready for war. “We came up with a battle uniform based on several different things. One is the baggy African pant. And then, they would bind their chest and carry cross straps on their bodies. This is how they carried their weapons. So, this is how we came up with the halter idea. We also had tunics made authentically-ish. We had fabrics woven in northern Ghana. Then we layered them to create a tight bodice and let the bottom hang to create a skirt,” stated Phillips.
Hair for the Agojie women went beyond aesthetics. It chronicled their lives and revealed their truths. Like today, most of the tribe women wore their hair in braids. These hairstyles represented their wealth, relationship status and helped identify their tribe. Hair designer Louisa Anthony worked with a team of African women to develop authentic hairdos for the actresses. “I wanted to show the love, the history, the legacy, and the future of black women. Our future stories are intertwined in those lines and in those braids. It’s about women’s power, beauty, and how we can draw from the past and how it has a meaningful foundation for us now in the future,” commented Anthony. “To be in Africa and to work with 25 women who were African braiders, it was incredible. It was an Ave Maria moment,” added Anthony.
The Woman King will be in theaters Friday, September 16th.