How Gender, Race and Fashion Intersect in (Ok)lahoma

-By: Amaya Allen

Oklahoma is one of those shows that people seem to either love or hate. I watched a production of the show for the first time during the pandemic, and despite my usual ick for most people of the Caucasian persuasion, I really enjoyed it! Having said that, having to rewatch the show from an analytical lens and read about the production made me realize there are a lot more icks in the show than I realized, particularly, the blatant racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein the way the fashion adds to way Rodgers and Hammerstein purport ideas about race and gender in their story…

You’re probably thinking “duh, that’s the point of costume departments! They dress the character!” to which I say touché! However, it’s not just about the costumes themselves that intrigued and disgusted me, it was the message that the clothes have. Why do Laurey and Ado Annie dress so differently despite them being close friends? Why is Hugh Jackman’s (swoon) iconic Oklahoma picture without a hat even though he is literally a fricken cowboy? Why does Aunt Eller wear a hat? Obviously, because their characters are different, but more than that, each character suggests something different about what is ideal (or not) for their character’s gender and race.

Laurey and Ado Annie are two sides of the same coin. They are both territory women who have had decent enough upbringins’ and have status in their community that clearly did not start with them. That’s the part that makes them white. For some reason the blatant racism of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma centers around white people, completely erasing Indigenous Americans who lived on the “territory” before the arrival of colonizers and Black people, who were looking for the same fresh start that the characters in the show yearned for. This is reflected in the clothes they wear. It is European/American-styled clothing with nothing that would make them initially stand out (and by that, I mean they were allowed to wear their hair out).

However, there is one big difference between them that affects the way they are meant to be perceived in the production. Ado Annie is a slut, if Rodgers and Hammerstein had their way woman who knows has, you know, needs. And she fulfills them. With different men. A lot. As a result of Ado Annie’s lifestyle, she is not only portrayed as a dumb girl who can’t keep her legs closed (with a song that SLAPS), but also as a joke, and her clothes show that. Although she is wearing the European/American style of dress mentioned earlier, she looks tacky! Poor Ado Annie wears mismatched prints topped off with a huge floral hat, large bows, and really bright colors that scream “It’s okay to laugh at me guys!” She gets this treatment because her white femininity is not typical, and therefore it is bad. She is so ruined that the only man that wants to marry her had to experience livin’ in the city where brothels run amuck and come back to realize that she’s not that bad. (Will is also dressed equally as tacky *sigh* all in all, #justiceforadoannie).

On the other hand, Laurey is the show’s golden girl. She is the proper representation of white femininity because although she is a #hotgirl like Ado Annie, Laurey has the strength to rebuff them, albeit still flirtatiously. Laurey is dressed in typical golden girl outfits. She wears “soft” colors: pastels, muted prints that don’t overwhelm her petite figure, and rarely wears anything on her head, aside from her wedding veil (this will be important in like 2 paragraphs). Her clothes being “normal” for the time allow young women in the audience to connect with Laurey, and the message of rebuffing men to remain proper (even though she highkey sucked at it, but that’s another story for another day) can get across much more easily. People should like Laurey, buy into her story, and in the most extreme cases want to be Laurey, and that is why she is the belle of the territory and the musical.

Aunt Eller’s character is somehow giving strong Black woman stereotype vibes without being a Black woman, and it scares me. Eller is one of the matriarchs of the community. She is hardworking; she tends to her farm while still having time to marry her niece off (because the strong black woman never has children of her own) and gets the cowboys and ranch hands in line. Everyone likes and respects Aunt Eller. The weird part is, Eller’s femininity is stripped. No like really. She has no love interest (in fact, it is never mentioned whether or not there was an Uncle Eller), and she wears really baggy clothes that engulf her, usually topped off with a hat. I was seriously concerned for the actress because she had on so many clothes under those hot lights (couldn’t be me!). Eller’s lack of traditional femininity (because what is traditional masculinity and femininity if not white tradition?) gives the message that (a.) femininity has an expiration date and (b.) has character traits that are not rooted in being strong and well respected in the community. Eller gives up some of her femininity for respect, and it was probably easy for her to do so because she was getting up there in age.

But Oklahoma doesn’t just assign characteristics to femininity, they make a point to use clothing to make a point on white masculinity, specifically with the characters Curly and Jude. It is pretty admirable the way that the authors were able to make a clear protagonist and antagonist, and even more admirable the way the costume designers used notions of masculinity that already exist in the script to delineate the two.

Curly is the protagonist. He is a cowboy. He is hot. He has abs that can make a girly weak to ‘er knees. He is Hugh Jackman. Curly has boyish traits: he is mischievous, playful and he goes to Aunt Eller to get taken care of. Notwithstanding that, Curly can act like a man, when he needs to get into Laurey’s pants. He is both vulnerable and protective, the archetypal protagonist and man! Jackman’s simple vest and cowboy getup that looks effortlessly perfectly put together signals that he did not put thought into his outfit because he is a man, yet is #flawless because he has that slight feminine touch. Curly also never wears a hat for long periods of time despite using it as a prop (yes I get to talk about the hat). Curly doesn’t wear a hat because he has the ability to be vulnerable with a woman. (There I said it, and I’m not taking it back!) Curly is the only character in the show that recognizes the feelings of women in his life and listens to them when they are not yelling at him (it’s because of that slight feminine touch). He talks to people, and not at people, unlike characters that don hats regularly like Aunt Eller. Like Laurey, people should want to like Curly and see him as the perfect man, no matter what their gender identity.

Contrastingly, Jude’s character is textbook toxic masculinity. He’ll do anything to get the girl. He has a shed with women all over the walls. He is physically dirty and towers over Wolverine Curly. His outfit is simple, but unlike Curly, who pulls it off, Jud looks disheveled and he physically gives me the ick. Jud’s character is supposed to repel the audience (and apparently all of the other characters in the town, apparently), and the costume department succeeds at this. If Jud’s character can’t even bother to clean himself and look presentable, why would you want to be him? Fellas are supposed to chase a gal, but not too much. They should allow women to reject them, and they most definitely should not have a relationship(?) with the Jewish man traveling peddler. Curly and Jud are two sides of the same coin, except Jud takes it too far, which is why he also doesn’t wear a hat. Except instead of not wearing a hat because he can relate to the women because he’s in touch with his “feminine” side (which is BS by the way), Jud goes sans hat because he wants what Curly naturally has, including Laurey.

Hence, all of the characters in (OK)lahoma already have some sort of message attached to them in the script. I am by no means trying to imply that the costume department carried and is the only reason the Ado Annie, Laurey, Aunt Eller, Curly, and Jud are perceived the way they are. What I am saying, is that the clothing choices reflect the writer’s decisions that already exist in the script, and the fashion is an easy way for audiences to pick up on Rodger and Hammerstein’s intentions. Because god forbid people don’t take Ado Annie as a joke.

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  1. It is so amazing to see your points about clothing choices in Oklahoma. This point is what I did not go further on my essay. And, I like your descriptions of those characters in the play. Gender as a social construct related to characteristics, attitudes, roles, and behaviors construed in the construction of masculinity and femininity is prevalent in the show, and the costumes worn by the characters and actors in the musical amplifies this theme. The play’s characters amplify this point through their dialogues, especially in the first scene, which is littered with gendered stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. The play also raises the issue of women believing in fairy tales’ romantic escapades in the disguise of pursuing the love of their life. The same is revealed when Laurey purchases a magic potion from Ali and consumes the portion hoping that it will reveal where her heart lies. This lyric highlights the form of mentality that women harbor and the lengths they can go to fulfill their purpose of falling in love with the right man and getting married. 

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