What do the characters wear in A Raisin in the Sun?

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In A Raisin in the Sun, with certain exceptions, the characters wear everyday American attire. For the most part, there is nothing remarkable about their clothes. For instance, in act I as we are introduced to the family, the stage notes say about Travis:

“The child, a sturdy,...

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In A Raisin in the Sun, with certain exceptions, the characters wear everyday American attire. For the most part, there is nothing remarkable about their clothes. For instance, in act I as we are introduced to the family, the stage notes say about Travis:

“The child, a sturdy, handsome little boy of ten or eleven, drags himself out of the bed and almost blindly takes his towels and 'today’s clothes'”

That is all the description we are given of Travis's clothes, which likely is because they are not special. They are the clothes that most young boys his age wear: jeans, a sweater and sneakers perhaps. A few minutes later, Travis appears on the stage fully-dressed and the stage direction again says nothing special about his clothes.

The one character who does dress differently from most Americans of the day is Beneatha, who is interested in her African heritage, particularly after she meets Asagai. He gives her a Nigerian dress as a gift, and she is thrilled. When her mother notices the attraction between Asagai and Beneatha, she teases Beneatha about her interest in Africa:

“Yes, I guess I see why we done commence to get so interested in Africa ’round here. Missionaries my aunt Jenny!”

Nevertheless, Beneatha

“picks up the Nigerian dress and holds it up to her in front of the mirror again. She sets the headdress on haphazardly and then notices her hair again and clutches at it and then replaces the headdress and frowns at herself. Then she starts to wriggle in front of the mirror as she thinks a Nigerian woman might.”

The dress reinforces the notion that the rest of the family wears ordinary American attire. In fact, when Travis sees his aunt admiring the Nigerian dress in the mirror, he says, “What’s the matter, girl, you cracking up?”

The stage direction even makes the point of how out of place the Nigerian clothing and accessories seem on Beneatha, who seems not to know how to wear them and use the fan:

"She parades for Ruth, her hair completely hidden by the headdress; she is coquettishly fanning herself with an ornate oriental fan, mistakenly more like Butterfly than any Nigerian that ever was"

It seems that Beneatha is beginning to think that much of what the family listens to, watches, reads, eats and wears is "assimilationist junk.” Nevertheless, in the next scene, she is wearing a cocktail dress, so it seems that she is not sure which culture to emphasize.

Other than Beneatha, the only other character whose clothing is described in any detail is George Murchison. Walter looks Murchison

“over from head to toe, scrutinizing his carefully casual tweed sports jacket over cashmere V-neck sweater over soft eyelet shirt and tie, and soft slacks, finished off with white buckskin shoes)” and says, “Why all you college boys wear them faggoty-looking white shoes?”

Towards the end of the play as the family is moving, Mama says,

“Ruth, put Travis’ good jacket on him … Walter Lee, fix your tie and tuck your shirt in, you look like somebody’s hoodlum!”

There is nothing unusual about this. The play was set in the 1950’s and people were more formal then. It is not surprising that a mother would tell her daughter-in-law and son to make sure that they all look neat and well put together, and to make sure that their son does as well.

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Many of the characters’ clothes are described in the stage directions, sometimes as they change at different points. For others, the information can be pieced together from the dialogue.

One particular case is treated in more detail. Beneatha’s quest for identity, issues of assimilation, and her relationships with two men, Asagai and George, are developed through on clothing and personal appearance. In Act I, Scene II, Asagai, who is a Yoruba from Nigeria, comes to visit Beneatha at her house, and brings her a set of Nigerian robes, telling her they are from his sister’s personal wardrobe. But he teases her about “mutilating” her processed hair.

In Act II, Scene 1, Beneatha appears “thoroughly robed in the African costume Asagai brought,” and plays the African music he had brought her as well. In the next scene, George arrives to pick up Beneatha for their theater date. She appears in the Nigerian clothes, then takes off the headwrap. George is flabbergasted when she shows him that she has cut her hair into a short natural. He mocks her for look “eccentric.” She leaves and returns “dressed for the evening in a cocktail dress and earrings,” but still with her hair natural.

Other descriptions of characters’ clothes relate mostly to class. Beneatha is the character most upfront about looking for identity, and she does so overtly by changing her clothes. But by placing this action in the play’s center, and having the other characters, especially the men, react to her, Hansberry provides an extended device for the audience to learn about each of their quests and attitudes toward their African American identity and, to some extent, their African backgrounds.

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As in any play, determining what a character should wear is dependent upon two main criteria: the time period of the play and the qualities of the character.  Raisin in the Sun is set in post-WWII Chicago, and is generally seen in the context of the 1950s.  That tells us a great deal about the style of clothing that the characters should wear.  Beyond the historical accuracy of the clothing, however, the idea of the costumes helping to reveal character is where a designer's/director's vision can be utilized.  In general, all of the characters' clothing should show that the family is not wealthy, but they have pride.  Therefore, the clothing might be worn, but it is clean and well-mended.

  • Mama is a widow, so that should influence the colors that she wears -- primarily dark colors.  She is also a hard-working and modest woman; her clothes should mirror that.  She wears clothing that is utilitarian more than it is fashionable; she also probably doesn't purchase new clothes often so her clothes should be somewhat dated.
  • Beneatha is young and her clothing should reflect that her interest in the wider world -- in her African roots, in the academic world of college, and in her pursuit of identity.  Her costumes would likely have the most variety throughout the course of the play, helping to reveal her many sides.  Walter Lee remarks on her always following fashion (he makes fun of when she wore long knee socks, for example).
  • Ruth's clothing should reflect that she is a working woman; it might also show that she is still fairly young and attractive, although weary.
  • Walter Lee should have a suit that he wears to work, but when in his off-work clothing, might be more relaxed and a little bit snappy, revealing his interest in the contemporary world.  
  • George must wear the "faggoty white shoes" and he should look very preppy.  He is the symbol of assimilation.

Costumes can make a huge impact in an audience's understanding of the play -- of the individual characters and of the time.  They can also influence mood and communicate theme -- through the use of color and other design motifs.

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