The story of The Supremes

The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection exhibition poster

The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection exhibition poster

The Supremes recorded 12 US No.1 hits between 1964 and 1969, including an unprecedented five consecutive chart toppers. Set against the backdrop of the meteoric rise of Motown Records and of the American civil rights movement, The Supremes played an inspirational role in changing racial perceptions and they influenced subsequent performers for many years.

Detroit, Motown and the Civil Rights Movement

In the 1920s and 1930s, one and a half million African Americans left the impoverished rural South seeking better opportunities. Most moved to the Northern industrial cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. By 1940 Detroit was one of the greatest industrial cities in the world and dominated auto production with it’s ‘Big Three’ companys of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It became known as 'Motor City', and saw further mass migration when its famous assembly line factories shifted to making armaments when America entered World War II in the early 1940s.

Illustration of economic migration in the USA in the mid 20th century

Illustration of economic migration in the USA in the mid 20th century

Black migration boomed, with 350,000 people arriving between 1942 and 43. Competition for housing and employment sparked racial unrest, and the summer of 1943 saw extreme racial rioting, resulting in martial law. The ‘Great Migration’ also brought the religion and culture of the South to the Northern cities, particularly blues and jazz. In the 1950s the Hastings Street area became the heart of black music in Detroit, where many black stars including Howlin’ Wolf, Duke Ellington, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Billie Holliday, and Louis Jordan played. It was on this thriving entertainment strip that the entrepreneur Berry Gordy, and many of Motown’s future musicians would meet and perform together.

In 1959, Gordy created a music business which evolved into Motown Records. Inspired by the assembly line process at the Ford plant where he worked, Gordy aimed to create a hit factory (‘Hitsville USA’), where 'a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist - a star'. The Supremes soon became the embodiment of this vision.

Motown Records

Florence 'Blondie' Ballard, Diane Ross and Mary Wilson met as children in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit, America’s first federally funded housing for African Americans. In early 1959, the three girls with Betty McGlown, started ‘The Primettes’, an all-girl singing group. They auditioned for the fledgling Motown label and in January 1961, they were eventually signed as ‘The Supremes’.

By blending the spirit of the soul movement with a touch of old showbiz, they became the epitome of Motown glamour, appealing to black and white audiences alike. Once Gordy had paired their image with the writing genius of Motown’s in house composers, Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was no stopping them.

By 1965 The Supremes had made history by achieving five consecutive number one hits - a record to this day. Motown was the most successful black owned enterprise in America. Gordy had seen the commercial potential of creating a pop version of rhythm & blues music which, while still being generated by black culture, could also cross the race divide to attract a white teenage audience. This became ‘The Sound of Young America’ that was shared irrespective of class or race.

Motown produced many stars. From ‘Smokey’ Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops and of course The Supremes.The recording techniques Motown developed in the mid 1960s were part of the formula for the company's success and their distinct ‘Motown Sound’. By altering the balance between vocals and bass, Motown made songs where the rhythm was key, songs that made the kids dance. Most rock and pop records are still mixed in this way today.

Civil Rights

Esther Bubley, Geyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943, image courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Esther Bubley, Geyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943, image courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

In the 1940s and 50s, America was still racially segregated and most African Americans had still not been granted the social freedom they had expected from slavery emancipation of 1868. The Jim Crow Laws which called for ‘separate but equal’ facilities continued the racial injustices against blacks in housing, education and voting.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement mobilised. Attempts to dismantle the Jim Crow Laws were met with violent resistance. There were major stand-offs and racial rioting, notably in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1954. In that year there was a critical legal change when schools were desegregated in the Brown vs. Board of Education Act.

Further social action was sparked when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person in 1955. A 381 day bus boycott ensued in Montgomery, Alabama which eventually resulted in the desegregation of America’s buses.

Amongst this turmoil, Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr rose to prominence as the leader of the movement. In 1963, following riots in Birmingham, Alabama, King led 125,000 protestors through Detroit on ‘The Great March for Freedom’. He delivered his famous 'I have a Dream' speech, which mobilised the civil rights struggle into an impassioned plea for freedom.

Record cover, 1963, image courtesy of Motown Records Archive, Motown supported the Civil Rights Movement by issuing recordings of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr's speeches in 1963

Record cover, 1963, image courtesy of Motown Records Archive, Motown supported the Civil Rights Movement by issuing recordings of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr's speeches in 1963

The ongoing political upheaval led to the Civil Rights Act, 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, 1965, granting most of the demands, in theory at least, and contemporary popular music began to reflect the changing times.

Previously, Motown had generally avoided ‘issue’ tracks, but in the changing political climate Stevie Wonder’s ‘Down to Earth’ (1966) began a trend for ‘message’ songs. Edwin Starr’s 'War', Marvin Gaye’s 'What’s Going On?’ followed, along with The Supremes' 'Love Child' which became number one in the US in 1968, and is their best selling single to date.

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, an act which led to rioting in cities across America. On the evening following his assassination, The Supremes appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, singing 'Somewhere'. Diana Ross gave a eulogy to King and his life’s commitment to human rights.

Styling The Supremes

Peach Feathers Dresses designed by Bob Mackie, Motown Records archive

Peach Feathers Dresses designed by Bob Mackie, Motown Records archive

The Supremes - Mary, Diana and Flo, and later Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell, Lynda Lawrence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green - were always beautifully dressed and elegant.

The artists and staff at Motown were predominantly black but the ‘Motown look’ was deliberately styled with no particular leaning towards race or colour. By refusing to be constrained by traditional barriers but still incorporating traditional show business conventions into its acts,  Motown appealed to a youthful record-buying audience within a system that had previously excluded African Americans.

Gordy instituted a special ‘Artist Development’ programme similar to the Hollywood charm schools of the 30s and 40s. Maxine Powell gave lessons on the proper way to dress, eat, sit, walk and how to appear on television.

To hone dance and performance skills, legendary choreographer and dancer Cholly Atkins developed the slick dance routines that were the hallmark of Motown performances, and musician Maurice King handled music and on-stage patter.

The costumes

As The Supremes graced more stages and television screens, their costumes became ever more glamorous and extravagant. Chiffon and velvet were replaced by skin tight sequined evening dresses to maximise their impact under strong studio lighting. Their trademark wigs were complemented by false eyelashes, big earrings and dramatic makeup as black cosmetics came of age.

The Supremes in Michael Travis' Butterfly Dresses on the album Cream of the Crop

The Supremes in Michael Travis' Butterfly Dresses on the album Cream of the Crop

Gordy enlisted leading Hollywood designers such as Bob Mackie and Michael Travis to create glamorous and extravagant costumes fit for international superstars.

Bob Mackie started off studying advertising art at Pasadena City College before he went on to win a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in costume design. Following stints at Paramount studios, he moved into television. Mackie dressed many of America’s showbiz stars including Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and The Supremes. In 1969 he designed the costumes for G.I.T. on Broadway.

Michael Travis was a native of Detroit who moved to New York in the late 1950s to design costumes for Broadway. His spectacular designs resulted in many prestigious clients ranging from the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show Special (1967) to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-70). In 1968 he designed The Supremes costumes for the T.C.B. television spectacular. His flamboyant designs include the famous 'Butterfly' dresses that were on show in the V&A exhibition.

The stage wardrobe of The Supremes was a major expense. Lavish outfits with beading and thousands of sequins could cost between 1000-2000 dollars each in the 1960s ($13-26,000 at 2007 prices).

The performance costumes of The Supremes, one of the most successful groups of all time, were on display at the V&A in 2008. On show were over 50 outfits that chart the changing image of the group, from their dresses in the early days as The Primettes, to the glamorous Hollywood designs worn at the height of their fame.

The display included costumes worn by the original Supremes, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, as well as the 70s Supremes. It examined how the group was carefully styled by Berry Gordy and his Motown associates to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Based on the collection of Mary Wilson, the display featured the group’s music, album covers and archive performance footage as well as new video interviews with Wilson and Maxine Powell, Motown’s in-house Artist Development Director. This was a V&A exhibition in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Written to accompany the exhibition The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection

Video: An interview with Mary Wilson

View transcript of video

Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, talks about her extraordinary career and about the heyday of Motown with Stuart Cosgrove, Director of Nations and Regions for Channel 4, at the V&A on 13 May 2008.

Video: Mary Wilson and Maxine Powell discuss 'image'

View transcript of video

Mary Wilson and Maxine Powell, founder of Motown's Artist Development finishing school, talk about The Supremes' image.

Video: Trevor Nelson on The Supremes

View transcript of video

Trevor Nelson, radio and television broadcaster, reflects on The Supremes' influence at the time, their significance now and their legacy to popular music.

Video: The story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection

View transcript of video

This video talks about the Story of the Supremes exhibition which displayed not only a sparkling array of dresses and costumes, from Mary Wilson's own collection, but also addressed issues of social history and civil rights.

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The Story of the Supremes

The Story of the Supremes

This spectacular celebration of the ephemera and performance costumes worn by The Supremes, one of the most successful groups of the sixties, traces t…

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