When I was a little girl, Phil Collins released a chart-topping cover version of the classic hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” My father, horrified upon hearing this travesty against soul music blasting from my pink boombox, decided it was time to revamp my vinyl collection. Out with the Chipmunk Punk, and the Cabbage Patch Kids, it was time for Motown.
The gift of his record collection began my love affair with The Supremes.
Original member of the legendary girl group, Mary Wilson, who at 66 looks well over a decade younger, recently led a press tour for the opening of the Reflections: The Mary Wilson Supreme Legacy Collection – - a retrospective currently being exhibited at Seattle’s Experience Music Project|Science Fiction Museum (EMP|SFM).
Every few feet into the tour and Q&A, Wilson would stop to engage with children, take photos with them, and do the Cholly Atkins choreographed iconic Stop! In the Name of Love move.
The 46 dresses currently on display range from the early days of the group in the late 1950s until the late 1970s including a white gown from Sax circa 1965ish and the black velvet numbers Bob Mackie designed for Diana Ross’ farewell performance.
Also on display . . .
A green sequined set – complete with a maternity version for Wilson.
The exquisite “Butterfly Gowns” – the design on the “wings” correspond to the body.
The “TOUCH” dress – which Mary bought on Hollywood Blvd in 1970s because “Touch” was the title of their upcoming album.
Wilson pointed out this double-breasted black coat (that I had drooled over when I saw this exhibit at the V&A) and mentioned that that style is coming back. Then she pointed at me and said – - “Similar to what you have on.” (OMG! Ms. Mary Wilson noticed my outfit!)
Wilson was inspirational, thoughtful, and kind throughout the tour and was beyond generous in taking additional time for one on one interviews. Here we chat about fashion, race, and the awesomeness of YouTube.
Stuller: I actually first saw this exhibit at the V&A and they situated the whole exhibit in the context of the 1960s and the Civil Rights and Feminist movements.
Wilson: “I love the way they [the V&A] curated it because you did get the story. Here it’s more about the fashion.”
Stuller: And they talked about how the Supremes influenced successful women like Oprah. Yet, you just said on the tour that you girls were “just singing.” Did you not realize at the time that you were breaking all these barriers for women and for people of color?
Wilson: “You know earlier on, it’s a twofold question actually, because being black – - at that time – - you knew what the situation was. Not in the world, but at least in America. You live within a context of your parents always telling you you have to be better because you’re black, and there were certain things you couldn’t do. In the South you couldn’t drink out of water fountains, you couldn’t go to certain restaurants, so all these things you knew, you grew up in that context, that was your world. What you could and could not do was very defined. So when we became famous, obviously we knew that we were in a very different situation because black people hadn’t been that big before. Now I say that with caution, because you have a whole era of people like Lena Horne, Sammy Davis and so on, who were the real pioneers and couldn’t do a lot of things – - and they were stars. But when we came through, America really opened up, and we were not only stars in the black community, we were stars with everyone. So you knew that certain things were just different and that you had to be an example.”
Stuller: “That’s a lot of pressure for three teenage girls.”
Wilson: “It’s a lot of pressure. But, if you have a passion it’s not as hard as one might think. Because you’re saying ‘Wow. This is a challenge.’ And so it brings you up to your higher self, and you try to do the right thing. I’m not saying we always did – you know, because we had chaperones and many times the chaperones were there to keep certain people away – - especially the guys – - and you know, we’d always find ways. But for the bigger picture, yeah, we did know that we were setting an example.”
Stuller: What’s lovely about the exhibit in this space is that you really get to see the dresses, but I loved that the V&A had video footage of the three of you from way back when as teenagers just being sassy girls, dancing and goofing off and we got to see that you weren’t just glamorous, but you were also teens.
Wilson: Oh, yes! And that’s what I liked about the V&A, because in that instance you got the whole story.
Stuller: You were obviously drawn to being glamorous before you got to Motown, did they let you control your physical appearance? For example, did you get to pick your own clothes?
Wilson: “I can say that that was who we were. And Motown would have someone to be there, like chaperones, we always had people to assist us. But the look and all was pretty much something that we always were. But we did have Mrs. Powell, who was our finishing school teacher there at Motown. So we had adults, female adults, to assist us and give advice.”
Stuller: And you’re still singing now?
Stuller: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Wilson: “Oh Honey, just go on YouTube! I had never been on there until a friend suggested it – and it’s amazing my entire life is there! Wow! Who knew all that was there? You could probably find out more about me there than I could ever remember! I love it. So I’m gonna go there and do my research on myself. Things I’ve forgotten! (laughs)”
Stuller: Where is this exhibit going to go in the future, or where would you like to see it go?
Wilson: “My goal is The Met in New York. And I’d like to bring the whole historical idea of it there as well. So I might try to get the Victoria to assist in facilitating that in terms of the whole story so that it’s fashion, but I also think that here in America right now, it’s an ideal time to have that historic story.”
Stuller: Thank you, Ms. Mary Wilson!
Mary Wilson’s Official Site
Reflections: The Mary Wilson Supreme Legacy Collection
The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection
Adventures in Feministory: Ms. Mary Wilson, Supreme Lady