Mary Wilson And The Story Of The Supremes At The V&A

By Esther Poole | 26 June 2008
Three black singers in gold sequined dresses stand on a stage singing

The Supremes wearing orange beaded gowns. Photo Courtesy of Motown Records Archives

Exhibiton review - Culture24's Year 10 intern, Esther Poole, visits the Story of the Supremes At The V&A until October 19 2008

This summer at the V&A, a collection of The Supremes performance costumes are being shown in The Story Of The Supremes From The Mary Wilson Collection.

Mixing fashion, music and social history The Story of the Supremes charts the rise of one of the best known groups of the sixties. Recognised for their strong voices and glamorous dress sense, they were the biggest selling female artists of thier time.

Three, originally four, small town girls from Detroit started singing, eventually getting a record deal with independent label Motown. They went on to have unprecedented success, recording 12 US number one hits in 1964-69 and claiming world wide success.

This exhibition includes more than 50 outfits that follow the progress the Supremes made from their humble beginnings to the global success they enjoyed at the height of their fame.

three peach-colored dresses with feathers on the bottom stand inside a glass case with the bumper of a plastic pink car with the registration plate DETROIT on top of it.

Installation shot of The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson CollectionCopyright V&A Images

Starting out in 1958 as The Primettes, made up of Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, they were a sister group to the local doo-wop band The Primes, who went on to become The Temptations.

In 1961, the band auditioned a second time for Berry Gordy, the CEO of Motown, and he agreed to sign the group providing they change their name. They decided on The Supremes.

They recorded their first single for Motown and it failed to chart. In October, Barbara Martin, who had replaced Betty McGlown the year before, left the group and Ross, Wilson and Ballard continued as a trio. Their next four singles hardly featured in the charts on either side of the Atlantic.

However, things started to look up for The Supremes when legendary Motown writing trio Holland-Dozier-Holland started to write for them. Between 1964 and 1969, the group recorded 12 US number one hits, including a record-breaking five consecutive chart toppers. In 1967, their name was changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes, starting rumours that Ross was planning a solo career.

Diana Ross and the Supremes gave their final performance together on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier hotel in Las Vegas.

Three black soul singers, the Supremes, dressed in metalic silver and gold catsuit pose together

The Supremes photographed for the front cover of their 1967 tour program. Courtesy of Motown Records Archives

Costumes from all the different stages of the Supremes are being shown at the exhibition, starting from one of the first dresses ever bought for the Primettes to the last costumes they wore as a group.

Hollywood designer Bob Mackie designed several of the dresses on display including the rhinestone and pearl encrusted dresses worn for Ross’s farewell performance and the shimmering peach-coloured gowns covered in a pattern of sequined chevrons that was worn throughout the late 60s and early 70s by the group.

The exhibition also marks the turmoil of the American civil rights movement and how the Supremes were affected by it and the part they played in changing peoples’ racial perceptions.

When they toured in the deep south of the US in 1962, some of them experienced segregation for the first time and rocks were thrown at the tour bus windows in Alabama.

In 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Supremes performed ‘Somewhere’ on ‘The Tonight Show’ and dedicated the song to King’s memory. The group also released ‘Lovechild’ in September 1968, containing socially conscious lyrics and showing a new, more socially aware, side to the group.

photo shows a record stand with lots of records on it by the Supremes and to the right is a mannequin with a pale pink frilled dress on.

Installation shot of The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection. Copyright V&A Images

Further highlights of the exhibition include a reconstruction of the mixing desk in the famous Recording Studio A at Motown headquarters and the butterfly dresses worn on the cover of the album ‘Cream of the Crop’ designed by Michael Travis.

There is also a look at how the Supremes' look and sound has inspired girl bands, like Destiny’s Child.

On the whole, the exhibition maps out the rise of these shining stars of Motown and how they have changed and transformed over time in an interesting and enjoyable way.

As you look around the exhibition the background story to their fame seems to take more precedence than the costumes. However, it brings home how these women have worked extremely hard to get to where they are today and the music business would not be the same without them.

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