Carolyn Moore on why Tracee Ellis Ross is the fashion icon we deserve in 2019 – and how we can all learn from the example of Diana Ross’ daughter.
It’s impossible not to love Tracee Ellis Ross. To paraphrase Ryan Gosling’s cheesy pickup line from Crazy Stupid Love, Tracee Ellis Ross — 2018’s undisputed style superstar — wears clothes like she’s doing them a favour.
It’s been no surprise to see magazine editors tripping over themselves to get her on their covers this year; most notably, she was resplendent in pink on the cover of InStyle’s November issue, celebrating their annual style awards.
“Best dressed,” the cover reads. “Style secrets of the coolest women.” And it’s the coolest woman of 2018 who towers over the copy. And it’s apt that they’ve used the word ‘woman’, for this is no ingénue, no reality TV teenager who’s hired a stylist to make her the next It Girl.
This is Tracee Ellis Ross — actress, feminist, style icon; the daughter of Diana Ross, coming into her own at 46 years of age.
“Sometimes you gotta spread your wings,” she captioned a photo of herself at the InStyle Awards, rapturously flapping her vast feathered sleeves, and Ellis Ross is now soaring. As InStyle noted, she is that rarest of birds, a woman in Hollywood “ascendant after 40”.
And how. Her Golden Globe-winning performance as Dr Rainbow Johnson in zeitgeist-capturing comedy Black-ish put her on the radars of fashion fans years ago, but arguably, 2018 was her breakout year. Now, she’s not just relishing her time in the spotlight, she’s using it to shine a light on the activism and advocacy that defines her every bit as much as her famous mother, her madcap comic stylings, and her unapologetic penchant for pink.
With a reputation as one of the red carpet’s most daring dressers, as Ross explains it, her style hasn’t changed over the years, but her courage has. While many women internalise the message that we should age gracefully into black (all the better to help you disappear, my dear), Tracee Ellis Ross isn’t going anywhere.
Child-free and defiantly single (she delivered a barnstorming speech at the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Summit where she revealed she’s not here for your dated definitions of womanhood, thank you very much), she lives by the mantra “My life is mine”, and neither her life nor her fashion choices are made with anyone else’s approval in mind.
“Not everybody’s gonna get it, and it really doesn’t matter — I dress for my own joy,” she told Vanity Fair last month.
Comfortable in her own skin, here is a woman who can rock a ballgown and a tracksuit with equal aplomb; a powerful voice in the #MeToo movement, and a vocal advocate for women and girls, who walks the walk while eloquently talking the talk.
She recently hired an all-female management team and fought for pay equity with her on-screen husband, but her outspoken refusal to be defined by her relationship status, came, she says “out of advocating for myself”.
“Being asked about it all the time presented this idea that without marriage or kids, I couldn’t be whole,” she said. “So, I wanted to talk about it clearly: Did it happen because I wasn’t good enough, or because I hadn’t chosen it? And I feel pretty clear that I am the chooser.”
As InStyle declared, “Tracee Ellis Ross is living her best life”, and she’s living it for herself, entirely on her own terms. Thinking about turning over a new leaf in 2019, we women should consider just tearing one out of the Tracee Ellis Ross playbook.
Every era gets the style icon it deserves, and in these tumultuous times, Tracee Ellis Ross is not just the style icon we deserve, she’s the style icon we need. Because this is no empty vessel, and with Tracee, it’s not just about the clothes, it’s about how and why she wears them, and how she speaks about and through them.
“Style is how you do things, not what you wear,” she told Vanity Fair last year, and style is also what you choose to communicate with your fashion choices.
With her innate understanding that fashion can be used to express both the personal and the political, and her determination to visibly revel in her love of fashion and the joy it brings her, Ellis Ross is a gloriously potent reminder that you can be politically engaged in gold lamé sweat pants; you can be a powerful advocate for change while kitted out in couture; and you can own your own power while finding your joy in a pink puffy ballgown.
Along with great hair and incredible bone structure, fabulousness is in her DNA, but while she jokes that she came out of her mother’s womb asking “where’s the beads?” like her famous mother, Tracee Ellis Ross is more than just a clothes horse.
If she inherited Ross’ love of glamour, then she also learned from her mother how to wield fashion as a tool of self-expression.
Whether she’s accessorising her #MeToo black dress with ‘warpaint’ red lips, a turban, and a pointedly raised fist on the Golden Globes red carpet, or advocating for female empowerment in a sheer blouse and an unfashionably comfortable training bra, Tracee Ellis Ross understands the power of small gestures.
It was watching Diana transform from doting mother into her “playful, sexy, joyful” stage persona that gave young Tracee her understanding of fashion as a conduit for identity.
“I saw them as two different people, and she actually had two different perfumes — Mom had a perfume and Diana Ross had a perfume,” she has said, explaining that in her mother she had a role model who was “in charge of her own identity”, who had “agency in her life, and it was all connected to the glamour and her power”.
It shaped Ellis Ross’ attitude to life and fashion, and the ways in which the two intersect.
Attired in a suitably regal ensemble when the Time’s Up movement blacked out the Golden Globes red carpet last year, she’s become the queen of a new Hollywood sisterhood who have repurposed the red carpet as an arena for political statements. When she presented the American Music Awards in October, it was not just a 10- outfit fashion tour de force; Ellis Ross leveraged her visibility to highlight the work of black designers.
“I strongly believe in using my platform to shine light in directions I believe in, and I believe in, love, and celebrate my people,” she explained on Instagram.
Being photographed with her mother prepared her for what she calls “the uncomfortable experience” of being on the red carpet, but wearing both her fashion choices and her-larger than-life personality like “an armour”, she ensures that discomfort never shows.
She’s as liable to break into guffaws of laughter as she is to hold a pose, but by deftly deploying both her comedic sensibility and her sense of style as weapons of mass destruction, she always manages to steal the show. And if she can hijack the conversation and use it to signal boost an issue she’s passionate about, then she’ll grab that opportunity with both hands.
Likewise, her disarming ‘lipstick-meets-slapstick’ combination of goofy and glamorous keeps her 5.4m Instagram followers endlessly entertained, but her social media output mixes fashion, politics, activism and comedy to ensure important messages filter through her channels.
As a child, she would spend endless hours playing dress up in her mother’s closet, play acting and inventing characters, so it was through fashion that she found her calling in life. If she’s having a bad day, she’ll still retreat to her closet to indulge in some fashion fantasy.
“I used to create all these amazing outfits and no one would get to see them,” she told Vanity Fair.
She storyboards outfit ideas, pulling inspiration from myriad sources, and as her star continues to rise and her time becomes more precious, she’s enlisted the help of super stylist Karla Welsh to “do the leg work and swirl [her inspirations] into clothing that exists”.
The result has been a stellar run of red-carpet hits, from the outlandish to the everyday, and still you get the sense that she’s only just hitting her stride.
As her star continues rise, 2019 could well be the year we find ourselves asking not whether Tracee Ellis Ross is the style icon we deserve, but what we ever did to deserve Tracee Ellis Ross.