“I have a vocabulary in clothing,” Tracee Ellis Ross says. “It’s like a whole language.”
This story first appeared in the November 16, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Emmy-nominated star of “Black-ish” certainly knows a thing or two about style. She’s a former fashion editor and model — and she also happens to be the daughter of Diana Ross. But the 44-year-old actress has developed a career and style that’s distinctly hers. “Clothing started as an armor for me,” she says. “It was one of the ways that I protected myself from the world. It evolved into a form of creative expression. I love playing dress-up. Sometimes it creates a great outfit and sometimes it creates a person.”
Of late, it’s helped her to create Dr. Rainbow Johnson, the show’s lovable, quirky matriarch. “She’s relatable,” Ross says, adding that her character represents “a certain kind of wife and mom that I see in my life all the time and don’t always see represented on television.”
Off-screen, Ross favors designers like Dries Van Noten, Alexander McQueen and Isabel Marant. She’s developed a style that is fiercely individualistic after decades of fashion immersion that started when she was signed by Wilhelmina models in her teens. (She made her runway debut in a Thierry Mugler show in Paris on her 18th birthday.)
Ross also worked in the fashion departments of Mirabella and New York Magazine shortly after graduating from Brown University. “It was one of the ways that I fed my creativity, but I am a performer at heart,” she says. Once her acting career took off, she never looked back.
Luckily, there’s significant overlap between the two worlds. She recently teamed up with former colleague and close friend Samira Nasr, the fashion director of Elle, to choose the classic single-shoulder white silk Ralph Lauren Collection gown she wore on Emmy night. Meanwhile, Ross insists she hasn’t entirely left her modeling days behind. One thing that feels less like a performance is posing at Hollywood events. “Red carpet is a little bit scary,” she admits. “It’s not about expression. It’s about taking a pretty picture in a really weird, awkward way, with so many people watching. It’s a glamorous part of the job, but it requires its own kind of courage.”
Ross is fearless when it comes to fashion on the red carpet, but she understands the instinct to play it safe since it’s an actor’s job to be “a blank slate that people can see in many different forms.”
She admits it’s something she considers — though often dismisses. “Style is so much who I am,” she says, noting she often dresses herself in lieu of a stylist. “It is important for me to feel like myself on a red carpet — not the way somebody else thinks I should look.”
Her sartorial choices tend to have as much personality as she does. Ross has even been known to custom-design dresses from scratch and says she hasn’t ruled out creating her own collection in the future. “I’ve been a shopper and a vintage collector for years,” she says. “I’m big on wearing clothes multiple times. I was taught as a young girl that you work hard for your money and there’s nothing wrong with spending it on beautiful things if you’re going to cherish them, take care of them and wear them lots.”
Her mother provided plenty of influence. “My mom is a huge inspiration for me in terms of the courage with which I am myself,” Ross says. “I had a role model in my home. Truthfully though, it’s like a joke sometimes because I’ll create a look and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God. It’s referenced from my mom. I don’t know how I did that.’” She remembers once reupholstering a couch with a jewel-tone raw silk. “And then online I saw some picture of our house when I was young and I was like, ‘I’m just copying that from my mom.’ I don’t even know that’s the reference in my head.”
Ross says her other style icons include family friend Cher as well as Barbra Streisand. “I became obsessed with noses because of Barbra Streisand. I thought her nose was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life. She made me love my profile.” Ross continues to pull inspiration from the Seventies and early Eighties. And yes, just like the rest of us, she grew up coveting her mother’s wardrobe. “I’m still taking things from her closet,” she laughs.
Nowadays, Ross herself is a role model, noting she feels “a sense of responsibility for the images that I portray and how I carry myself — both as my mother’s child and as a person of color in this country.” It’s why she’s happy to discuss the importance of showcasing natural hair on TV. “It really is a game-changer conversation in terms of the culture of beauty and expanding the definition of beauty. There is a very narrow view of that and making space for different hair textures, and different skin tones, is important.”
Ross hopes to perform a one-woman show using characters she’s created and currently shares on social media (like her opinionated French fashion blogger Caliope Champignon), but for now, she’s focused on “Black-ish.”
“My life has been a series of those moments where the opportunity comes and I go, ‘OK, I’m diving in. Here we go,’” she reflects. “You roll the dice, you know?”