A Celebration of African-American Contributions to Fashion

“It was a period when white writers wrote about Negroes more successfully (commercially speaking) than Negroes did about themselves. It was the period (God help us!) when Ethel Barrymore appeared in blackface in Scarlet Sister Mary! It was the period when the Negro was in vogue.” — Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography

Back-to-school shopping was a time that I loved and dreaded.

No matter how large a retail store may have seemed, I knew in the back of my mind that my clothing choices were limited. Before even presenting my final shopping choices to my parents, I interrogated each piece of clothing or accessory with a set of patronizing questions:

“Is this too ghetto?”

“Is this too black?”

Large, golden hoops. Oversized shirts. Sports jerseys. I recoiled from each piece of stereotypical clothing in taught disgust. No matter how we dressed, we had to make sure we didn’t lose our dignity. No matter how we dressed, we had to make sure we didn’t look like them. My problematic mindset assured me that I was doing myself a great social justice, but at the same time, it pained me to place a hard divide between me and my community’s culture.

But now, I ask my younger self, “Why are you so ashamed to embrace such a respectable and prominent aspect of the fashion world?”

African-American contributions to fashion are all around us, showcasing themselves to the world’s hungry eyes in the most subtle and overt ways. The fashion brainchildren of the black community have become some of the world’s most beloved stylistic statements, as no one can resist African-American clothings’ unique appeal and allure.

Although African-American fashion is now notable for its individualism, it began under severe constraints. The institution of slavery placed strict limits on black creative expression. During slavery, enslaved African-Americans could only depend on clothing and fabrics allotted to them by their owners. Fashion only took on a more positive role for slaves on Sundays or religious holidays, occasions in which their masters allowed them to channel their humanity and religion into their dress. In a setting rampant with abuse and exploitation, these rare instances of fashion autonomy served as a beacon of hope to the enslaved community.

Legal freedom and citizenship provided former slaves with more innovative mobility, but the black community’s creative expression culminated during the Harlem Renaissance. This eruption of thought broke barriers in the intellectual, cultural, social and — of course! — fashion spheres. But such an eruption would trickle into the following decades.

As the Second World War approached, stylistic choices that originated from black ghettos became some of the upper class’ most beloved fashion trends of the time. The “zoot suit,” one of the most iconic suit trends of the 20th century, gained notoriety in the African-American dance halls of Harlem during the 1930s. Although its exact origin varies according by source, clothier Harold C. Fox claimed that black men in urban areas would buy suits too large and tailor them for exaggerated effect. To intellectuals such as “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison, the zoot suit was more than an inquisitive trend; its wide-padded shoulders and wide-legged pants possessed “profound political meaning.” Zoot suits’ flamboyance demanded attention to a group commonly ignored and silenced by American society.

Other trends of the time were rooted in pure accident rather than rebellion. Prominent jazz singer Billie Holiday’s classic flower-embellished hair, for instance, began as a simple cover-up. Legend says that before performing one night, Lady Day burned her hair with curling tongs. In an act of quick wit, one of her stagemates rushed outside and bought a bundle of gardenias to pin in Holiday’s hair. This improv decision became one of Holiday’s fashion trademarks and part of her long-lasting legacy. Decades after her tragic death, stars, models and festival-goers alike still find some way to incorporate the sweet-smelling blossom into their outfits.

By the late 1950s, blacks began to incorporate themes of the ongoing Civil Rights movement into their dress. This turbulent time in American history motivated the African-American community to embrace their heritage. Former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s 1958 visit to the United States further fueled the black community’s ethnic fervor, as his colorful, Kente attire circulated in newspapers across the country. Taking Nkrumah’s example in stride, many took the fashion route to celebrate their origins. They integrated African patterns into their Westernized clothing and used their fashion sense to bring further attention to their black features.

Such fashion integration was highlighted by African-American celebrities such as Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. However, black political organizations’, most notably the Black Panther Party, use of ethnic prints in their uniform gave these trends widespread recognition. So much that famous fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent began to notice black influence on high fashion, introducing African-themed collections in the 1960s. Not wanting their heritage commercialized and commodified by prominent fashion labels, these revolutionary groups eventually removed Kente cloth from their uniforms. But these bans didn’t take away their stylistic influence on other revolutionary organizations of the time. For example, uniforms for groups such as the Brown Berets (Los Boinas Cafes) took inspiration from the Black Panthers’ black berets and polished regalia.

A significant portion of ‘70s fashion trends were direct functions of the decades’ rocky political climate, and unsurprisingly, black revolutionaries were at the forefront of these stylistic statements. As the Black Panther Party’s political influence continued into the next decade, the public began to adopt and embrace other aspects of their iconic outfits. For example, the new trend of dark sunglasses arose from a wish by many youth to reject America’s status quo — a value that the Black Panthers had worked so hard to achieve. And the sudden desire by everyone in that era to make their best attempt at a curly fro? Of course, that trend derives from the black community’s rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards.

The sounds of hip-hop began filling the streets of Bronx in the late ‘70s, with a legacy spanning across several decades. And while this genre rose to the top of the charts during the ‘80s, its sartorial aspects also worked its way into some of the most celebrated designer collections in the world. Common hip-hop styles have deep connections to the institutionalized hardships black youths face in America. Oversized hoodies served to conceal graffiti artists’ identities while creating art; baggy jeans have origins related to incarceration — the list goes on. Loud, chunky jewelry and vibrant color schemes worked to embellish such struggles. Although those outside the community initially frowned upon these fashion statements, prominent hip-hop artists such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa helped bring this unique style into the mainstream.

As hip-hop carried over into the ‘90s, designer brands began adding the culture’s fashion trends to their own collections. These additions, however, could not be carried out without collaboration with those from the trendsetting community. Such collective thought continues today, as prominent black artists such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West release numerous clothing lines under expensive, haute couture brands.

African-American contributions to the fashion world have accomplished more than finding their rightful place on the runway. For a group whose sovereignty and opportunities are not guaranteed, our fashion has been one of the few entities in which we have absolute self-rule. These trends are a direct result of societal struggle; when mainstream and high-class fashion failed to reserve us a spot, we resorted to carving one ourselves. •

by: Tiana Woodard

Photography by: JJ Barrett

Models: Lynette Adkins, Tosin Anjorin, Jade Fabello and William Kachi

HMUA: Kiyanna Elliot

Stylists: Monika Barton and Ariana Diaz

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