The Politics Of Black Style

This is the third op-ed in a series on Black History Month.

Black style in America isn’t as simple as wearing a dashiki or having a pair of doorknocker earrings. From slaves, who, with little choice in their attire, still asserted their personal style, to the elegant ensembles of the Harlem Renaissance, black style has played a profound role in sending political and social messages—often mixing dreams of affluence and modes of conformity, while paying homage to an African past.

From Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley’s dramatic duds, to the urban-chic attire of inner-city fashionistas, black expression and creativity through fashion lives even today. Interestingly, some elements of the unique assemblage that has characterized black culture have even seeped into the mainstream. Casual hip-hop attire, for example, which was born out of a predominately black movement, has taken catwalks by storm and invaded the closets of millions worldwide.

Though fashion exists as a means of expression within the black community, it has arguably remained a political and social bargaining tool with those outside of it. While black people have infiltrated boardrooms and fashion houses, culturally-black forms of expression have failed to share an equal space with the dictates of mainstream conservative dress. Black hair style has been at the forefront of this tension. While the most accomplished politician may don a strikingly conservative suit, the decision to lock, braid, or straighten hair heightens awareness of blackness, eliciting a variety of reactions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is praised for her chic designer wardrobe and swift leadership style, but public perception would certainly have been different had her hair not been straightened and instead worn in an afro.

Of course, the issue of conforming attire to social norms is not strictly relegated to the black community. Pulitzer Prize-winning black fashion journalist Robin Givhan of The Washington Post likened the family of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to a 1950s throwback because of their uninspired, pastel attire during his appointment. But the imposition of mainstream style is particularly pointed for the black image, because it isn’t simply a matter of picking out a different color shirt—it sometimes counters not only what is deeply cultural, but also natural. In the case of hair, the universally-accepted bob often emerges from chemical and thermal processes that wreak havoc on the manes of many.

Even Harvard’s campus is not immune to critical perception of black expression through fashion. Despite the large influence and presence of black students on campus, black style has failed to flourish in the Harvard bubble. While some students may have donned baggy jeans, Chuck Taylor Converses, or Sunday hats when in their hometowns, a significant number shed these clothes for items that are more “suitable” for Harvard’s fashion culture. Many students who enter Harvard wearing the clothing of an urban dictate leave campus in sweater vests and loafers, ready to face a corporate world in which causal Fridays do not include construction boots or Nike Air Force One sneakers. Entire student groups are aware of the social implications their attire—Kuumba adheres to a strict uniform of dressy black clothes and kente cloth stoles, and the Black Men’s Forum’s bi-weekly Tie Day is motivated by group solidarity and the countering of Black male stereotypes.

Black students do however contribute to the dialogue on style and fashion within the greater Harvard community. With shows such as blackC.A.S.T.’s Eleganza, the Harvard African Students Association annual fashion show, as the Harvard Caribbean Club’s C-Splash display, Harvard’s black students still play a role in the Harvard fashion scene both in and outside many black community groups.

Today, black style is at a crossroads. In September of 2006, the Museum of the City of New York opened “Black Style Now,” an exhibit celebrating the contributions of black people to the fashion industry. The exhibit pays homage not only to Kangol hats and shiny suits, but also to prominent black designers such as Tracy Reese and models such as Iman. In addition, artists such as Nas, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West have taken a commendable first step to vilify blood diamonds in a culture that often glorifies extraordinarily flashy jewelry.

So although the intense race-centered political movements that influenced black fashion have quelled, we must remain cognizant that black style remains just as political as it was four centuries ago.

Alexandra C. Wood ’07, a Crimson magazine editor, is the former arts and entertainment chairperson of the Harvard Black Students Association. Kimberly D. Williams ’07 is a member of the Black Students Association.

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