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Black Excellence: A History of Fashion

Talk about being gone for a minute! We've been off-grid for a while and apologize for that. So here's to a more consistent year with sharing the goods, tips, and more.

Let's start it off right by celebrating Black History Month!

There is so much history that we try to cram into one month. So many stories of black excellence to share. With all of the stories to tell, we're going to share a bit of history our own way...through fashion. 

Fashion has impacted history since the beginning of time. However, its purpose, or rather clothing's purpose has evolved over the centuries. Fashion has created waves throughout our world's history by trends and by its ability to make political statements in U.S. history (really all of history). Here are a few examples: women wearing pants in the 1850s before it was widely accepted, the Black Panther Party donned a militia-inspired look topped with a beret during the Civil Rights Movement, and graphic tees expressing our protests worn today.

So let's get into the nitty-gritty of how the few examples we've named, fashion, and our history go hand in hand. Plus, we have to share some of our biggest influences. Let's dive in:

1. Fashion for Blacks Post-Slavery: Most folks only had the clothes on their back that may have been handed down to them. Lesser finely tailored and coarse clothing was issued to each slave. Depending on their station of work, they may have received garments of a little higher quality and condition than their counterparts. However, this wasn't held true universally. Depending on the allowance given them by their former masters, most clothing was plain and rough and usually constructed by other slaves. If one escaped to the North, better clothing may have been at their disposal. (If you want to learn more, read here.) Aside from this, there were black seamstresses and tailors that haven't even been heard of due to the times they lived in. Here are a few to know: 

Elizabeth Keckley

  • Charlotte - Not a free woman, but an enslaved seamstress of George Washington's Mt. Vernon. As most slaves made clothing for other slaves on plantations, Charlotte also made, altered, and hemmed clothing for Martha Washington. There's only so much we will ever know about her, other than the supposed scandal of her wearing a beautiful gown that formerly belonged to a ferry owner's wife. For more information about Charlotte and her fashion sense, follow the link here.

  • Elizabeth Keckley - A former Virginian slave who bought her freedom in 1855. She moved to Washington, D.C. and started a clothing business. Her work was well received and became well renowned. She dressed women of status, including Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis's wife, as well as became the personal seamstress for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. To learn more about Elizabeth Keckley, you can follow the link here.

  • Fannie Criss Payne White - Born to former slaves in Madison, VA, Fannie Criss was the first free born child out of her siblings. She moved to Richmond in 1895, where she later established herself as a dressmaker. Fannie's clientele ranged from elite whites to elite blacks during the Jim Crow era. She later moved to Harlem, NY where she continued her business. Learn more about her here.

  • Ann Lowe - Recognized as the first, well renowned African-American fashion designer, Lowe's career spanned over 4 decades. She dressed women of high society, including designing Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy's wedding gown. Due to the period Lowe lived in, her work was not acknowledged, nor highly recognized until years later. You can read more about her life and works here.

  • Zelda Wynn Valdes - Well known for the Playboy Bunnies costumes, Valdes was the first African American designer and costumer to open a boutique on Broadway Ave. She also dressed famous stars such as Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, and Marina Cole (Nat King Cole's wife). You can read more about her success here.

2. Before the Civil Rights Movement: Some of us know a little about the Tulsa burning of Black Wall Street. However, it's another part of our U.S. history we don't really like to talk

about, but it happened. Men and women in Tulsa, as well as other places, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, were some of the most finely dressed people. Not to mention very stylish. Every city, state, and region has its own taste and it couldn't be more well represented throughout black style and fashion. Tailored suits and dresses were worn and were up with the times, just a little extra flair added here and there. But being equally dressed also instilled fear and anger, which brought on another act of destruction.

3. The Civil Rights Movement: From suits and Sunday's best to militia-inspired looks, the fashion of the 1950s through 60s was vast. However, there was a common spirit for progression and equality. The only difference was in the manner of which to obtain it, peace or violence. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. had different approaches and views at the beginning of the movement. However, the more often they met and discussed the outlook, their views had the same purpose for an end result. Unfortunately, both of them were assassinated, as well as many others that attempted to make a change and speak up for the need of equal rights for the black community. As tensions heightened after

Malcolm X's assassination and before MLK, the Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland in 1966. Their uniform often entailed: a black leather jacket, black or dark colored bottoms, and a black beret. A statement look of empowerment and boldness. Style and fashion couldn't have been more evident on either side of the Civil Rights Movement. 

4. Black Lives Matter Movement: Regardless of fashion, this is the same statement and spirit that has been fought for for the last 70 years. Without recognizing the rights of black people, and the fact that we are also people and not animals, the problems of the past continue to haunt us. Unfortunately, that spirit is more physical than metaphysical. If the last group of people can't be free to live without fear of dying, being arrested, or beaten for so much as existing, all people and all lives won't be equal. That's what it means. It's not a disregard to any other ethnic or racial group. The evils visited upon our ancestors weren't even fueled by ethnicity, so much as fear and prejudice of creed and color. So our generation has donned black t-shirts, masks, hoodies, and more paraphernalia with statements made by those who have passed from the same brutality, just in a different outfit and uniform. So here are two voices that have impacted this movement for black lives, business, fashion, and more: 

  • Aurora James - designer, creative director and founder of Brother Vellies, a footwear brand. James also founded the non-profit organization, the 15% Pledge. Organized with the mission to move larger retail companies to purchase 15% black owned and created products in addition to their usual inventory. You can learn more about the pledge here.

  • Kerby Jean-Raymond - creative director and founder of Pyer Moss. Aside from designing and debuting a collection commenting on police brutality and the BLM movement in 2016, Jean-Raymond has created a company incubator for emerging minority designers based in New York, called Your Friends in New York. Find out more here.

Now that we've overloaded you with information, we just wanted to make one last point. Fashion hasn't just been about keeping up with the latest trends or being stylish, it has the power to create movements and to support them. So the next time you pick up your favorite sweater, or don you favorite outfit, think about the message you want to convey or the one that has already been made in the creation of the garment or by its historical context.

*Images courtesy of Google and the History Channel. 1. Elizabeth Keckley. 2. A photo of a Tulsa family. 3. The Black Panther Party.

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