As we move through times of turmoil as an explosion of manifestations derived from the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of white police men and the protests that have erupted all across the globe, a huge wave of resources has been made available for us to become more active citizens. It is a civil responsibility and a great opportunity to learn about the roots, about the suffering, about what's true and about fashion of course.
Fashion is always front and center at every turn in history. This time we explore how fashion has been fundamental as a symbol of the Black liberation movement since the times of slavery.
“It’s imperative to understand that the birth of public policy was created to keep Black people inferior, and this creates a landscape for how clothing became political. Believe it or not: THIS is the foundation of the global fashion industry, and it’s political as f%&$!”
Slaves were shaved against their will, stripping them of a connection to their home and their people who had arrived to other countries during the Diaspora before them. This practice was in itself dehumanizing, as it erased the link between Africans and their culture.
It was originally a poor quality cloth, most often made of cotton, linen, or hemp that was used by slaveholders to clothe the enslaved. This cloth was sewn into simple but durable workwear by slaves themselves. At that time this cloth was known as “Negro Cloth” or “Slave Cloth” and was “unfit for anyone else to wear except for slaves.
Even the blue indigo color that we think of when we envision denim has surprising origins. It is from a natural dye from the indigofera tinctoria plant that’s indigenous to West Africa. In the 1700s, as the slave trade grew, knowledge of the plant and its cultivation traveled from West Africa to the United States with the enslaved. Before sugar, before cotton, indigo was the most profitable crop in parts of the South, so much so that it was once even used as currency. The slave trade was fed on both denim and indigo. And thus the history of the iconic blue jean is forever connected to slavery and the history of the African Diaspora.
Countries with the Largest African Diaspora Populations
Brazil - 55.9 Million.
The United States - 46.4 Million.
Haiti - 10.1 Million.
Dominican Republic - 9.2 Million.
Colombia - 4.9 Million.
African and African americans have used fashion and beauty as a political symbol of identity, liberation and freedom.
Under slavery and colonialism white plantation owners dictated how people of african descent dressed and wore their hair. Women slaves would sew their own clothes to wear to church, they used to create for themselves very colorful garments made from materials they purchased with their own earnings opposing the matte colors they used during work days. It was, although temporary, an expression of freedom. Women walking to church in their bright colored styles became a tradition that pretty much looked like a fashion show.
Soul Style became a language through which African and African Americans could pour their sentiment into culture. As it is difficult to put into words the significance of the soul, it was then reflected onto a style, a for of language, political solidarity, black liberation, race pride expressed through modes of dress, hairstyles, music and other forms of art, which became very popular in the 1970’s as a rallying cry for liberation.
Jazz artists and civil rights activists such as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba became the proponents of soul style before it became a global trend.
The Greenwich Village in NYC was home of the '60s counterculture movement.
Check this article from Esquire.
Greenwich Village: A neighborhood and era of political and cultural revolution.
When the focus of the civil rights movement shifted to the South in the US, activists still wore clothes that represented propriety and upward mobility for the black community. “A” shaped skirts, shirts, stylish hairstyles, suits and ties were the predominant style. But since protests became more radical, police brutality was omnipresent. As the pride that carried the hairstyles and style was well known, police would hose down protestants stripping them, especially women, from their pride by ruining their hair and clothing.
At this time and age, it was inconceivable for a black woman to go out in public without their hair perfectly styled. Among other things, their hairstyles symbolized that they were educated people. The use of wigs, which became very popular at that time, and hair straighteners, suggested that only by changing physical appearance, Africans and African Americans could be afforded class mobility and social acceptance into the culture that dominated.
As a response to this dehumanizing police methods, style changed again. Women started to use their hair short and the use of denim became common place. before, natural, short hair and denim were directly related to slavery and oppression. But this time activists had to find a way to continue their work in a more practical, less dehumanizing way.