Fashion at the center of the civil rights movement.

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.

The Untold History of Blue Jeans, Indigo, and Slavery


The descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved and shipped to American Continent via the Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Countries with the Largest African Diaspora Populations

  1. Brazil - 55.9 Million.

  2. The United States - 46.4 Million. 

  3. Haiti - 10.1 Million.  

  4. Dominican Republic - 9.2 Million. 

  5. 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

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.


It is unclear how the afro hairstyle came into being or who named it but it was a specific type of natural hairstyle, recognized by its perfectly round halo shape. The bigger ones afro, the better, because the afro, more than any other hairstyle, became symbolic of one’s black consciousness.

In the early 1960’s the dividend line was between straightened and natural hair. By the early 1970’s it was about who could form their hair and who could not. Black women and men who wore the style had to have tightly coiled hair. Not all women with natural hair could wear an afro; those with a loose curl pattern were not considered as black as those whose hair could create the desirable afro. The afro hairstyle grew in popularity, first in places like NYC, Los Angeles and Oakland, but the growing media coverage of the Panthers and the popularity of Nina Simone and other soul singers who sported the style helped to make it popular in the Midwest as well.

Angela Davis, scholar and activist, used her clothing not only as a symbol of her turn to radical politics but also a radical chic style that was eventually replicated. 

She thought that the mainstream media’s negative representations of Afro-coiffed black women had serious consequences even for those who had no affiliation with black power organizations.

She was fired by Ronald Reagan from UCLA for being a comunist.

Angela Davis’s occasional bodyguard orchestrated the kidnapping of a judge to negotiate the release of his older brother.

Newsweek regarded her as “the most glamorous and provocative fugitive on the feds list”. She was on the ten most wanted FBI‘s list with 3 capital offenses, 3 death penalties, three deaths sentences murder conspiracy and kidnapping.

Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ also a longtime warrior in the fight for social justice pledge to pay the bail for Angela Davis even when bail was not even on the table.

She said: “My daddy (Detroit’s Rev. C.L.Franklin) says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people”.

This is Part One of a two series broadcast.

Stay tuned for our next episode this coming Wednesday at 1 PM EST on


Liberated Threads by Tanisha C. Ford

The Untold History of Blue Jeans, Indigo, and Slavery

Clothing is Political by Dominique Drakeford

Images from Shutterstock

Carolina Chavez clothing: Jacket and T shirt fro Everlane.

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