How African Americans Have Influenced Style and Culture

How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style (Courtesy of Rizzoli USA) Courtesy of Rizzoli USA

Exploding down runways, in stores, online and on Main Street — everywhere you look — style shaped by the African Diaspora is ubiquitous in fashion today for people of all colors, races and creeds.

Some key factors drive its popularity, among them increased globalization, the Internet, and the desire of millennials of African descent to feel ownership of and know more about their African ancestry and history.

Today’s blossoming Afrocentric fashion goes hand in hand with the robust Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice. When courageous NFL star Colin Kaepernick took a symbolic stand against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of one of his games, something interesting happened. He put his curly-kinky hair in an Afro. Prior to that episode, Kaepernick was most often seen with his head shaved low or his hair in braids. Style can be superficial, but it can also undeniably be an expression of significant social, cultural and economic realities.

Fashion has embedded itself in our popular culture, and Black style, fertile and innovative, is continuously multiplying like a reproducing amoeba, spinning off into sub-genres.

Pam Grier as Coffy (1973) Directed by Jack Hill (Courtesy of Rizzoli USA) Courtesy of Rizzoli USA)

Stateside and in parts of Europe in the early twentieth century, bandleaders like Cab Calloway popularized the dramatically baggy zoot suit. Jazzmen and blueswomen started trends, as Billie Holiday did when she appeared with a flower in her hair. The ’20s flapper style is said to have risen in part from the need to allow for vigorous movement after Black youth introduced an energetic new dance called the Charleston, which was then popularized on Broadway. With dresses shortened to scandalously bare ankles and calves, corsets were flung aside, and dresses became loose and free, all the better to shimmy and shake.

As they do today, early entertainers of all colors found their style within the Black community, and in a back-and-forth exchange, the Black community in turn fed off and expanded upon the looks entertainers wore on stage, on screen, and at their public appearances. Beyoncé’s exquisite Lemonade video-opera features several examples of Black style familiar to African Americans. By donning these various styles in her powerful videos and on stage, she fertilizes the growth of trends like goddess braids, Afros and New Orleans Creole style, among other grace notes.

Beyonce Knowles (2003); Columbia Records; Courtesy of Rizzoli USA Columbia Records; Courtesy of Rizzoli USA

Yet, despite being surrounded by Black style, we often miss its beauty and innovation or fail to acknowledge it. In this book, I seek to document and represent how Black style is put together and worn, how it presented, and how it has influenced fashion in ways both large and incremental. My intention was not to make a comprehensive or definitive volume; it is meant to be a fun, informative, and entertaining journey through Black style.

Constance C.R. White is the author of How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style (Rizzoli, 2018).

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3 Black Fashion Historians On Black Culture's Most Influential Fashion Moments

The intricacies of Black culture in every aspect is deeply woven into the fabric of the fashion industry, from vernacular and hairstyling to aesthetics and trends. Yet, fashion's biggest inspirations are constantly erased from its history: Bantu knots have become space buns, durags are now edgy and high fashion, bamboo earrings are runway-worthy jewelry, all in the name of cultural appropriation. Black culture has served as the muse behind fashion’s biggest movements and designer collections without so much as a credit or acknowledgement.

The unsung heroes and hidden figures that are the Black designers, stylists, and creatives have given more to the fashion industry than they’ll ever receive in return. Now, Black fashion historians are documenting and making Black fashion history visible, readily accessible, and easily shareable through social media, literature, galleries, and more.

Below, we spoke to three Black fashion historians about the complexities of Black culture's influence on the fashion industry and the impact Black women, men, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have undoubtedly made not only in fashion, but within pop culture, as well.

Eric Darnell Pritchard, Ph.D.

T-Stagg Photography

The Fayetteville, Arkansas-based scholar and teacher is the endowed chair in English literacy at the University of Arkansas and is known for his book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and The Politics of Literacy. “I'm fighting to preserve Black fashion history by calling attention to the hidden figures of fashion history, Black history, and queer history,” says Pritchard. “What does it mean for us to use those histories about Black fashion designers as a way to really address matters of anti-Blackness and economic inequality, when it comes to opportunities for Black fashion designers, models, hair stylists, makeup artists, and people who are working in the industry now?”

On the LGBTQ+ community’s impact on the fashion industry:

“There's a kind of violence in historical erasure and it's really impossible to tell the story about fashion history without LGBTQ+ voices. The influence of trans and nonbinary models is something people often overlook. Tracey 'Africa' Norman was the first Black trans model to really be prominent in the fashion industry. She’s a trailblazer. She was in all the major magazines and had brands like Avon tapping her for campaigns. Another Black queer contributor to fashion is James Harris. He did hair for everyone from Diana Ross and Tyra Banks to luxury companies like Gucci. He was one of the first hairdressers in the United States to work with larger companies and call attention to the importance of creating products that reflected the diversity in hair.”

On how house, ball, and drag culture influenced fashion:

“Queer culture, drag culture, and performers of color have impacted the fashion industry in every way, from the language to certain kinds of adornment practices. The notion of somebody slaying and getting their face beat is a queer contribution. In the actual aesthetics, the camp is what we see in the exaggeration and ornamentation on some garments. Drag is camp, and fashion designers work as a distillation of that and made it available and accessible to a general audience. Another part of that is queer nightlife, especially the late '60s, '70s, and '80s, which had a profound influence on fashion and influenced designers like Stephen Burrows. They were channeling the energy of Paradise Garage and Studio 54 into the clothes that were shown on the runway.”

Favorite Black fashion moment in pop culture: Diahann Carroll as Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty

Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

“As a kid growing up watching old episodes of Dynasty, I thought she was so glamorous. I'm seeing that as a Black queer person and the impact she had on me and so many other Black queer people, including Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith, and the way we talk about style.”

Tianni Janae Graham, B.B.A.

Courtesy of Tianni Janae Graham

Brooklyn-based Tianna Janae Graham’s early memories of collecting magazines and creating collages prepared her for a career in fashion history and archiving. After studying fashion merchandising, she took on an archive assistant position and started an Instagram account, Archive Alive, that features rare, historical fashion imagery. “I’m channeling everything that I want to do professionally while providing history to people in a digestible way,” says Graham. “I'm telling these stories and providing all the information that I can find about everyone who worked on a project or photograph. Just documenting things in real time is key and important.”

On Black women and hip-hop’s impact on the fashion industry:

“Black women are the blueprint for the fashion industry and we often don't get credited. The industry often looks to us to see what's new or hip, and then they'll take it and water it down, assimilate it, and make it more digestible for popular consumption.

“I often connect Black people's impact on fashion with hip-hop. It’s been so influential, all the way back to Dapper Dan and how hip-hop style started from the street with drug dealers, and then rappers emulated their styles and made them more mainstream. From there, trends would start. Female rappers and hip-hop artists are continuously pushing the culture through their fashion choices. Cardi B and Beyoncé are able to wear archival pieces that most people wouldn’t see unless it was in a museum exhibition. Lil’ Kim received recognition from Alexander McQueen and he said she was his idol, and that was major for a Black woman in hip-hop. That kind of recognition from a designer of his caliber was unheard of at that time.”

Favorite Black fashion moment in pop culture: Lil’ Kim in a custom purple jumpsuit at the 1999 VMAs

KMazur/WireImage/Getty Images

“Kim was styled by Misa Hylton and she had the right eye for that monochromatic look — the hair matching the outfit, the shoes, the nails, and the makeup. It was all monumental for a Black woman in hip-hop.”

Darnell Jamal Lisby, M.A.

David Burstein

Darnell Jamal Lisby, who’s based in New York, merges his passion for teaching fashion history and bringing people together through his work with such exhibitions as Pockets to Purses at the Museum at FIT and 2020’s Willi Smith: Street Culture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “I preserve fashion history in a more strategic and subtle way,” he says. “I try to present it in a way that's not dissimilar from the way people have been able to understand the history of fashion, by creating and weaving stories together. I've made it a mission to lend my voice to exhibitions that tell the stories of Black people, Black creators, and fashion figures within the history of fashion.”

On Black men’s impact on the fashion industry:

“When working on the Pockets to Purses exhibit, we wanted to tell the story of the man bag, which was inspired by a scene in the movie Beauty Shop. The lead male barber gets ragged on for carrying a man bag. I knew we had to tell that story because it shows that men can wear bags and purses, as well. These gendered ideas needed to be rethought in the current climate, even though there have been generations that have leaned towards gender neutrality.

“In the '60s to '80s, Rick James, Prince, James Brown, Little Richard, and Grace Jones have played on gender neutrality through fashion. The Black community has always kind of struggled with gender roles because of what slavery had done. It emasculated the Black man and I wanted to put that story out about the man purse and, specifically, on a Black body to break up the idea that the purse is only for women's wear.”

Favorite Black fashion moment in pop culture: Beyoncé in custom LaQuan Smith for the On The Run II Tour

Picturegroup/Shutterstock

“Beyoncé frequently uses fashion and costumes as a way to champion different social messages or cultural messages. When she came out wearing LaQuan Smith for the first time, it was so significant because she had never really opened a show or tour wearing a Black designer.”

How African-American influence the culture and Fashion world?

African American designs were initially rejected, ignored, and if they were given the acknowledgement for their skills and creativity they were labelled as coloured, Negro, black, or Afro-Americans. All this did not deter the spirit of African Americans from making their efforts recognized.

It started happening only when a large number of people began to accept African Americans and their culture. It is the time when American began to recognize their art, skill, creativity, and contributions to The United States of America. A big change came with the amalgamation of hip hop with the American conventional culture. With the emergence of Hip-hop into the African–American style and culture got highlighted in the fashion trends.

The African-Americans have tried to bring their individual impression into fashion and today’s trends. They have made themselves acceptable during the times when there is diversity in the fashion industry. There are some important factors that brought about this change in mindset and the culture of Americans that led to its acceptance is the globalization, increased connectivity with internet, and the desire to get recognized and feel the ownership.

Some of the trends influenced by Black culture

The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s:

The Harlem Renaissance was the time when people of the black community were migrating towards the north in search of new opportunities where they can express themselves freely. This is the main reason this time is considered as the ‘Rebirth of African-American arts’. During this time many style icons like Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker got introduced to the world and their style made the fashion world go berserk that is influencing today’s fashion world as well. The trends like Zoot suits with big silhouette and wide lapels, pinstripes, silk shirts, wide hats and brogues made its way in menswear and flapper dresses, drop-waist silhouettes, feathers and string pearls are revolutionizing the fashion world till now.

The Civil Rights Movement started in the 1960s and 1970s:

During the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and ’70s came into limelight the activist group to promote equal rights of African Americans and challenged police brutality in the country with the Black Panther Party. The founders of the movement decided to wear the military's green in contrast to blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets and black berets in contrast to the uniform. Apart from that Activist Angela Davis, flaunted her natural hair, turtleneck sweaters and gold chains that got incorporated in that fashion during that period. The ‘Black is beautiful’ movement distorted the idea of bleaching the skin, straightening the hair as they were of the opinion that white features define traditional beauty. The Black Panther Uniform with black leather jackets and slogan tees established its dominance as an integral part of the fashion even today.

The Hip- Hop era that came in the 1980s and 1990s:

During the 1980s and 1990s, the hip-hop culture that demonstrated primary colours and oversized shapes started to take over and dominate the fashion world. There came a time when sneaker culture, product alliance and hip hop made its way into fashion with the popularity of Run DMC.

By the end of the ’80s, cross colours emerged as an influential trend. The brands that were promoted by gems like Will Smith and TLC was highlighted and adorned by political and social messages. These messages were written across tees, bomber jackets, and colour-blocked sweaters.

The Afro-Centric pattern was also popularized by Queen Latifah during this era. In addition to that, the accessories like bucket hats, gold chains and hoop earrings also established its dominance.

Michael Jordan’s white sneakers, basketball jerseys, caps and tracksuits made their mark in the fashion world.

Hip-Hop and streetwear meet up with Luxury in the 2000s:

During this era, streetwear encountered luxury and evolved as a status symbol. Hip-hop made its way a notch higher with Dapper Dan introducing high fashion elements to it. He also designed looks for Mike Tyson and Salt-N-Pepa and also established his first luxury fashion house.

Virgil Abloh, c0-creator of Off-White created a stir after becoming the first African-American Artistic Director for the French luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton in 2018.

Not far behind the pop star, Rihanna launched Fenty fashion house by getting collaborated and partnered with LVMH and established her name by becoming the first African-American to create a brand with the group of this stature. All these contributed to creating a sensation and impact of streetwear on luxury fashion.

EndNote

We should not miss the beauty and innovation that has brought by the Black style and influenced African American fashion in a large way. The increasing inclusivity in fashion is the outcome of decades of efforts that promoted racial diversity and also lead to the acceptance and a positive approach of the designers in the fashion world

Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

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