Black History Month: Black Culture & Its Impact on Fashion

February is Black History Month, and we wanted to take some time to highlight some of the many ways that Black culture has influenced fashion and menswear styles that we wouldn't have today without it.

Before we dive in, we welcome you to listen to two of our personal favorite episodes of our podcasts, Dressing for Wellness, where a conversation with Jay Gats touches on many of these subjects.

We'll start with the 1920's and the rise of many influential styles, but the importance of Black men and their fashion sense dates back long before then. Take this quote from Monica L. Miller, an associate professor at Barnard College and author, that states that African-American men have long since used style in order to challenge previously held beliefs about who they are. "Sometimes the well-dressed black man coming down the street is asking you to look and think.""

The 1920s

Let's start way back with the 1920's, the height of the Harlem Renaissance, we're introduced to "Zoot Suits." You've heard of them, you probably love them (we sure do), but have you noticed how many styles today have been influenced by these styles, a century later?

Take Cab Calloway, a swing and jazz musician who not only had a huge impact on music for decades to follow, but menswear as well, paving his own way through traditional style with his oversized suits and wide lapels. Take a look at one of his signature styles below.

Recent menswear styles, especially those seen on the runway, have seen a rise in the oversized yet perfectly tailored style. From Maison Mihara, to Rochas Homme, some of the biggest names in menswear couture have featured these silhouettes that were so revolutionary in the early 20th century, and may not have been made popular without icons like Cab Calloway introducing them.

Oh, and let's not forget that pinstripes were also introduced, and saw their rise in popularity, in the 1920's and was seen worn by Black cultural icons like Tut Johnson (a renowned boxer in the 1900's) seen below.

The 1960s & '70s

There was no shortage of evolution in Black menswear between the '20s & 1960s, but this is the time period of the Civil Rights Movement. Civil unrest, activists rightfully making it impossible to look away from their work, political changes - this era was influential in many ways, the lasting effects still rippling today.

Taking a look at the uniforms worn by the Black Panther Party - founded in Oakland, California in 1966 - we see blue shirts, black pants and black leather jackets, joined by black berets. The uniform was designed to show a stark contrast to those worn by military officials. These influences - black leather, black berets, and the uniform appearance of their clothing - have lasted decades & can be seen in runways and menswear design today. (Not to mention, the role that fashion continues to have in regards to activism, sparking "uniforms" for many protests for years to come).

(University of California at Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

This wasn't the only change that rose in this time period. We saw the rise of the "Black is Beautiful" movement, skin bleaching was no longer the normal, and straightening natural hair became an option, not the expectation. Afros became a political statement, a message we still see today with disturbing reports of Black men and women being discriminated against due to their hair.

The 1980s, '90s & 2000s

In more modern history, we've seen the rise of hip-hop and streetwear styles, which will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on fashion for a very long time. Surely you're familiar with styles seen in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but a few of the styles we've specifically seen a resurgence of due to Black culture are "logomania", oversized shapes, and Afro-Centric prints, as seen on icons like Michael Jordan, Will Smith & Run-DMC who, without question, defined "streetwear" for future generations.

All of this is to say, Black fashion is so much more than Black fashion. It is a force, a power within the world of menswear that leaves its mark on styles and trends for decades, centuries. So next time you don those Adidas sneakers, or slide on your oversized suit jacket, don't forget what - and who - brought those styles into the mainstream.

Early 2000's Fashion Trends That Were Made Popular By Black Culture

Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday dress may be the blueprint for fast fashion retailers everywhere, but two years prior to the “original” making its debut, style maven and actress LisaRaye McCoy wore a similar chainmail look to the 2000 Video Music Awards (micro bag, in tow). Before model Bella Hadid deemed oversized cargos and gradient sunglasses a must, famed R&B singer Aaliyah had already made them her signature look. And though Juicy Couture has certainly become a household name for velour tracksuits, the plush set was preceded by styles conjured up by none other than Kimora Lee Simons’s Baby Phat empire.

Sisqo with actress LisaRaye arriving at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. 9/7/2000 Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

With the aforementioned early 2000s fashion trends making a splash in 2020, it feels necessary to give credit where credit is due, which is black culture.

Unable to fully partake in the trends the first time around, I took this comeback in adulthood as a chance to divulge, completely. Rounding up every tube top, Kangol hat, and jersey dress that I never had the pleasure of owning, I soon realized that discussing the resurgence of trends from the early aughts without acknowledging the influence by Black culture was nearly impossible. Growing up, I remember video vixens being laced out in full denim looks that can now be seen on Instagram models, everywhere. Closely relating to the archetype of Lauren London’s character “New New” in the classic film, ATL who convinced me to invest in the pair of oversized name earrings that every Black girl owned. Long before Carrie Bradshaw popularized her beloved monogram necklace that she referenced as “ghetto gold” jewelry.

“I soon realized that discussing the resurgence of trends from the early aughts without acknowledging the influence by Black culture was nearly impossible.”

But, we all know that “Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen, yet”, a phrase coined by Ohio-based designer and philanthropist, Ron Blassingame. Of course, now, you’d be hard-pressed to scroll through your timeline and find an influencer or celebrity without their own moniker hanging proudly around their necks. Proving that trends that were considered controversial twenty years ago, are now hot commodities.

Loading the player...

Scroll through a list of trends from the early 2000s that were undeniably made popular through its rise in the Black community.

'I Stay Coogi Down to the Socks': Remembering the Fashion That Shaped Black Culture

Black in the Day is an ongoing series about Black nostalgia that covers very specific topics. This week it’s all about hip-hop fashion and the trends that made headlines from the ’80s to the early 2000s.

From crop tops and jersey dresses to baggy jeans and low-rider jeans, fashion sure has seen its fair share of changes throughout the years. With both celebrities and Black designers making their mark on clothing with brands like Sean John, FUBU, Baby Phat, Rocawear and others, the fashion industry was flooded with options that Black consumers could choose from while also continuing to uplift the culture.

Advertisement

No matter the decade, there is one consistent theme in fashion: “What goes around comes around.” A lot of the styles that were popular back in the day are starting to once again see an emergence in pop culture. Many of the standout styles that have made their way back into the mainstream are those from the ’90s era. The crop tops, graphic tees and baggy jeans can all been seen on anyone walking down the street today. However, what made the trends different then are the people that brought them to life. From rappers who mentioned labels in their songs and performers who owned certain ’90s looks like Aaliyah with her iconic crop tops and baggy jeans, they are the reason many fashion trends are coming back today.

Black hip-hop fashion isn’t too far off from what it once was back in the day, but the nostalgia of seeing some trends that may have been buried in the back of your mind is a feeling like no other. So check out the first video from our Black in the Day series of people talking some of their fondest fashion memories.

Maryan Barbara
Maryan Barbara

Leave a Comment