When I think of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X, I see the title character’s political and personal maturation through clothes.
the sleek black business suit worn during his leadership in the Nation of Islam to the white pilgrim’s wrap he donned for the haj, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the civil rights icon is framed and grounded by clothes.
The choice of clothes and colors in Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust is likewise political. Most members of the film’s fictional Pesant family, about to embark on a move to the (white) mainland from the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia are dressed in conservative bourgeois Victorian dress. Dash chose mostly white fabrics to signal their naivety about the white racism they will soon encounter in Pennsylvania or New York, and to visibly (not vocally) press against the racist correlation of Black and ‘dirt.’
The matriarch, Nana Pesant (Cora Lee Day) wears a simple indigo shirtdress, the style signaling a refusal to leave the island and the color chosen by Dash to index the labor of producing indigo dyes that had been forced on the Gullah Sea Islanders when they were slaves.
These two films were produced at the tail end of the heady identity politics and cultural feminism of the 1980s, which is perhaps why each came to mind repeatedly as I read through Tanisha C. Ford’s recent book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (UNC Press, 2015). Ford shifts historical attention from large political events and iconic leaders to smaller, quotidian decisions about personal dress and appearance made by men and (primarily) women to signal their support of and participation in the struggle for Blacks to receive full recognition as both human beings and citizens.
Drawing on some interviews with women activists, but also on a detailed examination of album covers, business ventures and practices, magazine images, and newspaper and magazine articles, Ford provides a compelling history of the development of “soul style” in the second half of the 1950s and through the 1960s. Ford charts the personal and corporate connections that were necessary for promulgating this style and for carving out social, political and consumer spaces to sustain it. For example, Ford examines Mariam Makeba’s turn to an African style under the mentorship of Harry Belafonte (developed by his guidance in booking specific Village performances for Makeba), and in a later chapter she charts the influence of NYC’s Grandassa models (used on Blue Note album covers) in solidifying the Black is Beautiful “soul style” of natural hair, curvy body types, and African prints and jewelry. Throughout her text Ford counters the simplistic charge that consumer culture is a sell-out. Quite the contrary, it is precisely the financial success of Blue Note and Grandassa that enabled the rise of the “Afro look” and the success of a global fashion industry marketing “Black is Beautiful” through the turn to African colors and patterns. Through these commodified practices women from the US to England to South Africa were encouraged directly to signal their liberation from white, bourgeois ideals of womanhood.
Perhaps because I’ve been reading and listening to Tricia Rose’s work on the politics of respectability, I was especially struck by Ford’s account of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee’s resistance to “dressing up” for protest, a tactic used by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The SNCC activists re-appropriated denim—the clothes of slavery and sharecropping—and made jeans and overalls the new ‘uniform’ of civil rights protest. Yes, this ‘casualization’ of fashion was part larger anti-tradition and anti-authoritarian currents during the 1960s, but Ford astutely connects the SNCC’s choices to specifically Black struggles to embrace their bodies and selves as natural and powerful. I suppose I knew these two very different pictures, but with my superficial knowledge of the rich textures of 1960s protests, I had never considered or understood the backstory of this side-by-side friction between denim overalls and prim Sunday dresses. Ford’s book is filled with such gems of example and insight. I highly recommend it.