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Fashion, History, On the Carpet, On the Street

Met Gala – We still ain’t over it

May 15, 2017

 

By Dominique M. Davis

Eric already ran down the tea but I wanted to review the Met Gala from a lens of art being a realistic and economically viable career path. I wonder how often we as a society steer away from pursuing dreams and the creative arts from a lack of knowledge about the career paths and opportunities the field has to offer. Or maybe, I’m just speaking from personal experience, but had I known all of the different options that were available in the creative arts space and the ability to parlay academia into a creative niche I might have taken other paths in college. Or for that matter an overall working knowledge of multiple career paths in general. The ability to choose and make informed decisions in planning for one’s future is diminished by ignorance. So often in communities of color the lack of knowledge becomes the burden of the oppressed which can lead to a perpetual cycle of paucity; not only economically but in intellectual capacity. Scarcity of resources and financial means to support one’s self reduces higher order thinking in that the basic needs for self actualization are difficult to achieve under those circumstances. So the cycle of poverty persists. Reduced funding for school programs in communities heavily populated by black and brown people makes the access to career paths even more challenging.

The Former First Lady recognized the need for arts in education and led a national campaign to re-engage arts education in early childhood and elementary schools. The arts is and has been a source for escapism in transforming intangible concepts of pain and love into tangible, physical material. Symbolic representations have the ability to create space for dialogue, reflection, self expression and serve as a conduit or vessel for cultural exchange. The use of the arts as a practical tool in education could provide youth the skills to utilize multiple forms of intelligence and develop transferable skills for careers, having the ability to separate vocation from avocation or combine the two. Knowledge or lack thereof is one of the biggest challenges with gaining access to opportunities.

We know the Met Gala started as the annual fundraising benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. But what you probably didn’t know is that the Costume Institute was started by two women who’s life work was rooted in community social work. Irene and Alice Lewisohn worked at the Henry Street Settlement house which worked with immigrant families from underserved communities in New York City. The Anna Wintour Costume Center is the home of the collection of The Costume Institute and was formally opened by Former First Lady Michelle Obama of the United States of America.

It’s our duty as leaders of the future to recognize talent and assist with the progression of transforming communities by providing information to the un or misinformed, and directing peoples to resources. How does this all relate to pop culture and the Met Gala? The arts have provided a national platform to combine social work initiatives with creative expression. To understand and realize that such careers exist and are attainable is the work that needs and must continue to be among the conversation when structuring early childhood and educational programming for students. Leaders recognize the need for change and work to achieve to make it happen.

Fashion, History, News, Pop Culture

Denim, Dissonance, and Social Change (Review of FIT’s “Denim” Exhibit)

April 15, 2016

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

Recently I visited the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (“FIT) and took in three of their most recent marvelous exhibits on fashion. All three were spectacular, but the one most exciting for me was “Denim: Fashion’s Frontier.” Just the week after I saw this exhibit I was scheduled to do a series of lectures on fashion and style and activism in a course I teach called “Black Freedom Movement Rhetorics.” One of the lecture was going to focus on denim in order to provide some foundations for an article I’d assigned to my students (more on that later).

The FIT exhibit did not disappoint by any means, and provided lots of great historical context and details about fashion design, marketing, and cultural meanings of denim. All of this proved to be very useful to my lecture and my student’s discussion of the  lecture and readings. What follows are photos and my commentary on the exhibit mixed with notes and additional photographs from my course lecture. It was truly a great exhibit that I highly recommend; one that helped me to seamlessly integrate fashion and style into a history of dress as rhetorical activism as enacted by various social movements, and especially within the Black Freedom Movement.

Among the first looks you see entering the exhibit is of men’s blue brushed cotton denim trousers from about 1840, and a woman’s blue denim jacket from about 1850 which would have been worn for work:

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What this was  helpful in illustrating in my lecture was the ways in which denim was/is often described as a textile gendered masculine, when in reality it was featured in women’s clothing in the 19th century just as it was with men’s clothing. Also, that the denim look here was specifically used as a jacket worn for work also points to the evidence of women working in the 19th century, and in the case of this outfit work that was performed outdoors. This too corrects another point of historical information which are histories that do not acknowledge that women did work at this time, inside and outside of the home. And, as the exhibit pointed out, the women’s look is in an hourglass shape which was in fashion at the time, and so the denim look was functional but also on trend even then. Thus denim was, even in the 19th century, being employed as a textile that was stylish.

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The focus on function and fashion is also evident in the look above, which was a women’s “walking suit” made in striped off white denim from about 1916. It too followed many of the trends of the day, including the skirt length and high-waist on the jacket.This is not the depiction of denim we see in everyday parlance for many decades now.

The idea of denim in people’s minds are those produced by Levi Strauss & Co. (Levi’s) – patented in 1873. This is style that has held reign on the market ever since including many years of cultural references as a symbol of Americana, leisure, and “wild, wild West” Cowboy-masculinities:

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Denim was also associated with clothing housewives for convenience of daily work, such as the iconic 1942 “Popover” dress from designer Claire McCardell:

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And, as all fashion is political, denim’s politicized story is in histories that show it as being worn by off-duty officers in WWII and the symbolic “Rosie the Riveter” which became symbolic for American women’s empowerment in the war years, ymbolic of work, independence, grit, and feminist sensibilities intersecting labor and dress:

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A cultural symbol, however complex, that has lasted. Just ask Beyonce:

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It are these critical moments in our a world visual archive that has helped denim to endure with positive connotations, as has advertising that are now seared in our minds like this ad from the late 1960s:

Levi's Jeans advertisement from late 1960s

Denim became more controversial when, in the 1950s, it was considered disrespectable largely through its association with the teenage spirit of rebellion such as in films like James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

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Since this period denim “has been dominated by countercultural and street-style associations.” For example, the 1960s hippies

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or the genius and always chic Jimmie Hendrix himself:

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In the 1970s, Denim goes high fashion, appearing on runways of top designers like Yves Saint Laurent and others who “treated it as a luxury fabric.” And by the 1980s: variations on denim “finishing” techniques like acid-washing (which is back on trend), fading (which never seemed to go away, actually). Also return to roots of how denim was employed as Americana symbol, such as Ralph Lauren’s 1981 “Prairie” collection. Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein adds were the most visible of the time.

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And by late 1990s it is a luxury item, that we now see being capitalized on everywhere by so-called “premium denim” lines like 7 for All Mankind, Lucky Brand, and fast fashion companies like H&M.

In my course, my students read an article by Dr. Tanisha Ford, a historian and assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The article titled “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” is a portion of Dr. Ford’s recent book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.

We focused on this history about the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) women and denim as one moment in the history of the Black Freedom Movement wherein Black women civil rights activists wore denim and engaged in other choices around their fashion and beauty that challenged expectations of respectability and propriety circulating within Black communities, including among other activists, at that time. Part of what this enabled them to do is to employ fashion as a tactic of building community with the working class Black people they were organizing in the South. Another was that it demonstrated the intersections of fashion and power as the women acted as agents of adornment toward the ends of social change in their times.

Two of the SNCC women the article discusses were sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner, pictured here wearing their denim at the March on Washington in 1963:

Sisters Dorie and Joyce Ladner at the March on Washington

The choice to wear denim overalls, Ford shows, was an important aesthetic departure from the “Sunday’s Best” style encouraged by many Black civil rights leaders who were mindful of how Black people and their allies would be (mis)represented in their struggle for civil rights, and denim overalls was not among the sartorial acts that would be seen as acting respectably. Thus, the Ladner sister’s wearing denim to the March on Washington was a radical choice in the midst of an already massive moment for social change.

The prevalence of denim is evident in this iconic photo of writer James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and activist James Forman wearing denim at the voting rights March in Selma in 1965:

James Forman marching with writer James Baldwin and Folk singer Joan Baez

And the ways denim narrativizes some of the oppositional arrangement of fashion choices in the civil rights movements was mirrored back in the recent Ava DuVernay film, Selma as seen in the photo of Tessa Thompson and Common in the film here:

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Overall, Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, historical studies like Ford’s and other works on the history of the textile  correct the historical record that centered radicalized and gendered interpretations that obscure “the variety and breadth of denim’s history” (FIT Museum).  Such interventions demonstrate,  as anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward argue in their study about the role of jeans in everyday use quoted in the FIT exhibit description, “Jeans seem to have taken on the role of expressing something about changing the world that no other clothing could achieve.”

I highly recommend checking out the FIT exhibit. Below are additional photos from the FIT exhibit of some of my favorites on display:

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Denim looks from Sacai, Chloe, and Dries van Noten.

 

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An elegant denim dress by Edun.

 

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A Fendi denim “Spy Bag.”

 

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Jean Paul Gaultier, of course.

 

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Sara Shelburne multi-colored striped denim and silk, 1970 in France.

 

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A high fashion trio of denim: looks from Donna Karan, Vivienne Westwood, and Moschino Jeans.

 

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Two piece denim look by Kenzo.

Fashion, History, News

Global Inspiration: Art, Fashion, and Spirituality (‘Fashion Conscious’: A Column)

January 21, 2016

by Dominique Michelle Davis (photo credit: Dominique Michelle Davis)

Over the holiday I had the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago Museum to view the Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings exhibit. The exhibit featured over 100 artworks from private and public collections in India and the United States. Unknown to me, this is the first major U.S. exhibition to showcase the unique visual culture of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu denomination from Western India. Founded in the 16th century by the saint and philosopher Shri Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), the Pushtimarg is a religious community dedicated to the devotion of Shrinathji, a divine image of the Hindu god Krishna as a seven-year-old child. What most captured my attention as I viewed the collection were the vibrant and rich colors of the mediums and textiles. The religious and artistic center of the sect is based in the temple town of Nathdwara (literally, “The Gates of the Lord”), near Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan, India. The paintings and pichvais (peach way).

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Within the past three years I’ve been drawn to spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism in search of meaning. This was an opportunity for me to explore and understand a part of Hinduism and learn more about what draws me to the teachings of Krishna. As I walked through the exhibition, literally going through the seasons within a Nathdwara year, I noticed the opulence of the pichvais (textile hangings, and miniature paintings). Gold, sequence, vibrant colors and detail of hand stitching captured my attention.

I was able to experience a story told through fabric, which brought me back to my original premise in a previous ‘Fashion Conscious’ column on Glamourtunist.com titled ‘Can Fashion Heal?’, of textile therapy as a therapeutic process for healing. Gates of the Lord comprises drawings, pichvais, paintings, and historic photographs borrowed from two major private collections in India, the TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah (Surat, India) and the Amit Ambalal Collection (Ahmedabad, India). The textiles used to depict the Hindu god Krishna were not meant to be worn, they serve as a visual representation to be mindful of the teachings of Krishna and represent a depicted story of Krishna’s life. The elaborate detail that artisans use to construct the paintings and pichvais are time consuming because of the elaborate attention to detail that is needed to construct the pichvais.

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I wish I had the opportunity to interview one of the artists, but what I learned without such an opportunity was that the artistic practice in the Narthdwara community has been in existence for centuries. Currently, Parmanand Sharma, is the head artist called the mukhiya who works in traditional style of Narthdwara painting. Most artist in the Narthdwara community maintain a state of anonymity, however one artist within the community used his art to mass-produce paintings. Ghasiram Hardev Sharma was a mukhiya and also head of photography for the Shrinathji temple was a contemporary artist who has had great influence within the Narthdwara community.

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You never know how the muse will lead you in life, and where. This visit to view the Gates of Lord exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago has also inspired me to incorporate global awareness of artistic expression as a healing and therapeutic practice into my work. I was initially led to Buddhism and Hinduism following a chance discussion after attending the Puerto Rican Festival in the summer of 2012 with a close family friend. While there we came across a street vender selling various knickknacks. What caught my eye was a double-sided pendant. Each side of the medallion had different pictorials, one red and green, the other blue and red. Before purchasing the piece, I asked the merchant what it meant and she had no idea. I wore the necklace to work and was approached by a co-worker who immediately called out I was wearing the Om. I did some research and found that the other side was a depiction of Krishna, which led me to do further research about the culture of Buddhism and Hinduism.

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What initially attracted me to a religion of beauty were the visual aesthetics, the design, colors and gold. What may have been a superficial introduction has led me to find a deeper meaning for purpose. The power of beauty is real, and as superficial as that might sound, can have a much deeper purpose if you allow yourself to search for meaning in beauty. Inspiration can be found in all cultures and communities. This anecdotal story is just an example of how cultures may intersect, knowing or unknowingly, to provide a deeper understanding of life for the girl who just wanted a pretty pendant.

Fashion, History, Interview, On the Street, Pop Culture

Sankofa Couture: Interview with School of Thought Collection Creators

December 15, 2015

by Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene 

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photo credit: Mike Ryan/Brick x Birch (all photos in this post)

I recently I sat down with Maryam Pugh of Philadelphia Printworks and Donte Neal of Mars Five to discuss their fashion design collaboration, the collection “School of Thought.” The “School of Thought” collection “imagines a different world where colleges and institutions have been established based on the philosophies of Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and James Baldwin. The collection represents the double consciousness experienced by” African diasporic people in America  “and creates a safe space for the praxis of liberation.” [Editor’s Note: The interviewer, Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene, is also featured in the “School of Thought” campaign photos wearing the ‘Tubman’ shirt]. 

Keene: How did this idea come about?

Neal: I had an art studio at the Window Factory in North Philly, and so did Maryam. I got to see the beginning of what Philadelphia Printworks was, and I always wanted to collaborate with them. Then in the beginning of 2015, we came up with this cool idea to do collegiate sweatshirts. I always wanted to do something that had a collegiate theme, and [liked] being able to do that with Philadelphia Printworks by way of using very significant black intellectuals.

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Keene: How did you choose which intellectuals to use? Will others show up later?

Neal: There was a much larger list. We wanted to, at least for this run, to do names that were a good balance between men and women.

Pugh: Any time we design a collection, there’s always that balance of trying to find people that we think are impactful and someone that has done things that we feel deserve to be brought to the light and recognized and honored. If it goes well, we can expand the collection to include other names and other products.

Neal: We wanted to make sure that we grounded ourselves somewhat in reality; if these schools existed, what would be the cornerstone of their educational system? So [for example] Garvey Industrial Institute. So we focused on the technology of industry, the building of factories, etc. Ida B. Wells was one of the writers who started writing about the lynchings in the South in the height of it, when it was going down. [Someone going to that fictional school] could be someone who maybe wants to be involved in politics, bringing important subjects to light regardless of what kind of adversity they’re [facing] at the moment. So we didn’t want to pick names out of a hat because these names are cool. These are the ‘schools of thought.’ These are the ideas of importance, and here are some people that represent these ideas.

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Keene: The timing of this project feels really important given the current state of affairs for black people, particularly in America. How intentional was that, and what are your thoughts about the images of this line, juxtaposed against images of what’s happening in America right now?

Pugh: Philadelphia Printworks has been doing this for 4 or 5 years and it’s interesting to see how the climate of the world affects the things we do. Specifically now, it’s very important that we have these positive images and think of ways we can manifest the future we’d like to see.

Neal: I hope this collection and this effort can bridge the gap between people who started with the same fire that [the youth] have now. It would be great to have youth adopt these names into their way of thinking and draw a comparison between what they’re going through now in their fight and what was going on in the times of the folks that appear on these sweatshirts.

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Pugh: Historically, the younger people are where the revolution comes from, but we can’t lose what we learned in the previous generations. It’s the idea of Sankofa – going back and trying to apply what we’ve learned from the past. With the concept of this collection, we were able to take past revolutionaries and apply it in a very futuristic way.

Neal: This is very Afrofuturistic. We are imagining our future, planting the seed for a manifestation of a bright future.

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Keene: The “A Different World” [late 80s and early 90s NBC sitcom about a fictional HBCU called Hillman College] connection is seamless. How did the idea to make that visual connection come about?

Pugh: “A Different World,” [the films] “School Daze,” “Higher Learning,” they all talked about really important topics, that unfortunately we’re still experiencing now. And I’ve seen the younger generation reach out to these shows [and films] that we grew up on and use them as a conduit, so it made sense for us to also tie our collection into it.

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Neal: For a lot of black folks, that alternate universe in which these characters existed, there was hope in this show. Being young and impressionable, seeing that show I was just like “Wow. Here are these completely normal… They don’t fit like a stereotype. This black person is like this and this black person is like that, and they’re friends and they exist in the same [space].” Seeing that was really inspirational. The impact and the positive influence that show had on black folks, that was imagined. That was written by somebody. If someone can imagine that and make such a great impact and inspire black people, why can’t we at any point imagine a product, whether it’s a book, a movie, a piece of clothing, art… We can imagine things and create a space in the future in which these ideas can exist. Who knows? Maybe one day we might have a Tubman University.

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You can purchase items from the “School of the Thought” collection here.

Follow Philadelphia Printworks on Twitter, IG, and Tumblr: @philaprint

Follow Donte Neal of Mars Five on Twitter: @donteneal_

Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene is a Philadelphia-based writer and performer. She is a co-host of The Harvest, the largest open mic experience in Philadelphia. A proud graduate of The Lincoln University (PA), she is an ally and advocate fighting for the freedom of all people. Follow her on Twitter and IG: @rhythmkeene

Fashion, History

Rewind, 1970-1999: A (Bill) Blass from the Past

November 12, 2015

by Eric Darnell Pritchard (photo credit: Richard Avedon)

“Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.” – Bill Blass

“When in doubt wear red.” – Bill Blass

The proof is Lauren Hutton, photographed by the iconic Richard Avedon, wearing a gorgeous Bill Blass red handkerchief dress in georgette, a dress that is timeless, elegant, and indeed for any style ennui (that’s french for boredom!) we may be suffering now or ever.

This month, fashion wunderkind Chris Benz’s long awaited debut has creative director of legendary American fashion brand Bill Blass finally came true. And from the looks posted in stories in the fashion press, and the items currently available for purchase on the company’s site, Benz, did not disappoint. I’ve already eyed a piece I will be buying as a gift for a friend.

Blass, the son of a dressmaker mother and a salesman father, had been obsessed with style and designing his entire life. Indeed, the double-B logo for what would become his company emerged from sketches he had done from as early has his pre-teens. In 1970, after working in fashion since 1959 and eventually becoming the head designer of the fashion house Maurice Rentner, Blass purchased that brand and renamed it Bill Blass Limited, formally establishing a brand that would go on to great success for the next three decades until Blass’s retirement in 1999. Following his retirement, several designers were installed as the head of Bill Blass Limited and charged to keep the fashion brand’s legacy going starting with Steven Slowik (who was Blass’s choice to succeed him), Lars Nilsson,  Michael Vollbrecht, and finally Peter Som (a former assistant to Blass). Blass passed away from cancer on June 12, 2002, and  Som’s leadership would be the last big attempt at keeping Bill Blass Limited alive until, in October 2014, when it was announced that Benz would be the creative lead of a relaunch of Bill Blass, the latest chapter in a story of returns for a fashion house that once epitomized the ideal of American sportswear. This chapter, however, looks to be the perfect combination: Blass’ chic, attainable glamorous Americana aesthetic, and Benz’s irreverent, sophisticated, and whimsical approach to design.

With the roll out relaunching Bill Blass underway, it is both imperative and impossible not to take a brief, though glorious trip down memory lane with some of the best in the company’s history under its founder’s creative leadership.

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Blass in his element

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Blass also designed menswear his career, his own personal style is a glimpse at that part of his career.

 

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Get into the sofa pillow with the Bill Blass logo on the sofa. Blass had a fondness for interior decoration, and his impeccable taste was also evident in his Connecticut estate.

 

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Socialite, designer and Anderson Cooper’s mama, Gloria Vanderbilt, wearing a giraffe print Bill Blass tunic and pants in the 1970s

 

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A beautiful Bill Bass turtleneck dress, and also a beautiful model with the most glorious afro. I live!

 

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It’s time to play “Name that fashion decade …”

 

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Chris Benz at work for Bill Blass today. Good luck, Mr. Benz and so far, so good. We’ll be watching.

 

 

Beauty, Fashion, History, Pop Culture, WERK!

Rewind, 2008: Plus-Size Model Toccara Jones and Vogue Italia’s ‘All-Black Issue’

November 5, 2015

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

“I wanted to say something about weight, and I’m never allowed to do that,” said legendary fashion photographer Steven Meisel, as quoted in a June 2008 story by New York Times by fashion critic Cathy Horyn. “I met Toccara and thought, she’s beautiful. What’s the deal with her? She’s great and she’s sexy.”

Meisel was speaking on photographing plus-size model Toccara Jones, for what is now remembers as an epic moment in recent fashion history. In August of 2008, Vogue Italia published a special issue of the magazine in which they only used Black models in its editorial pages. The magazine cover featured model Liya Kebede on a fold-out cover, with models Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn and iconic supermodel Naomi Campbell on three additional covers unfurling like an accordion from Kebede’s. In addition to Campbell, many other legendary Black models including Iman, Tyra Banks, and Veronica Webb were featured, alongside a number of emerging model talents of the time.

The issue, conceived by Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, featured over 100 pages of editorial content shot by Meisel. In press reports Sozzani stated that the inspiration for the issue was then Senator Barack Obama, with the internationally adored Michelle Obama with him, winning the Democratic Party nomination for President, but also, and Meisel conquered, the lack of diversity in fashion on the runway, in advertisements, editorial spreads and throughout the fashion industry.

While the focus of most press coverage on the issue was initially about the fact that the magazine would be using all Black models, and lots of speculation on what models would be featured in such an iconic issue, once information on what  much of the contents of the issue was previewed the clear stunner to shut down the entire issue was model Toccara Jones. Jones, a former contestant and fan-favorite on Tyra Banks’ popular reality competition show “America’s Next Top Model,” was photographed by Meisel in a sexy, luxurious, fantasy ride of an editorial in a fashion story in which the model is depicted wearing almost nothing but a variety of fur coats. The representational and historical significance of featuring Jones is that she was a plus-sized model, so while the media frenzy that the issue was featuring Black models was fully on, here comes Jones in the issue killin’ it for Black girls and curry girls everywhere. But don’t take my word for it, here is your trip down memory lane below, but first, a shout-out to Toccara Jones! YOU DID THAT!

 

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Beauty, Beauty, Fashion, Film, History, Music, Pop Culture, WERK!

A Moment of Grace: In Praise of Black Girl Arrogance

November 2, 2015

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

This Grace is sufficient. Maybe she inspired you to become more flexible so you, too, could bend and contort yourself into a scene of “Island Life.” Or, perhaps she hula-hooped you into a trance, moving the cylindrical toy around her waist as she, mic in hand, belted out one of her popular songs. It could very well be her legendary beauty – her fierceness piercing the still life of every photo she has taken, or her masterful, delicious storytelling in her recently released memoirs. In whatever incarnation you encountered Grace Jones, you, like me, are likely to have gotten your life, or multiple lives because Grace slays you and you are reborn. Grace is reincarnation.

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Grace Jones represents the very best of so many aesthetically sublime and delicious possibilities and realizations for global fashion and popular culture. In addition to her album covers, music videos, and fashion editorials, she is etched into our minds through so many other moments: her role of eccentric fashion model Strangé in the 1992 film “Boomerang”; any one of the many photos of her live performances in her decades long career, such as a 1987 performance where she collaborated with artist Keith Haring for her stage costume; and her memorable runway walks such as at the Summer 1988/89 Patrick Kelly show in Paris, where she walked the runway dressed in a black bathing suit and cape adorned with an applique of neon stars and planets, red tights, a bustle of individual scarves of various colors hanging from her waste, and a hat with a long white ponytail hanging out of the top. In each of these moments and so many more, the camera shutter opens and closes on her to fulfill the promise, play, and pulchritude of every single image she has created. Her visual and performance archive is always embodying and emboldening the radical potential of fashion, music, dance, performance art and photography for exploding the neat boundaries built around race, gender, sexuality, time, and space from one moment to the next. Grace is divine.

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The icon and iconography of Grace Jones emerges as a clear archive of Black girl arrogance in all its fashionable fierceness and intervention. Black girl arrogance refers to both a spirit and embodiment of intelligent, beautiful, desirable, fierce daring that Black girls and women represent – whether on the runway or in the streets, in the classroom or the boardroom, at the piano or behind the podium – that makes their presence known in a social, political, cultural context or milieu that would rather render them unknown. It is thus at times an organic way of being, and in other moments a chosen tactic, that is always and already for one’s self. Sometimes that arrogance is refusing the gaze and living one’s life, and still other times it demands of you, “see me.” The fact that anyone else gets to witness this divinity is, well, grace. And I return to Grace Jones here to give her the respect she so deserves, but also because it is through returning to Grace that I believe Black girl arrogance, in all of its complexities and genius, is re-membered for now and for what is to come.

For instance, Black girl arrogance has once again been made legible at the intersections of fashion and style with television, film, and music. We saw it just recently in Emmy-nominated actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox’s stunning photos in Allure Magazine, and in her many other moments including her picture on a 2014 cover of Time Magazine. We see it in Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o’s boundary breaking and trendsetting beauty and glamour, which has completely raised the bar for red carpets all over the globe. We see it in Solange Knowles’ epic wedding photo, which flooded our Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter timelines, and Instagram pages with panoramic shots of gorgeous Black women adorned in radiant ivory gowns, and effecting the etherealness of any dream we wish would come true. And where Solange leaves us dreaming, big sister Beyoncé made “I woke up like this” the mantra of every bold and brilliant person ready to declare that who I am and how I am is already “Flawless.” The 2015 “Black Girls Rock” award show that aired on BET and Centric offered numerous examples of Black girl arrogance as intervention in many of the speeches including those by singer Erykah Badu, educator Nadia Lopez, FLOTUS Michelle Obama, Dr. Helene Gayle, and actress Jada Pinkett Smith. What about Rihanna’s recent performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money” at the #iHeartRadio Awards? The performance included many elements of power moments from the archive of Black women international pop star performances, from Lil’ Kim’s green wig and furs in the video for her 90s hit “Crush On You” to Diana Ross’s epic exiting of the superbowl halftime show in a helicopter that descended on the stage to whisk her away (also reminiscent of Grace Jones’ Strangé’s epic arrival in “Boomerang” via helicopter, and then a chariot driven by men). Here Rihanna’s daring is part of a continuum in her performances of Black girl arrogance, including her homage to Josephine Baker on the occasion of the legendary performer’s birthday at the red carpet of the 2014 CFDA Awards, where Rihanna was clad in a transparent bosom bearing silver beaded gown and bejeweled headdress. For Black women performers and Black girl arrogance, the archive and the ancestry matters. Grace matters.

It is imperative to note the historical antecedents for Grace Jones – the eccentric freedom of Eartha Kitt, the elegance and sophistication of Lena Horne and Ruby Dee, and the beauty folk ways of Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson most come to mind. Another historical antecedent that demonstrates Black girl arrogance, and laid important roots for Grace Jones to later help define and then defy boundaries around Blackness and femininity, appears in the wonderful documentary Versailles ’73: An American Revolution. The documentary examines the legendary battle at Versailles fashion face-off between five American and five Parisian design houses, a tale examined in greater depth in the new book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan. Among the points made by several of the interviewees that appear in Versaille ‘73, including legendary fashion model and editor China Machado, fashion historian Barbara Summers, and fashion and beauty editor Mikki Taylor, was that the success of the American presentation at that show was the presence of Black models Norma Jean Darden, Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and so many others, whose walk of “affirmation” to quote Taylor, was what set the American show apart from the Parisian set.

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While Taylor’s observation about the impact of the Black models affirmative stance is in itself a rich one to engage, I look at that moment, at Grace, and the intersections of fashion and identity and submit that amongst the gems that Black models brought (and still bring) to the runway was something that is actually in excess of “affirmation”: Black girl arrogance. This Black girl arrogance, though embedded in the very movement and being-ness of the Black models at the ’73 show at Versailles is so missing from the runways of today’s fashion shows in the lack of racial ethnic diversity, as rightfully noted in the 2014 open letter of protest authored by Hardison, and models Iman and Naomi Campbell. A black girl arrogance that haunts us when we remember the days of fashion past, and are reminded of the disappeared characteristic of personality that was once an essential ingredient to the development of a signature walk and presence on the runways for any model, Black or otherwise.

I am convinced that whether or not uniqueness and personality were ever embraced, Grace Jones would still be who she was and is. What other way was there for her to be? Still, in the way that she pushes us beyond our comfort zones, and shows us what it means to create a path for one’s self through an ethos of having no fucks to give, the existence of Grace Jones and all she has meant is priceless. Here’s hoping the next era of fashion and popular culture will applaud and embrace these moments of productive defiance like the Black girl arrogance revival of which I write, on the runways, in ad campaigns, and at the head of design houses and fashion magazines. Clearly television has received the memo, as evident in shows headed by defiant, brilliant, Black women are at the top of the ratings and lording over the zeitgeist of popular culture, from Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope on “Scandal” and Gabrielle Union’s Mary Jane Paul on BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” to Viola Davis’s multilayered Professor Annalise Keating on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and most recently, leading the pack is Taraji P. Henson’s critically acclaimed and popularly adored Cookie Lyon on Fox’s juggernaut “Empire.” It is the very thing that seems to revive the very lifeblood of this global industry and persists in fashioning a future. No matter what, Grace Jones, her predecessors and descendants will carry on being their fierce self. They woke up like this.

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Beauty, Fashion, History, News, News, Pop Culture, Television, WERK!

Taraji P. Henson on ‘CR Fashion Book’; Channels Vintage Cicely Tyson

October 20, 2015

Empire star, the incredible Taraji P Henson was photographed au naturale in gorgeous cornrows, by legendary fashion photographer Bruce Weber for latest issue of the Carine Roitfeld’s magazine, CR Fashion Book. Generally, Henson is photographed and filmed wearing a wig or weave.This photo reminds me of vintage photos of another powerhouse Black actress, the incomparable Cicely Tyson. Tyson has said in interviews how personally imperative it was for her to be photographed with her natural hair and to wear it as such in particular roles back in the day.

Fashion, History

Happy Birthday, ALT! – October 16

October 19, 2015

Wishing the happiest of birthdays to fashion icon Andre Leon Talley! May you have the most glorious of birthdays and many, many more years of elegance to come. If you haven’t read ALT’s memoir, I highly recommend it and any of the books he’s curated in connections with exhibits he put together at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) with the “Little Black Dress” book being my favorite.