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On Women’s Marches and Fashion – This is What Democracy Looks Like (Fashion Conscious: A Column)

March 9, 2017

by Dominique Michelle Davis

The recent Woman’s march and the ability of women to organize in a effort to protest misogyny and oppression inspired and saddened my heart to know that in 2016 as far as we’ve come we still haven’t overcame. What was inspiring was the fact that women were united and also embraced the support of males in acknowledging what has been a systemic issue in the United States and especially in the politically arena. The march was and is what democracy should reflect. Women, men, children, LGBTQ people, people of color, young and old all chanting in chorus for basic human rights and speaking truth to power.

How does this relate to fashion, pop culture and beauty? Because the beauty of life is that it comes in all forms, shapes, sizes, cultures and experiences. How we fashion our lives to cope with the struggle and challenges of reality may be only the most outer layer of us expressing ourselves, but who would want to be vulnerable and share more when the mere appearance presents a challenge and barrier toward forming a deeper connection? These are just my thoughts about the power of visual appearance and the symbolism it may represent for individual expression.

During the march a young lady was dressed in what upon first gaze was a bit odd and eccentric. Then it dawned on me, she was dressed as a Suffragist.I remember learning about this in history class, and I can acknowledge and site the names of leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and the Women’s Temperance movement with vague recollection, so I was moved to do some fact checking to jog my memory. The task of researching this bit of history also made me realize how easy it is to forget the suffering and struggle of the past when in present day it appears that equal rights is within reach. One of my favorite signs during the march stated “I still can’t believe that we still have to march for this.” That was my exact sentiment and it felt reassuring to be among a crowd who was just as dismayed and angry with the system who would vote for a reality star with no proven track record of what it takes to move a country toward a future that is accepting and embracing all life and experiences; or for that matter, how to build relationships with other countries to foster global and non-exploitative economic prosperity.

Women’s “dress codes” has evolved since the Temperance Movement. In fact, women’s dress in the 21st century is, as it was during the dress reform movements of the 19th century, a progressive movement in and of itself. Women’s garments were very restrictive in function and style and today, in America, we have the option to choose. Hopefully that will remain unchanged under this new administration. Laughing, but very serious.

Fashion, On the Street

Hat-titude : Our Favorite Fall Accessory

November 22, 2016

By Dominique Michelle Davis (photo credit above: Getty Images)

One accessory that I have always admired most is the woman or man who rocks a hat to complete an ensemble. In thinking about the fall trends for hats this Fall, this piece is giving a little history to the 2016-2017 fall winter hat trend we see on the runways and also on the streets. Brimmed hats: the Fedora, bucket hats, pork pie hats, and british boilers are a few of the hats forecasted for the Fall are officially everywhere.

The Fedora was popular as early as 1891 and was popularized by Sarah Bernhardt in the play titled Fedora where Ms. Bernhardt wore a brimmed hat as a cross dressing heroine. Fedora’s typically have a wider brim while small brimmed hats similar to the Fedora are called Trilbies. Guiseppe Borsalino established Borsalino a hat company in 1857 and is one company that became well known for the manufacturing of the Fedora.

Photo credit: Vogue.com

Photo credit: Vogue.com

Photo credit: Vogue.com

Photo credit: Vogue.com

The bucket hat was originally made from wool felt or tweed cloth and were traditionally worn by Irish farmers and fishermen as protection from the rain.

Photo credit: Style Dumonde

Photo credit: Style Dumonde

Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar

Photo credit: Harper’s Bazaar

And “Pork Pie” hats like those below were first worn by women in the 1830s.

Photo Credit: Hat and Headgear Love (Pinterest)

Photo Credit: Hat and Headgear Love (Pinterest)

Photo Credit: Hat and Headgear Love (Pinterest)

Photo Credit: Hat and Headgear Love (Pinterest)

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:

Photos of Life at Woodstock 1969 (1)

 

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

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.

 

 

Fashion, Interview

Interview with Christianah Ajanaku, founder of African Fashion Week-Chicago

November 6, 2015

By Dominique Michelle Davis ( photo credits: Law Agyei; [photo below only]: Dominique Michelle Davis)

Earlier this week we posted here my review of the 2015 African fashion Week-Chicago show that had the splendid theme “The Art of Fabric.” The following is an interview between I conducted with Christianah Ajanaku, the founder of African Fashion Week-Chicago. Our meeting took place at the Virgin Hotel located in downtown Chicago. Although we experienced minor distractions from childhood temper tantrums, we had a delightful discussion complimented with delicious food from Miss Ricky’s restaurant.

Dominique: This was my second year attending African Fashion Week – Chicago (AFW). Wow! Huge transition. How did you decide to produce and launch AFW?

Christianah: I’ve always had a love for fashion. It played a huge part in my roots growing up. I’ve always been in love with colors and fabric. There are African Fashion Weeks all over the country and the world and I thought it was time for Chicago to have something like that. We have so much talent in this city. I was waiting for somebody else to do it… I thought I would just be a volunteer to show up and help out, but I noticed there was a void and when no one did it… I just did it!

Dominique: So how did you get your team together?

Christianah: The first year I pretty much did everything on my own. I pretty much knew everyone that I worked with, but this second year I targeted people to choose from their strengths and finding people with the same passion that I have.

Dominique: How did you choose this year’s theme, “The Art of Fabric”?

Christianah: “The Art of Fabric” was the theme for Friday night’s event and kind of set the tone for the weekend to showcase fabric, where does fabric come from and how it is used.

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Dominique: I saw a variety of fabric in the garments for the collections. I think that was pulled off very well. What do you think makes AFW-Chicago unique?

Christianah: I think we incorporate music and art, which is different from other runway show. We had Nola Ade, amazing performer.

Dominique: Who was your favorite designer/collection for this year’s show?

Christianah: I don’t know if I can answer that. I truly loved them all.

Dominique: As I’m sitting here and listening to you speak. Something just struck me. You are a trailblazer. You’ve created something that does not, or has not existed in the city of Chicago. Have you stopped to take that in?

Christianah: No, not really, I just do it… because it needed to be done. I know that our shows are different, and that’s what I strive for, to create an experience.

Dominique: Now that African fabric has been embraced by mainstream, what are your thoughts about that?

Christianah: I think it’s exciting. That’s another reason why we chose the “The Art of Fabric” as the theme for this year’s event. Even though it’s mainstream, I want to educate people on where the fabric comes from and it’s more than just fun and [aesthetically pleasing], a lot of history goes into making these fabrics. So, I think that’s important for the audience to know and learn… I mean, everything is being called African fabric now, and its just not. People like Stella Jean have made African Fabric really popular. Beyonce and Rihanna wear a lot of her work.

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Dominique: Educate me. What is the difference between true African Fabric and something that just looks like African Fabric? How can a person not well versed tell the difference?

Christianah: Let me say, for example, there’s a fabric called Adire. I’m Nigerian, and this is a fabric from my culture. There’s so much history in this fabric and something that not a lot of people use now. There’s a new material called Ankara, it’s African and used a lot in Africa but actually originates from Switzerland. …We didn’t do a lot of marketing around the education piece. We missed an opportunity to provide that educational aspect as well.

Dominique: What has been your biggest challenge, and where do you see AFW going?

Christianah: The first year was gaining awareness. We didn’t know what to expect, which was our biggest concern. Once we knew that we could attract the crowd it was a challenge to continue to build and grow to make it bigger and better each year. It’s a lot of pressure, because I always want to do better than the previous year. I eventually would like to see this become a weeklong event. Next year will probably stay three days.

Dominique: One thing that I’ve noticed in Chicago is duplication of services and products. How do you stay focused on collaboration to minimize duplicating services and build your network?

Christianah: I’m really big on collaborating. I want to meet people. I feel like the purpose of AFW is beyond me, it’s to benefit other people. It’s not to bring shine to myself it’s to bring shine to the designers. I don’t believe in creating unnecessary competition. I don’t believe in competition, I don’t bring it into the things that I do. I believe in staying in my own lane.

Dominique: What advice would you give to designers, entrepreneurs, people trying to get into the field?

Christianah: There’s a lot of chaos that goes into [things], but I love the chaos, that’s why I do it. If you’re interested in doing something, especially if you’re creative…just do it! Do the research, do as much as the legwork you need to do and just do it.

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Dominique: My last question. How else are you involved in the community, or other civic work that you may be doing aside from AFW?

Christianah: Eventually, I’d like us to grow into an organization that gives back. We’re still trying to figure out the logistics of how we see AFW creating a space to give back. Right now, we’ve created an opportunity and space for people to show their work and network, but I’d like for us to continue to work on developing a platform to give back.

If you’re interested in following Christianah and AFW, please follow them on Twitter  @afwchicago or visit the website afwchicago.com.

 

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.

blackmodels-versailles

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.

gracejones-fashion

Fashion, History

Happy Birthday, Ms. Vreeland ! – September 29

October 19, 2015

Happy Birthday to one of my style idols, the late, great Diana Vreeland. The photographer Richard Avedon once said that the genius of Vreeland is that she created an entire career – the fashion editor. And as the legendary editor at Vogue Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar and the first curator of the Met Costume Institute, the fashion industry owes a major debt to Mrs. Vreeland!