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An Illustrative Identity Of Fashion And Style Throughout African-American History And Movements

Fashion, throughout history, has created an illustrative identity within African-American history. Fashion is a statement and speaks volumes with little to no words. Within the black community, everything from cloth to churches to the forming of political movements (The Black Panther Party) and hair has elements of style. Today, the significance of “hashtag politics” and the viral capability for an image to instantly reach millions as well as the social impact of political pieces like the “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts create a whole new dynamic in the social and fashion space.

Men's Cheetah Sprinting - Variant Two Print Long Sleeve T-Shirt“Sunday was the morning where the slave or the sharecropper was transformed into a saint. They went from being a servant to a deacon. By naming each other as brother and sister, and by putting on their finest attire, black folks both affirmed their own humanity, and imparted respect to one another. They did all of this, with style.”

Fashion within the African-American community permeates from the cloth and pattern design. Kente cloth began to garner the attention of African-Americans in 1958. Ghana’s first president, President Kwame Nkrumah, visited Washington D.C. wearing Kente, fueling inspiration for African-American people. According to Stitched With History: African Textile and Fashion, photos of President Nkrumah adorned newspapers and magazines, helping to establish the African cloth as a symbol of African heritage and pride.

Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah lectures US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958.

This was further publicized and popularized in the 1960’s through black nationalists and their supporters. Celebrity figures with large African-American followings, like Muhammad Ali, also further popularized Kente cloth. In a visit to Ghana in 1964, then Heavyweight Champion of the World, Muhammad Ali wore Kente cloth throughout most of his visit and press stops.

Muhammad Ali in Kente cloth with Ghanian President Kwame Nkrumah.

Kente cloth has since been inserted as a form of pride throughout many African American holidays and celebrations, like Kwanzaa, as well as groups, like the Black Panther Party.

Members of the Black Panther Party.

Founded on October 15, 1966, the Black Panther Party’s purpose was to patrol black neighborhoods and communities from the constant threat of police brutality. As the movement grew, it construction logos for shirts became associated with black pride and fighting for causes of social and economic inequality. The Black Panther Party formed social programs for the betterment of the black community. This included mobile health clinics in black neighborhoods and breakfast programs for children. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Founders of the Black Panther Party, developed a uniform for members to adorn: a powder blue shirt, black leather jacket, black plants, black shoes, black beret, and optional black gloves. The black beret was inspiration for Newton and Seale after watching a movie about the French resistance to Nazis in WWII. In Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity, Jeffery Ogbar explained that Newton and Seale felt that this was a strong display of their militancy but also a proud expression of their “blackness.” The uniform allowed the Black Panthers to stand out wherever they went and arguably physically illustrated the seriousness of their revolutionary ideas.

Black Panther Party uniform. Photo by Stephen Shames.

The Kente cloth was originally represented throughout the Black Panther Party, but during the 1960’s, with it’s increasing popularity and thus commodification and representation in various fashion magazines, it became forbidden to wear. The Black Panther Party did not want their movement commercialized. Dr. Treva Lindsey, who specializes in black feminist theory, women’s history, and popular culture studies at Ohio State University explained its importance, “People don’t actually have to think about it (Blackness) when we disassociate it from black bodies and black experiences, it’s an act of dispossession.”

The fashion statements of the Black Panthers further inspired other revolutionary movements in America, including the Chicano Brown Berets, whose brown berets were inspired by the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party was influential in other radical movements as well, including the American Indian Movement and the Red Guard, whom all like the Panthers, were demanding employment, fair housing, better education, and protection from corrupt police.

“Blackness is very commodifiable. Black cultural production is so useful to folks, just not on black people or when created by black people. You see it in high fashion; you see it in music. You can see the ‘tribal’ moment that happened in fashion, the ‘ethnic’ patterns, yet the runways still look how they have always looked in terms of race and body.”

“There were over one million tweets using the hashtag #Ferguson before CNN began any coverage of Ferguson. Young folks are now using technology to be able to cover information on the ground that actually drives mainstream corporate media to these instances.”

Trayvon Martin. 17 year old black male killed on February 26, 2012 by George Zimmerman.

“Ah yes,” Dr. Lindsey contemplates, “The age of Trayvon – people mark that as the moment things changed and activism, in the 21st Century, became more active.”

“I grew up and I saw it every day. Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the kids’ minds across the nation and it starts here.”

Your clothing is the first thing that individuals see. One can speak volumes without words simply by donning an accessory. A specific piece of clothing can become representative for an entire movement. An item of clothing can spark revolution within other crusades. In the age of technology, an image holds so much more weight and has the ability to be viewed by millions via going “viral” in a shorter period of time than ever construction logos for shirts before. Throughout history and today, we see how style and clothing is important and critical when fashioning a movement within the African-American community and its supporters.

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