The power and politics of African-Americans' influence on style
New book How to Slay showcases the historical framework of African-American contributions to fashion, design and culture
Viola Davis festooned in diamonds rocking natural hair. Tracee Ellis Ross draped in a satin Marc Jacobs dress and turban. Angela Bassett wearing Naeem Khan's fringed chartreuse pantsuit with radiating stitching that stretched from shoulder to shoulder – a detail reminiscent of the traditional beaded neckpiece worn by Samburu women in Kenya. These design features aren't unusual on the contemporary red carpet, but they take on added dimension as movements push Hollywood and all industries for greater inclusion, diversity and representation.
To understand these political statements currently being made in fashion, it helps to be fluent in the visual lexicon. And the history of western fashion requires a history lesson in black style, both ancient and modern. For more than half a century, street style, icons such as fly-girls, West Indian reggae and the African diaspora have all been both explicit and offhand influences on designers from Romeo Gigli to Saint Laurent.
That's the story Constance White hopes to tell in her new book, How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style. "We should be more aware of the contributions in pop culture, in culture generally, and fashion in particular," says the journalist and former editor-in-chief of Essense. "I really wanted to create a documentation of what African-Americans contribute to the style landscape."
The book showcases the historical framework of African-American influence on fashion, design and culture, and surveys icons of black style across categories – such as the diva glam of Leontyne Price, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, and even Nicki Minaj's signature over-the-top look. "It's not just a silly flamboyant girl who just happened. It's from Trinidadian dance hall reggae and calypso culture. Fashion rarely just 'happens,' " White adds. "There are always reasons and threads you can pull together that explain it."
One of those threads, for example, comes from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. The post-war anti-Colonial movement in Asia was also gaining momentum at the same time. And it arguably had a tipping point of visibility in 1958, when Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of newly independent Ghana, wore kente cloth robes to visit Washington.
Subsequent to his visit, more African-Americans reclaimed their identity and adopted these textiles in both western and traditional garment styles. Dashikis, large hooped earrings, turbans and cowrie shell jewellery all became popular. White calls this the American expression and reclamation of heritage African styles (think the Ugandan-influenced style of young Maya Angelou) Afro-chic.
White considers the recent revival of this more expressive Black Pride style of the 1960s and 1970s – in Kevan Hall's vivid use of blocked cloth, Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. or now-defunct SUNO collection – one she says had been dormant until recently, a new Renaissance. "It has been interesting how much we've been doing the look-back," she says, though given the eerily parallel political climate, it's not surprising that this fashion era and its trends resonate. "Afrocentric fashion goes hand in hand with the robust Black Lives Matter movement protesting racial injustice," White suggests, before wondering, whether it's the internal awakening that takes place first, followed by the outward expression, or if the culturally loaded signifiers are the inspiration for awareness. "Style can be superficial, but it can also, undeniably, be an expression of significant social, cultural and economic realities," White says.
That includes not just South African Gwara Gwara dance moves in Rihanna's recent Grammys performance, but the shimmering, see-through gown she chose for the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards. White and other fashion observers interpreted the notorious outfit as a political act.
"I think the references are there," White says. "She is very savvy and deliberate."
And every one of the 230,000 rhinestones studding the Adam Selman slip dress was a tribute to Josephine Baker. "People know her name," White says of the Jazz Age performer and activist, "but I don't think a lot of people realize how broadly influential she was. One of the indications of that to me," she adds, "is that Baker actually created and sold a commercial brand of skin cream so that women could be as dark as she was!"
Similarly, Nina Simone "loudly and proudly" gave voice to black style with her natural hair, headwraps and elaborate earrings. She opened a space in the western world for all women with dark skin "or other features of African-ness" to be regarded as equally beautiful, desirable and influential. In that vein, White declares, "Lupita Nyong'o has greater significance than a man landing on the moon."
This month Nyong'o stars in Marvel's new Afrofuturist superhero epic Black Panther, and in one scene her character, Nakia, infiltrates a casino wearing a slinky modern evening gown in a pattern inspired by kente cloth. Thanks to its unique fusion of ancient and recent fashion heritage, Black Panther will likely have more of an influence on this moment in real-world style than any other superhero fantasy film.
To dress the movie's fictional African nation of Wakanda and its distinct tribes, for example, costume designer Ruth E. Carter explicitly references indigenous Maasai, Tuareg, Xhosa and Ndebele clothing traditions. The influences are visible throughout the film, from the Nsibidi neck rings on Forest Whitaker's shaman to the beaded tabards worn by female warriors.
To simultaneously mine historical and futuristic themes, "I set my sights on the African fashion designers that are very forward, but still using a lot of African patterns," Carter says. She cites Nigerian label Ikiré Jones (whose scarf is worn by Chadwick Boseman's ruler T'Challa in a scene at United Nations) and South Africa's MaXhosa knitwear, who both use the continent as inspiration.
"If you look through history of the black American you will see signs of their African past," says the long-time Spike Lee collaborator and Oscar-nominated costume designer of Amistad and Malcolm X. "It's not something that's necessarily infused by me to make a point – it is what it is."
When I tell Carter that the first glimpse of the Dora Milaje (Wakanda's elite, all-female special forces) in their elaborate armour and neck rings immediately brought to mind model Pat Evans, she's delighted. In the 1970s, the outspoken Evans wore her head shaved to draw attention to prejudice in the beauty industry and to reject Eurocentric beauty standards. "That's the callback that we wanted you to have! But if you were in the seventies and you were talking to Pat," Carter adds, "she'd say she was calling back to another time, its origin would probably be some ancient indigenous culture like the Ndebele. We can't really say it stops anywhere – it is an inspiration that we all draw from. And that's what makes it special."
Those fusion touches reflect the same way style was put together and worn in the 1960s black pride movement circa 1966 (the same year both the Black Panther Party and the movie's comic book superhero were first established). That visual grammar is not only the fashion vocabulary of the African diaspora or radical politics of the time. White argues, it's also now absorbed into mainstream fashion culture, be that in the B-girls and B-boys of Brooklyn and the South Bronx name-checking brands they wore, or the dramatic attitude and larger-than-life fashionable self-presentation of Grace Jones.
The clothing worn by queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) in Black Panther reflects the technologically advanced society, but it's rooted in both ancient and recent history: Her outfits include a regal circular shoulder mantle based on patterns of African lace, and a dramatic crown inspired by the Isicholo headdress traditionally worn by married Zulu women (famously, seen on singer Miriam Makeba). Both also bend reality with cutting-edge twists. They were built in collaboration with architect Julia Koerner using algorithms and 3-D printing technology. Unlike the other clothes meant to look as though they are centuries-old and crafted by human hands, these items are seamless and perfectly symmetrical, taking ancient and recent style trends into the current moment, and taking them into fashion's future.
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