Black Fashion Is Fashion History: Meet Three Women Preserving Style Innovators’ Stories
In many ways, preserving the true breadth of Black fashion history is a race against time. For too long, Black designers, models, agencies, innovators, muses, and trends have been sidelined and swept under the rug in favor of maintaining a skewed version of our shared sartorial record—one that relegates Black contributions to footnotes and asides. While recent exhibits like the Cooper Hewitt’s “Willi Smith: Street Couture” and Red Bull Arts’ “Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test” highlight Black fashion innovation both on and off the runway, there are infinitely more stories to be told.
Thankfully, there’s a growing crop of Black fashion historians who are dedicated to unearthing these stories before they’re gone. Hobbyists and academics alike, they’re sharing images, writing books, recording podcasts, and shining a long-overdue spotlight on unsung style stories around the world. Below, in their own words, three of these historians on the crucial work they do.
Teleica Kirkland is the founder, creative director, and principal researcher at the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora, a resource hub that houses information on costume and fashion history, textiles, and more.
I was playing mas for Carnival [an annual London event celebrating the British West Indian community], which made me want to know more about its history. There’s a bit written here about Notting Hill Carnival, but of course Notting Hill is not where it all started in terms of the Caribbean traditions. I wanted to find out about that, so I took myself off to the Caribbean. My dad lives in Jamaica. It was kind of two birds with one stone, seeing him and asking some questions.
I realized I needed to do some kind of postgraduate course to understand the depths of the questions I should be asking, because this is the thing: There isn’t a grounding within African diaspora knowledge on dress history. Quite frankly, we’ve been on survival mode for quite a few centuries, which means we’re just trying to stay alive, for God’s sake. Questions about how we’ve chosen to represent ourselves and why we’ve chosen to represent ourselves like that—we haven’t necessarily understood that they’re also a part of our own survival. Going into this course, I just wanted to talk about the theory of dress history so I could apply that to an African diaspora context. I don’t care what bloody crinoline you want to talk about. I don’t care about bloody corsets, a jerkin, or a jockstrap; I don’t want to know none of that. Give me the theory so that I can apply that to Black people.
In the beginning, I’d say “African diaspora” and people would give me lots of information about Africa, which is great because it’s always helpful to have that foundational context. However, I’m really talking about people who—and they may still be in Africa—have moved from one place to another and how they’ve used their dress as a way of determining their sense of self. There’s so much overlap between the Caribbean, South America, North America. These people are in Saint Lucia, then Louisiana, then they’re in—you know what I mean? There’s lots of moving around. So it’s not as cut-and-dry as I’d thought it was.
The institute shouldn’t be based anywhere because we’re everywhere. It makes sense for everything to be on the internet, where everyone can feed into it and bring information from wherever they are. That’s really what I want. Our logo has lots of dots with lines crossing to the dots. The dots are supposed to be the people and the places, with the lines connecting us—because I’m only one person.
Go ahead and Google: The Tignon Laws of 1786. The law was that Black and mixed-race women had to wrap their hair because they were “attracting white men” (the language, ugh…read between the lines), and white women petitioned the governor to do something about it. This law passed through the Americas into the French Caribbean, and it turned into a fashion statement, as Black women will rock a ting and then—French white women began wrapping their hair. These things roll around and come around once again.
Nichelle Gainer is a writer and producer and the author of Vintage Black Glamour and Vintage Black Glamour: Gentlemen’s Quarters, which stemmed from a Tumblr of the same name and features photography and stories highlighting Black legends and lesser-known figures of the 20th century.
I have this great coffee-table book somewhere about Elizabeth Taylor and her jewelry. That’s it. Every page is a picture of her and a different piece of her jewelry. They have any number of these books about white legends: Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. And yes, I want all of that, I have all of those books. But they don’t even have the standard Black legends like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. It’s like they weren’t there.
I was doing research on a novel—which is now a television pilot—in the Schomburg Center, and I came across a picture of this woman who looked so familiar. I called my cousin and said, “Margaret Tynes, isn’t she our aunt or our cousin or something?” And she said, “Yes! She’s our aunt, and she’s a retired opera singer.” The picture of her was a publicity shot; she was getting her hair done by Rose Morgan, who owned a popular Harlem beauty salon in the ’40s and ’50s. I was surprised because this woman was a millionaire business owner, Lena Horne’s a client, Ethel Waters is the one who put her on…why can’t I find a basic obituary of her? This is a freaking travesty. [Editor’s note: Gainer eventually wrote an obituary for Morgan as part of The New York Times’ Overlooked No More series.*]
I had a book proposal called A Diva in the Family about my aunt Margaret, and people were saying, “We’re not sure that a book about your aunt would sell.” We’re talking about my aunt who had a 50-year career in opera. She sang with Duke Ellington. She was on The Ed Sullivan Show twice, traveling abroad with him for a special show featuring American performers in Russia. She performed with Luchino Visconti. You’re telling me that nobody would be interested in that?
On Tumblr, I blinked and I had 25,000 followers, then 100,000, then 250,000. Tumblr would feature the most popular blogs, and that’s when I started getting press attention for VBG. Social media has proven that lie wrong that I was told 15 years ago, that there’s no audience out there for this content. My publisher actually approached me on Twitter. They were interested initially in the music angle because I had posted pictures of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan. I told them I would love to do a book on that, but VBG is all of these people. It’s some of these Black women you’ve never heard of—actors, writers, whatever. And they were like, “Okay, whatever you want to put in there.” I was lucky in that—I had creative control. I had a bigger creative hand in it than I would have had I been accepted by all of the big publishers who turned me down.
Go ahead and Google: Ophelia DeVore. “Ophelia started out as a model, but then she owned a modeling agency. She was a lighter-skinned woman with an ambiguous look. When she signed with an agency, she didn’t tell them that she was Black. She thought they knew—until she overheard the agency tell someone that they didn’t take Black models. And she said, “Umm…you don’t?”
Taniqua Russ is a content creator and the host of Black Fashion History, a podcast that focuses on Black people’s contributions to the fashion industry across time periods.
I’ve been interested in fashion for as long as I can remember. I studied journalism and fashion, merchandising, and design as a minor. I was learning a lot about fashion and costume history but not a lot about African Americans or African people in the diaspora that made contributions to fashion.
When I moved to New York for graduate school, I was working as a sample assistant. I’d be asking people about their favorite Black designers or brands, and no one could name anybody—so I decided to start doing my own research. I was like, I’m going to do something that will share this information, tell people’s stories, and give somebody a place to look to if they’re interested in learning more about Black fashion history.
I get DMs about potential subjects, or it’s sparked by my own personal interests and what I’m reading at the time. Sometimes while researching, I’ll stumble across a line in a vintage Jet, maybe a designer or stylist’s name, and I’ll try to search for that person and not find anything else other than that one line. And I’m thinking to myself: There’s a whole history as it relates to fashion and design connected to this person, and that’s been lost in a sense. While they were living, their work wasn’t documented enough, and there hasn’t been anyone digging deep to research that information since.
One of my favorite episodes to date was the one with Ceci, the costume designer for Living Single, A Different World, and Sister, Sister. It was relatable to people who may not be interested in fashion history but love and relate to these shows and are really excited to learn where the idea of Whitley’s costumes came from. It was a complete fangirl moment for me in that. I also loved the episode I did with Cinque Brathwaite, the son of one of the original Grandassa models. He discussed the movement that his parents created, as well as the Grandassa Models and their contribution to Black fashion.
I don’t consider myself a fashion historian, just because the idea behind that word is that you went to school and got a degree or you’re working in museum studies or something like that. You can just call me an enthusiast.
Go ahead and Google: Jay Jaxon. Up until recently, he was known as a Black designer without much additional information connected to him. A woman by the name of Rachel Fenderson made him the subject of her master’s thesis and learned that there are things he’s done that weren’t even credited to him—which made for the gap in the history. If she hadn’t put that together, his work would have been lost. His work spanned decades.