Name five Black designers. Name five Black politicians.
Name five white designers. Name five white politicians.
Was your response time different?
Growing up Black, I have always been surrounded by and at the center of dialogue on cultural expression and political power. I have distinct memories of refusing to wear socks and sandals at age five and dressing up as Barack Obama in a beautiful navy suit and crisp red tie for “Hero Day” in the second grade. The conversation between my style identity as a Black person and my political identity as a Black person have not always come into contact. But these identities have consistently been in conversation, as they both have an indelible impact on America’s broader sociopolitical context.
However, just as I knew from a young age that wearing socks and sandals was (is) fundamentally wrong, I began to notice an unpleasant theme between the realms of fashion and politics. I recognized quickly that the “je ne sais quo” that Blackness has brought to fashion, from the effortless suave of the Harlem Renaissance to the bombastic sexuality of Lil Kim, means that you cannot have Blackness without fashion and vice versa. Similarly, the curious dichotomy of Blackness and whiteness has been a definitive part of America’s political development, from the writing of the Constitution and the headache of the Three-Fifths Compromise to Trump’s defunding of anti-racist and critical race theory trainings for federal agencies on Sept. 5, 2020.
Different politicians from all positions on the political landscape have made successful rallying cries about the social position of Black people in America such as Bill Clinton, who won 72% of the Black vote on Super Tuesday in 1992. And several individuals within the fashion industry have taken from Black aesthetics or attempted to cater to Black tastes, such as specific instances of Patricia Field’s styling on “Sex and the City” and the ‘90s love affair apparent in Billie Eilish’s oversized and baggy looks.
Yet, it is repeatedly made clear that at the center of both America’s political infatuation with Black voters and fashion’s reliance on the élan of past Black fashion moments that neither the political nor the fashion domain revere Blackness as much as they cash in (sometimes literally) on it. Bill Clinton proudly stood at the forefront of the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, both of which ravaged the Black community disproportionately. Additionally, fashion writers and thinkers have refused to acknowledge the influence of Black Hip-Hoppers and Tomboy Black ‘90s R&B singers that are the architects of Billie Eilish’s look.
I saw, and I see, that there have always been external influences and intersections between Blackness and the worlds of fashion and politics, but that simultaneously, there is very minimal genuine internal respect and commitment to Black people within both arenas.
The Necessity and Complexity of Black Political Power
If the political brawn of Black Americans was not so historic, then perhaps unfulfilled political whisperings to Black people would be less bellicose. In his book “The Two Reconstructions” Professor Richard Vallely, a political science professor at Swarthmore College, estimated that in 1867 alone the number of Black people eligible to vote went from 0.5% to 80.5%. It’s also extremely relevant to note that the previous percentages are only representative of men, as of the 4 million Black people freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, only 1 million of them were truly eligible to vote at the time.
Southern democratic opposition and fear of the Black male vote were so stringent that by 1892, the number of eligible Black voters dropped by 62% on average, according to a 2001 study by sociologists Kent Redding and David James. Sparing the rest of a long and intense history lesson, these statistics and miniature reflection on Black voting power prove the historical force of the Black vote.
The Black vote’s significance is not only necessary to highlight in relation to those who feared it, but equally importantly in relation to those who recognized they could benefit from it: members of white political opposition to anti-Black politics. So, the push to re-disenfranchise Black voters by Southern Democrats was twofold. Not only did the Southern Democrats have a genuine desire to be racist, but they also came to the realization that Republicans would capitalize off of an enfranchised Black population (even if the Republicans were racist, too). And thus, we usher in the historical arms race to grab the Black vote and do what is most strategic with it before the other side can, a conflict that has characterized Black Americans’ relationship with the two-party system for 200 years.
The Black vote has long been forced into a political game of capture and kill. There is just as much a necessary pause to consider between policies labeled as “for Black people” as policies clearly coded to be “anti-Black.” Is this a sincere concern for reversing the conditions of Blackness that America created? Is this direct anti-Blackness? Or is it all of the above?
Unfortunately, America’s political track record indicates the latter as correct. The 200 years of hot potato with the Black vote have led to seemingly insignificant strides for Black people, as we are still actively hunted by the police and other Americans, we have only had one Black president and still have yet to re-achieve the amount of legislative representation from Reconstruction.
LBD: Laborious Black Dilemma
The entanglement of Blackness with fashion threads a similar tale to that of Black political power. The ratio between Black cultural influence and buying power to Black representation in fashion is grossly asymmetrical.
CNBC reports that Black buying power in 2019 was $1.9 trillion (higher than Mexico’s entire gross domestic product) and that it’s only expected to grow. Additionally, Black buying power has been outpacing that of white power since 2000. CNBC noted that between 2000 and 2018, white buying power only rose 89% in comparison to Black buying power’s rise of 114%. In a 2019 report on the buying habits of Black Americans, data firm Nielsen Holdings found that Black shoppers are “spending upwards of $500 on handbags and costume jewelry at a higher rate than the total population,” and that Black Americans are the most likely demographic to report shopping at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.
If fashion is nothing else, it’s economic. So why haven’t the above numbers translated into an active appreciation and support of the Black community by the fashion industry and its insiders? There are less than a handful of Black editors-in-chief at major publications. There are little to no Black C-suite executives at fashion’s largest companies and conglomerates. And as of 2018, only 15 of the 495 members of the CFDA were Black.
As we all know, fashion is a repeat offender in the areas of Black cultural appropriation and unadulterated racism. We all saw Marc Jacobs’ spring 2017 show where a cabine of mainly white models appeared in rainbow dreadlocks, and more recently in 2019, with Gucci’s infamous blackface sweater. And, really, I could create a laundry list of fashion’s brutalization of Blackness going all the way back to enslaved Africans being stripped of their clothing and up to the exposure of Zimmermann and Athropologie’s racist retail policies just three months ago in June.
However, the disrespect of Black people’s imprint on fashion’s landscape is probably of the utmost importance of the items on said proverbial laundry list. It is intellectually and historically dishonest for fashion as an industry and a concept that has continued to lean on the shoulders of Black expression to feign ignorance when the calls come to acknowledge the saturated presence of Blackness in style and culture.
Consider the impact of Josephine Baker’s luxe costumes on the stylings of today’s female musical stars of all colors. Or how the zoot-suited men of Harlem share a line of style with P. Diddy who, in turn, inspired male trends from the 2000s to the present. Even something as seemingly simple and universal as a nameplate, which Carrie Bradshaw famously dismissed as “ghetto gold,” holds countless molecules of Black significance that mainstream culture carelessly re-invents as new or rips away from its Black roots.
Teen Vogue’s current Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner hit the nail on the head in 2018 when she described the intersection between Blackness and fashion as “Everywhere and Nowhere.”
The Cyclops Self-Destructs
What is it, then, about Blackness that invites this theme of flippancy to taint its interaction with both politics and fashion? If you’ve read this far and you think the issue is with Blackness, go back to the top and start over.
The answer is that in the arenas of both fashion and politics, Blackness is so concurrently priceless and plentiful that it has been routinely mishandled by those outside of its origins to the point of seeming to lose its value. However, this truth is both unfortunate and a gift for Black people. It is wretched in that the significance of Blackness’s sociopolitical context has been abused by whiteness. But it is a gift in that it sets up Black people to reclaim power in both fashion and politics.
Maya Angelou’s always apt quote of “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” is just as applicable to politics and fashion as it is to people. Fashion and politics have proven more than once who they are to Black people, giving us the upper hand in making informed decisions about our interactions within these spaces.
So, it’s time to believe them and vote, buy and dress for causes that respect the sanctity of Blackness and see it as more than a means to an end. It’s clear that Black people control the voting booths and portions of the fashion industry; accordingly, there are no consequences for Blackness if the cyclops of fashion and politics collapses itself before it recognizes our control.
Coulture’s mission statement says that we aim to be a magazine for people of all shapes and sizes, for those who speak up and stand out. We recognize that it is important to hear from people with personal views, strong perspectives, and something to say. This article is part of Coulture’s “What I’m Voting For” initiative where members write about the issues they care about in the 2020 election.
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- ‘Black Brought in Cool’: A Conversation with Fashion for All Co-Founder Ali Richmond - July 7, 2020