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Fashion in American Popular Culture

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Fashion history books have largely ignored African-American contributions to fashion. With the exception of the “Black is Beautiful” movement, the presence of the African does not show up in any of the fashion history timelines or textbooks this writer has observed. No textbook captures the fact that the production of Negro cloth (the coarse fabric enslaved Africans were sentenced to wear), provided a portion of the foundation upon which the textile industry was built.

Southern plantations needed to produce large amounts of cloth to provide clothing for their slaves. If the truth be told, it was enslaved Africans who worked the fields, got them ready for planting, did the actual planting, spent long days dragging twelve foot sacks of picked cotton, and had the cotton weighed before it could go to the gin yard. Additionally, it took ten hours (or more) to remove the seeds from one pound by hand before the invention of the cotton gin.

Of course, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin changed the social and economic conditions because it automated the separation of cottonseed from the short-staple cotton fiber. This invention allowed for one hand to clean hundreds of pounds of cotton per day. These facts are widely known, however, as Joe William Trotter Jr. states in his essay in the Magazine of History: “industrialization was considered a peculiarly European or Western innovation that owed little to the rest of the world and especially to blacks in the New World.”

Recent scholarship on the social life of things with emphasis on the cultural appropriation of consumer objects encourages us to take a closer look at culture. Of particular importance is the role of arts and the everyday activities in life that provide value and meaning for a group within a society. The notion is that by gazing more directly at other cultures while retaining core components of one’s own culture and assessing how different cultures are represented, we learn more about ourselves and our place on the planet. More significantly, we become conscious of the politics that exist in daily life.

In a 2006 opinion piece found in the New York Times titled “A Poverty of Mind,” author Orlando Patterson depicts a culture in which some African-American men are disconnected from the American mainstream because of their membership in a “cool pose” subculture that celebrates conspicuous consumption, sexual conquest, and violence. The notion of a “cool pose” suggests that African-American men, in particular, exist as objects of display in a world that exercises its authority over them through an oppressive gaze. In Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson explain, “Being cool enhances the black man’s pride and character, helps him cope with conflict and anxiety, and paves an avenue for expressiveness...[it] furnishes the black male with a sense of control, inner strength, balance, stability, confidence, and security.”

The “cool pose” has been around for a long time. Majors and Billson explain, “Being cool has played an important role in the historical, social and cultural development of Black people. Coolness was central to the culture of many ancient African civilizations.” However, African-American men took the lead in adopting this posture once they arrived on American soil. “In the slavery period of the old South and later in the harder-to-read North the black male learned through almost daily experience that, somehow, he had been assigned a restricted role. He learned to play that role with a finesse and artistry that became part of his culture,” Majors and Billson state. The pose allowed for him to gain a better understanding of himself, to tackle some important and productive questions regarding his place in America, and finally to start toward a journey of appreciation for his role in society.

While the twentieth century is rife with examples of how the “cool pose” played a role in the way African Americans began to think and live in the world, it’s important to note that many have been influenced by the cultural expressions from this group. Fashions have been appropriated from black Hollywood starlets. Others have imitated the African-American tradition of “Sunday best” while Africa, with all its unique textures and colors, has been rediscovered. The 1960’s and the influence African Americans had on popular culture and, in particular, dress has been written about in great detail. However, there are two other periods of the century that deserve to be explored for deeper meaning and noted for their contributions to aesthetic politics because like the 1960’s these two periods introduce dress as a means of defiance.

One example is the story of the zoot suit, which offers a revealing look at African-American culture, its impact on U.S. culture, and its relation to the idea of a "cool pose." According to a 1943 article in the New York Times, the first zoot suit was made for and purchased by a busboy, Clyde Duncan, from a tailor’s shop in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1940. There are several accounts about the origins of the zoot suit ranging from the Duke of Windsor to Harlem night life and jazz culture to George Washington and finally to Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, which supposedly served as the inspiration for Duncan’s design. “But as is usually the case with black culture," Shane and Graham White argue, "the search for a genealogy for any particular cultural practice is less important and interesting than is the discovery of the uses ordinary African Americans were able to make of that practice, wherever its origins may have been.” Once Duncan’s suit was made, the tailor, who was astonished by his own creation, took a picture and sent it to Men's Apparel Reporter, where the photo and an accompanying story were printed in its February 1941 issue.

The zoot suit was described as something worn in an extravagant and exaggerated fashion. The 1943 Times article further stated that the components of a zoot suit included the “V-knot tie, the zoot chain, the shirt collar, the tight ‘stuff cuff, the wide, flat hat and the Dutch-type shoes,” all of which confirmed this notion of exaggeration. These big, bold, and baggy suits, with their high wasted pants cinched in at the ankle and their "killer diller" draped jackets, became popular in Mississippi, New Orleans, Alabama, and Harlem. The look was adopted by jazz musicians of the time, popularized by young Filipino and Mexican-American males, and later Malcolm X in his days as Detroit Red donned one.

According to Malcolm X, the first thing he did in his suit was take “three of those twenty-five cent sepia-toned, while-you-wait pictures of [himself], posed the way ‘hipsters’ wearing their zoots would ‘cool it’ – hat dangled, knees drawn together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor” because he knew that the “long coat and swinging chain and the Punjab pants were much more dramatic if you stood that way.” Thus, the zoot suit represented a culture that belonged to people of color in the United States and became part of a larger zoot culture that included jazz music, dance, and jive talk. The cool pose was in full effect. Robin Kelly states in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black American Working Class, “the language and culture of zoot suiters represented a subversive refusal to be subservient. Young black males created a fast-paced, improvisational language which sharply contrasted with the passive stereotype of the stuttering, tongue-tied Sambo; in a world where whites commonly addressed them as 'boy,' zoot suiters made a fetish of calling each other 'man.'"

In some cities, whites rioted against African-American and Mexican-American zooters and tore offending clothing from its wearers' backs. But zooters fought back and defended their bodies, strut, jazz dancing, and the freedom to express themselves visually. Because there was a war going on, the War Productions Board began to ration fabric and forbade the sale and manufacture of zoot suits. Wearing the zoot suit was considered an unpatriotic act. Time magazine published a letter from a young soldier expressing his resentment with the zooters: "To a soldier who has been taken from his home and put in the Army, the sight of young loafers of any race, color, creed, religion or color of hair loafing around in ridiculous clothes that cost $75 to $85 per suit is enough to make them see red. You know they are loafers because no business house would allow them to work in such fantastic outfits. If the Mexicans and Negroes and all the rest of the zoot-suit fraternity want to avoid trouble, there is a very simple way. Just get out of a zoot suit and into a uniform or a pair of overalls."

With Harlem operating as the center of production, bootleg tailors continued to produce the offending suits. Shane and Graham White state, "From colonial times, there had been whites in New York who were fascinated by black life and had mixed freely with blacks, but during World War Two this interest reached new heights. The elements of zoot culture – the dancing, the music, the language, and the clothing – appealed to the young among this group, who, even after the April 1942 regulations had made the suits illegal, continued to buy them from bootleg tailors. The desire to obtain a zoot suit was only one of the reasons why young whites continued to trek uptown to Harlem. They came, also to dance, to be part of the scene."

For African-American young men, the zoot suit culture represented a way of asserting uniqueness by challenging authority. Its construction was deliberate, as a means of self-expression to provide distinction from the dominant culture. It doesn’t matter that the respectable black middle class had issues with the zooters. And it especially didn’t matter that whites had a great deal of disdain for the extravagance and excessiveness of the zooters culture. What mattered was that these young men were able to express their individuality – the emergence of self.

Later the cool pose was represented by hip hop culture. It’s no secret that hip hop, as both a musical genre and a defined lifestyle, has gained recognition and popularity around the world. It began in the 1970’s when young DJ’s brought turntables to Bronx block parties and played two records of the same song which they manipulated to extend the middle instrumental or "break." During the break in songs, break-boys, better known as b-boys, would dance, which created the style of dancing known as break dancing.

One of the early pioneers, former gang member-turned-DJ Africa Bambaataa, teamed up with a young graffiti artist named Fab 5 Freddy. Soon after, Bambaataa formed the Zulu Nation and categorized what he calls the "four elements" of hip-hop: DJing, Breaking, Graf Artists (which stood for graffiti artists who would become a part of the culture by leaving their tags all over NYC), and MC’ing (which evolved from party shouts). Commercial success arrived in 1979 with the release of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

With “Rapper’s Delight” still riding the charts, in 1980 Kurtis Blow released his second single, “The Breaks,” which became hip-hop’s first gold single. Fab 5 Freddy was the co-creator of Wild Style, Hollywood's first foray into hip-hop culture. The full-length film brings into account all four elements in hip hop culture and begins a small rapsploitation period in film. He also co-produced the soundtrack.

It is important to note that the growth of hip hop occurred during the 1980’s with the rise of right-wing governments in most of the major world economies. Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. both had tough fiscal policies. They condensed government social programs, increased defense spending, and reduced taxation for the wealthy. Many groups felt the impact of these policies, none more than African-American males.

The mood of the decade was also one of compulsiveness about work, relationships, and getting ahead. Middle-class American consumers were spending large amounts of money on clothing and accessories, presenting images of pride and accomplishment. African Americans also conformed to this ideal of American life. However, hip hop culture and rap music deconstructed and challenged some of the ideas that had been artificially constructed by presenting a culture that was in sharp contrast. The culture evolved from DJ’ing to MC’ing to what the music industry called rap music with, according to Newsweek’s Andrew Curry, “politically forthright rappers…with their challenging lyrics about inequality and police brutality.”

In a quest for truth, rap artists decided not to over-romanticize their lyrics about the times, but instead as the genre grew, rapped about African-American everyday realities that were also experienced by their audience. By the time Public Enemy released their second album, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with its use of politically, incendiary rhymes, rap music skyrocketed toward the forefront of popular music. With their lyrics, these artists took social action, which can be characterized as a way of approaching the problems of the time. In this sense, they provided the public with music that didn’t necessarily give tangible answers to social problems but remained open to interpretation.

Rap artists illuminate with their music the tragic waste involved in any form of marginalization and exclusion. What they uncover is this: identity construction is about racial distinction, which means that differences between races define, categorize, and organize identities and power structures on a cultural level. In the case of African-American identity, it is now defined in ways as numerous as the subjects, with some labeling their blackness as one aspect among many, others deciding that cultural differences and identity are needed because to ignore it is to erase history, and finally for still others it is just about being an individual.

What the African-American rap artists suggest with their music is that the process of thinking about what black looks like begins by gaining knowledge of one’s own culture and history. Any issues of culture that form a lasting impression are forms of identity that emanate from and express the core of an individual’s personal and social being. The ability to get at (or to) this core is absolutely necessary. The zoot suiters uncovered this, and so did the early rap artists. If these artists had not come into contact with the notion of understanding and expressing themselves and their culture through rap music, the discourse for them all would have become a homogeneous creation. Thus any aspect of cultural distinctiveness would have been surrendered.

Since music is one factor that affects the development of fashion trends, it was just a matter of time before the fashion industry recognized the style of clothing being worn by the hip hop culture. Guy Trebay wrote in the New York Times, “almost from the first, the influence of hip-hop street style made itself known in fashion as merchandisers like Tommy Hilfiger built empires catering to the new ‘urban’ market.” The foundation of the hip hop look is functional, simple, comfortable, and baggy. This style of clothing was meant to relate to the consumers who were buying the music. As Trebay puts it, “the sartorial style of the period – the 80’s – ran to felt Kangols, dollar-sign belt buckles, Jordache jeans and suede Pumas with their fat laces left undone. Gold was flaunted in the form of finger-thick 'dookie roll' necklaces, door-knocker earrings, knuckles-duster rings and removable dental caps.”

By the nineties, the label Cross Colours represented an early success in the fashion industry. Founded by two African-American men, T.J. Walker and Carl Jones. According to Michel Marriot's article in the New York Times, “the name originated with its designers’ desire to see an end to the gang wars between the Crips and the Bloods in Los Angeles.” The line was produced in a South Central Los Angeles warehouse and featured clothing with politically correct messages. Soon after, other lines such as FUBU, Enyce, Phat Farm, Maurice Malone, and later Sean John were launched.

Sadly each innovative idea that sprung up from hip hop culture was quickly dismissed as just a passing fad. However, as Guy Trebay argues, "when the book is finally written about style in the late 20th century, an era when it markedly trumped substance, historians will have to contend with a group whose contributions to visual culture have, to put it politely, generally been overlooked. The history of style in the late 20th century, in other words, is substantially the history of hip-hop, an urban music scene whose effects on the aural texture of contemporary life are more than matched by its influence on how, at a certain cultural moment, people around the world decided they wanted to be seen."

You simply can’t mention the word cool today without it evoking an image of President Obama. His historic win as the leader of the free world was helped in large part by a cool demeanor many thought was necessary for the times. In what can only be described as the perfect example of a "cool pose," President Obama seems so comfortable in his own skin, he has caused many to re-think the way African Americans and in particular Black men live in the world.

With his clothing choices, he has decided on a mode of dress that is nondescript by design to focus the viewer on his message. Since politicians and political events influence fashion, others will always follow. The logo obsessed society we currently live in might be ready for a cleansing of its palate. In other words, it just may be time for simple, plain, well-made clothing – which allows the wearer (in this case a Black man) the opportunity to exude coolness without any of the aggressiveness and all the bells and whistles associated with the zoot suits and hip hop apparel.

The cool pose was and is just one aspect and a beginning, but the developmental process involves a continuous evolution of growth for African-American men. Essentially, one of the things the pose has provided for these males is a more comprehensive understanding of their cultural identity. With this understanding, these men have come to know that clothing can be worn not only to provide status, protection, modesty, and decoration, but also to make a political statement. Perhaps we can all be optimistic that the current and future historians will begin to document these facts and thus send a message to all that this population’s unique cultural background, history, personal experience, and social position has had an impact on our country’s sense of fashion.

May 2009

From guest contributor Gary Lampley

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