Autumn 2011 (Volume 7, Issue 1) — stable url: http://​midwayreview​.uchicago​.edu​/a​/7​/1​/venkatesh

What Makes Fashion “Black”?

Shruthi Venkatesh

Shruthi Venkatesh is a third-year in the College studying Economics and Sociology.

Black dandyism is on the rise. Blogs like Street Etiquette target African-Americans, attempting to widen the cultural prototypes typically promoted to young black men and to “show people of African descent in a good light”.1 1. Caramanica, Jon. “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style.” Fashion & Style. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 1 Sept. 2011. Outfitter-boutiques like the Chicago-based Sir & Madame and Philadelphia’s Armstrong & Wilson, along with several other designers, have similar motives: These entrepreneurs strive to shape what it means to look “black,” and therefore to give the world a “different perception of the young black man”.1

Increasingly, fashion sections monitor and praise these revolutions in “black style.” For example, The New York Times Fashion section commented on revolutionizing brands, fits, colors, patterns, and so forth that characterize the way African-American people present themselves1. The article claims that this new era of “black fashion” re-invigorates traditional “black” ways of representing oneself by identifying with an earlier, pre-hip-hop aesthetic: it replaces baggy pants, shirts, and bling with ties, tweed, and cardigans.

At first glance, this sort of media coverage, along with the very concept of “black fashion” appears innocuous: we’re told that African-American fashion designers are creating looks intended for African-American people, and the media is only mirroring the trend in “black fashion.” But a quick glance at nearly any advertisement, from college pamphlets to clothing catalogs, reveals that race-specific marketing techniques are already widely prevalent; there is not so much a ‘mirroring’ process as there is one of fluid creation and appropriation between media and marketplace. “Black fashion,” as any racially targeted fashion line, uses style as a vehicle to celebrate the “source of dignity” in black heritage, and is then prima facie unproblematic. However, behind the concept of “black fashion” and its promotion lies a potentially dangerous essentialism, and a culture of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.

Traditionally, every fashion and style of clothing is marketed to a specific cultural, social, or ethnic demographic. Tightly fitted bodices and corsets were marketed for wealthy socialites in the past centuries; the 19th century metal-hoop skirt in particular was designed for the upper class women. Such practices remain at work today. For example, the preppy look is marketed to the wealthy (think Burberry) or those who would aspire to be among them (think J.Crew); affordable, bright prints and miniskirts are often marketed to young, working women (Ann Taylor); geometrical prints, unconventional stitching, and unusual fits are many times marketed to college students (Urban Outfitters). Yet, creating a line of clothing to fit a specific racial paradigm is problematic because it codifies and promotes an explicit outward difference between races. Fashion composing, by its very nature, the canvas of sociality thus functions to perpetuate inequality between the demographic it represents and those it rejects.

Hence, a promotion of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset: Fashion lines are created for a race and are inextricably connected to that particular group. Those who subscribe to a specific style are subsequently linked with the race, too, blurring the lines of individuality and differences within a given race. Those who buy from “black fashion” designers are inevitably associated with the African-American race; those who do not buy from these designers are not associated with this race. In this way, the creation of a “black fashion” line for African-Americans formalizes the idea that there are profound differences in the preferences and choices of individual black and white people.  It allows those who subscribe to the fashion to identify as ‘us’, neglected by the dominant social group, ‘them’, through style. The us-them dichotomy deepens as a result of fashion that markets itself and responds to only one group or the other. Tailoring to a racial group is therefore dangerous by representing only the specified race, it excludes Others and empowers the mindset that there are deep-seated, inherent differences between people of the different races.

Certainly, pretending that there are no cultural differences between races is problematic. In his classic Black Skin, White Masks, for example, Fanon details how black men, when deprived of their own sense of racial identity, live a confused existence by abandoning their own culture and adopting that of the white man, perpetuating a white-centric society. Yet, racially-targeted fashion lines, recognizing disparities between races and cultures, neither celebrate these differences nor foster a sense of harmony amongst races, much less recognize those who the line declines to represent. In fact, such fashion lines facilitate the categorization of humans into marginalized and isolated groups. Hence, the idea of “black fashion” is just as dangerous as the notion of “white fashion,” or any other racially-designated labeling.

What’s unique about the former, though, is the enthusiasm with which it has been received. This so-called “expanse” of “black fashion” claims to distinguish itself from the “old-school” era of black style by employing “a return to the basics”: “great fabrics, aggressive tailoring, thoughtful accessorizing”.1 These qualities aren’t unique to clothing marketed specifically to a certain cultural or racial paradigm every good clothing line owns these qualities. There’s nothing particularly “black” or “white” about them. In fact, the only distinctive quality of these “black fashions” is that they seem to be almost exclusively modeled by African-American people (the foremost example being the blog Street Etiquette).

Fig. 1

Courtesy of F.E. Castleberry, photographer.

The accompanying image (fig. 1) depicts some of the problems around the concept of racially targeted fashion. Taken from the blog Street Etiquette, the picture is provocatively titled “Black Ivy”. The photograph has an old-school, retro-cool aesthetic: it shows a group of only black men wearing sharp vintage styles in front of a school perhaps an Ivy League university. Though subtle, the underlying themes of this picture are clear: this image is a challenge to the traditional notions of an Ivy League, wealthy, white, and well-dressed societal in-group. Via the fashions, projected economic status, and racial backgrounds of the people in it, the photograph implies a sort of exclusivity: only the people in this particular group are “cool”, in-style, noticeable.

Creating fashions solely to suit a “white” or “black” race recognizes and perpetuates the idea that there is, in fact, a noticeable difference between the races. The claim of new advances in “black fashion” is ultimately a paradoxical one: by attempting to return to a supposedly pre-hip-hop aesthetic, it promotes the very kinds of isolation signified by baggy pants and loud jewelry. In this way, a decidedly essentialist attitude underlies racially targeted fashion lines such as those under the self-affirmed “black fashion,” as they facilitate customers to divide the world into “us” and “them” groups, infiltrating a market to questions of race and individuality.

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