Tracing Trends through History

In Dr. Fords article rebutting the New York Times piece on fashionable professors, she writes that her true frustration with the article wasn’t primarily because of the exclusion of people of color, “It was because the spread ignored the battles related to dress and adornment that African Americans have endured, both inside and outside of the academy.” She notes the ‘politics of adornment’ that were employed during the Civil Rights Movement, when black protestors were instructed to dress as if they were going to church. This thinking was motivated with the intention of swaying white media consumers into viewing these racist atrocities for what they really were, emphasized by the fact that the children protesting were dressed, more or less, like their own children. During our discussion with Dr. Ford today the subject of hair came up repeatedly. Hair and fashion are undoubtedly intertwined, particularly when tracing fashion trends through the lens of African American history. Fashion is a playground for politics.

Since graduating high school, I have watched many of my friends document their journey back to natural hair via Facebook. Photos of mirror selfies are accompanied by lengthy statuses detailing how through this process they have rediscovered their natural beauty and reclaimed their ancestry.

Picture 34 (courtesy of Dini)

I ran into one of these friends whose natural hair journey I had been following over social media (pictured above) and was shocked to see her big, beautiful, curly hair hanging straight and relaxed at her shoulders.

“What happened?” I asked.

“For my internship,” she told me, shrugging nonchalantly.

Our society continues to view ‘looking black’ and ‘looking professional’ as opposing each other, while ‘looking professional’ seems interchangeable with ‘looking white’.

The NYT editors ignored this narrative of American fashion that is entrenched in histories of racial oppression and brutality. Instead, the fashions selected serve as a sartorial shorthand for a politics of adornment within the “ivory tower,” which bolsters notions of white privilege and high-class refinement. Not only is this a dated image of the academy, it is one that effaces the reality that, everyday, faculty of color use fashion (along with their teaching, research, and social justice activism) to challenge discrimination and prejudice within the academy and beyond.”

Dr. Ford discussed Soul Style with us, and how this fashion movement, led by afros, became intensely politicized and eventually commercialized to the point of trendiness. Today, natural hair and African prints are re-emerging in fashion, and yet, while going natural can garner Instagram likes, it still keeps people from being viewed ‘professionally’, particularly in the workplace. Or, at least, impedes people from thinking they will look ‘professional’ enough to be respected and taken seriously, which is equally harmful. How long before mainstream representations can go beyond the trendiness of these politically rich narratives, and begin to view them synonymously with respectability and professionalism?


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