Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender · Performance & Arts · Political · Whiteness & racism

arts & spirits of cloth

Black StyleBlack Style by Carol Tulloch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered this online and I wasn’t expecting the content to be so great (fashion books can be so much marshmallow). My only complaint is that it’s such a slim volume, though its lack of heft did make it easier to read in bed of an evening. A fabulously illustrated visual celebration and a multi-stranded academic text, it will stay on my shelves as a treasure, and it’s so beautiful it makes me wish for a coffee table

John Picton’s long piece ‘What to Wear in West Africa: Textile Design, Dress and Self-Representation’ kicks off the collection of essays, providing insight into the roots of the diaspora black styles that the other essays explore. It’s a descriptive piece like the words you find on museum walls, with joyous loving depth. Love of and appreciation for cloth, whether for the skill and artistry of the maker reflected in it, its beauty or shininess, or its expression of some message or meaning is a key tenet, and thus also is ‘maximum use of the cloth’. Picton notes that large, loose garments look elegant in movement. He notes that beloved and admired garments may require constant attention and adjustment, and I gathered that this attention is a way of taking pleasure in the clothes. In conclusion, he offers an evocative quotation from an Anlo weaver

the cloth must flow well… they want it to feel smooth and soft… good cloth moves with the person, it catches the sunlight… it makes people feel proud of our past

Susan Kaiser, Leslie Rabine, Carol Hall and Karyl Ketchum have contributed an utterly wonderful essay on African American style to this book: Beyond Binaries: Respecting the Improvisation in Black Style. They speak of the concept of respect and its relation to style, and of style as resistance, as expressing ideas of beauty different from the white supremacist hegemony, as carrying an aesthetic memory even from Africa, where creative, often eclectic combination communicates the wearer’s intelligence and artfulness to draw respect. (Such values, I note, inherently celebrate diversity and exchange of ideas.) African traders who wore Western clothes in innovative ways according to their long tradition of absorbing and reflecting new influences in their personal style were mistakenly seen as attempting to copy whites. Slave traders usually took people’s clothes from them and they were separated from members of their community so that they would lose their languages and cultures, so a distinctive, collectively improvised culture drawing on a mix of West African traditions, including aesthetics and dress developed. European styles were remixed to create ‘an aesthetic of resistance’ which has had and continues to exist in countless manifestations. In a context of ongoing struggle against anti-blackness, it’s not just what is worn, but how it’s worn, that styles the body and commands respect…

The theme of improvisation is developed by Carolyn Cooper in her essay Dancehall Dress: Competing Codes of Decency in Jamaica. She posits glamourous, erotic ‘dancehall style’ as a fairytale transformation of the body/image, emphasising the artfulness of clothes, engineered hair styles and make up. While aspects of dancehall style reflect the influence of investment in white supremacist patriarchy, Cooper draws attention to the insufficiency of this as the basis for explanation (for example, long blond hair maybe styled high and extravagantly accessorized) – the style belongs to its wearers who thoughtfully, skilfully and artistically create it, drawing on African values of creativity, originality, dramatic (as in theatrical) effect and feminine (curvy) beauty or sex appeal. I reflected that this contrasts with the conformist and materialist values of white fashion, such as appropriateness (appearing to belong) tastefulness (restraint and respectability) luxury (economic status) and emulation (following the ‘leaders’ eg celebrities and designers).

Carol Tulloch’s final brief essay on Black British style touches on a spread of topics – style contexts, style aspects, style statements, style diversity – people dressed in gorgeous Nigerian garments, all rich colours and textured embellishment, women with nails so long and so fabulously painted they couldn’t possibly be expected to do any manual labour, carnival revellers in cropped joggers and bikini tops, young girls in delicately finished lace skirts, fashion without borders, style without limits.

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