Preserving the true scale of black fashion history in many ways is a race against time. For too long, black designers, models, agencies, innovators, muses, and trends have been sidelined and swept under the rug in favor of maintaining a biased version of our shared dress record – one that relegates black contributions to the ratings of bottom of page and sides. While recent exhibitions like “Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test” by Red Bull Arts and “Willi Smith: Street Couture” by Cooper Hewitt highlight black fashion innovation on and off the catwalks, there is infinitely more stories to tell.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of black fashion historians who are dedicated to unearthing these stories before they disappear. Amateurs and academics alike, they share pictures, write books, record podcasts, and have long shone the spotlight on style stories little known around the world. Below, three of these historians explained in their own words the crucial work they do.
Teleica Kirkland is the Founder, Creative Director, and Principal Investigator of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora, a resource center that contains information on the history of costume and fashion, textiles, and more.
I was playing at the Mas for Carnival [an annual event in London celebrating the British West Indian community], which made me want to learn more about its history. There is a bit of writing here about the Notting Hill Carnival, but of course Notting Hill is not where it all began in terms of Caribbean traditions. I wanted to know more, so I flew to the Caribbean. My father lives in Jamaica. It was a kind of two birds with a stone, seeing it and asking a few questions.
I realized that I had to take some sort of postgraduate course to understand the depth of the questions I should be asking, because this is the thing: there is no foundation in the African diaspora’s knowledge about l sartorial history. Frankly, for several centuries we’ve been in survival mode, which means we’re just trying to stay alive, for god’s sake. Questions about how we chose to represent ourselves and why we chose to represent ourselves like this – we haven’t necessarily understood that these are also part of our own survival. I just wanted to talk about the theory of sartorial history so that I can apply it to an African diaspora context. I don’t care about the bloody crinoline you want to talk about. I don’t care about bloody corsets, a jerkin or a jockstrap; I don’t want to know any of this. Give me the theory so I can apply it to black people.
At first I would say ‘African diaspora’ and people would give me a lot of information about Africa, which is great because it always helps to have that basic background. However, I’m really talking about the people who – and they may still be in Africa – moved from one place to another and how they used their dress to determine their identity. There is so much overlap between the Caribbean, South America, and North America. These people are in St. Lucia, then in Louisiana, and then they are – you know what I mean? There is a lot of travel and it’s not so easy as I thought it would be.
The institute should not be based anywhere because we are everywhere. It makes sense that everything is on the Internet, where everyone bring information wherever they are and can feed. This is what I really want. Our logo has lots of dots with intersecting lines at the dots. The dots are meant to be people and places, with the lines connecting us – because I’m just one person.
Nichelle Gainer is a writer and producer and author of Vintage Black Glamor and Vintage Black Glamor: Gentlemen’s Quarters, which stem from a Tumblr of the same name and feature photographs and stories highlighting black legends and the 20th century lesser-known figures.
I have this great coffee table book somewhere on Elizabeth Taylor and her jewelry. That’s all. Each page is a photo of her and a different piece of her jewelry. They have a number of these white legends books: Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. And yes, I want it all, I have all these books. But they don’t even have standard black legends like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. It’s as if they weren’t there.
I was researching a novel – which is now a TV pilot – at the Schomburg Center, and I came across a photo of this woman that seemed so familiar to me. I called my cousin and asked, “Margaret Tynes, isn’t she our aunt or cousin or something?” And she said, “Yes! She’s our aunt, and a retired opera singer. I was surprised because this woman was a business owner millionaire, Lena Horne is a client, Ethel Waters is the one who put it on… why can’t I find a basic obituary of her? It’s a scary parody. [Editor’s note: Gainer finally writes an obituary for Morgan as part of the New York Times series Overlooked No More. *]
I had a proposal for a book called A Diva in the Family about my Aunt Margaret, and people were like, “We’re not sure a book about your aunt would sell.” She sang with Duke Ellington. She has appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice, traveling abroad with him for a special show featuring American artists in Russia. She played with Luchino Visconti. Are you telling me that no one would be interested in this?
On Tumblr I blinked and had 25,000, then 100,000, then 250,000 followers. Tumblr featured the most popular blogs, and then I started attracting press attention to VBG. Social media has proven this lie to be false, as I was told 15 years ago that there is no audience for this content. My editor actually contacted me on Twitter. They were first interested in the musical angle because I had posted pictures of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. I told them I would love to do a book on it, but VBG is all these people. These are some of those black women you’ve never heard of – actors, writers, whatever. And they’d say, “Okay, whatever you want to put in there.” I was lucky – I had creative control. I had a bigger creative hand than I would have had if I had been accepted by all the big publishers who turned me down.
Taniqua Russ is a content creator and Black Fashion History host, a podcast through the periods that focuses on the contributions of blacks to the fashion industry.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in fashion. As a minor, I studied journalism and fashion, merchandising and design. I learned a lot about fashion and costume history, but not a lot about the African Americans or Africans in the diaspora who contributed to fashion.
For my graduate studies, when I moved to New York, I was working as a sampling assistant. I was asking people questions about their favorite black designers or brands, and no one could name anyone. So I started doing my own research. I was like, I’m going to do something that will share this information, tell people’s stories, and give someone a place to look if they want to learn more about the history of black fashion.
I get DMs on potential topics, or it’s motivated by my own personal interests and what I’m reading at the time. And I’m like, there’s a whole fashion and design story tied to this person, and that’s been lost in a way. While they lived, their work was not sufficiently documented, and no one has dug deep to seek this information since.
One of my favorite episodes to date was the one with This, the costume designer for Living Single, A Different World and Sister, Sister. It was interesting for people who might not be interested in fashion history, but who love and identify with these shows and are really excited to hear where the idea for the costumes came from. Whitley. For me, it was a complete fangirl moment. I loved the episode I did with Cinque Brathwaite who is the son of one of Grandassa’s original models. He discussed the movement created by his parents, as well as Grandassa models and their contribution to black fashion.
I don’t consider myself to be a fashion historian, just because the idea behind that word is that you went to school and got a degree or work in museum studies or something like that. . You can just call me an enthusiast.