Four mannequins wearing fashion from the 1980s through 2000s.
Mannequins from the 2017 touring exhibit "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair," developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company. (Brian Gray/urbanbohemian)

Fashion expert reflects on how Black designers, models and musicians have influenced the way the world sees and wears clothing

VCU’s Holly Alford shares her insights on the history of Black fashion in the United States and how that impact can be seen today.

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The Black community has had a consistent and enduring influence on the fashion industry, but while some trends have been attributed to Black designers, often the origins are left largely uncredited. Hoop earrings, lettuce hems, acrylic nails and flapper dresses are only some of the diverse and sustained contributions that Black communities have made to fashion.

During Black History Month, Holly Alford, director of inclusion and equity for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, shared her insights on the history of Black fashion in the United States and how that impact can still be seen today. Alford has authored articles on Black culture’s influence on fashion and is the author of the seventh edition of “Who's Who in Fashion.” She has taught in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising since 1999 and serves as senior director of design in the School of the Arts.

A history of influence

Alford said the Black community’s influence on fashion in the U.S. can be traced as far back as slavery. When reflecting on the forced labor that enslaved people did, many think of cotton and other crops, but less frequently do they consider the work enslaved people did weaving fabrics and the managing the dyeing processes such as the use of indigo, which were large markets in Virginia, she said.

A woman wearing glasses, earrings and a necklace smiling
Holly Alford, director of inclusion and equity and senior director of design in the VCU School of the Arts. (School of the Arts)

“If I'm from Africa, I'm going to weave and make quilts from my culture,” Alford said. “And that has a huge influence on the textile market in the United States.”

More commonly understood is the widespread effect of the Harlem Renaissance on fashion in the 1920s, according to Alford. She noted that Vogue magazine was among the crucial tastemakers taking their cues from Black fashion trends at the time. Alford said one Vogue editor of the era said all the top designers were going to Harlem to knock off the stuff they found at the fashion shows held in the streets.

Flapper dresses and zoot suits are two of the most notable and influential clothes to originate in the Black community during the 1920s. Alford’s research publications include an article, “The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence,” which appeared in Fashion Theory. She said the zoot suit was a prime example of “how the black community also utilizes clothing as a way of making statements and a way to be seen.”

“Because clothing does make statements,” she said.

Alford said many Black designers from the 1920s into the 1960s are now recognized today for the work they did and its impact – though that recognition often eluded them at the time. For example, Alford pointed to Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, who went largely uncredited as the designer who created the Playboy bunny outfit, among other designs.

However, she said Black designers, such as Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, began to get a little more recognition starting in the 1960s. Lowe’s success fell in a long line of designers that dated back to Elizabeth Keckley, a well-known 19th-century designer who created Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses.  

The 1960s also brought the social movement of the Civil Rights Era, including the emergence of the Black Panthers. Alford said the Black Panthers influenced fashion with all-black and all-leather outfits, the dashiki and afros. This look not only influenced Black fashion, but high fashion as well, she said.

“As Black is beautiful becomes extremely popular, it transcends into fashion and into how people want to dress and how people want to look,” Alford said. “We really see that being evident, particularly in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s.” 

“I will never forget watching ‘The Brady Bunch’ one time and watching Mike Brady with an afro,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is funny.’”  

The Black community’s impact on luxury fashion

Alford said the Black community began to make its mark on the luxury market starting in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

One of the largest influences in fashion for persons of color was Ebony Magazine and The Ebony Fashion Fair Show, Alford said. The magazine and fashion show played a major role in how the Black community found out about luxury fashion and helped to inspire Black people to embrace luxury styles, she said.

While the magazine was geared toward a Black audience, it featured many non-Black designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Emilio Pucci. The magazine, also, made styles such as hoop earrings a fashion statement. Many of the Black models who were on the cover of magazines such as Ebony and Jet and featured in the fashion shows would model for prominent designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and grow in fame to a wider audience.

Alford said one memorable moment that put Black models on the main stage was an event called the Battle of Versailles, which took place in 1973. American and French designers competed against each other at the event, which featured major designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Black designer Stephen Burrows.

Many of the designers picked models who danced at Studio 54 to model at the event, and Alford said “many of them were Black models.”

The event included extravagant sets and singing but no catwalk. At the time, models would stand and pose in one spot during fashion shows. When the American designers arrived, they realized they had made the measurements for the sets in inches, not centimeters. Not knowing what to do, they decided to let the girls walk to show off the beauty of the clothes in movement. One of the models, Bethann Hardison, said the crowd loved it.

“She said the crowd went crazy. When they wore Stephen Burrows knit outfits, the fabric moved along the body, really showcasing the clothes,” Alford said. “Pat Cleveland [another of the American models there] stated, ‘We did the first vogue at the top of the stage.’”

The women were eventually recognized and honored for their contributions by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. However, even though it was Black women who walked the first runway and created the framework for modern shows, the fashion industry still excluded women of color.

“And this is why for years, you have Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell complaining about women of color not being on the runway,” Alford said. “How dare you not put anybody of color on the runway when we started the runway in the first place?”

One Black designer who changed the face of luxury fashion forever was Dapper Dan. Alford said Dapper Dan is cited with utilizing monogram print excessively, also known as logomania. This is where an item has the logo of a brand all over it.

A portrait of a man wearing large sunglasses, a cravat, and a dress shirt.
Dapper Dan during an interview in December 2019. (Wikipedia)

She said in the 1980s and ‘90s, Dapper Dan would place luxury logos or other brand symbols on fabric. He created a “sensation,” Alford said, and the style became widely popular with rappers.

Dapper Dan did not have the permission of the brands he used in the designs, and he was eventually raided in the late 1990s for using Louis Vuitton and Gucci logos without their permission. The person who led the raid of his Harlem studio was the attorney representing New York, Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, Alford said.

Alford said she remembers reading that Sotommayor looked at Dapper Dan’s clothing and said, “You need to be uptown because this stuff is good.’”

In 2017, Gucci made a jacket that looked similar to one Dapper Dan did in the ‘90’s. Gucci was called out on social media for stealing Dapper Dan’s idea, Alford said. After being called out, Gucci eventually reached out to Dapper Dan, who began making custom Gucci designs and now has his own Gucci store in Harlem. 

Rap and hip hop's influence

Alford said the Black community's largest influence on contemporary fashion arrived in the 1990s with the emergence of the hip hop era.

“There's no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Alford said.

Just as the punk movement had been widely influential starting in the mid-1970s, such as by popularizing Dr. Martens boots, she said, hip hop also had a far-reaching impact on fashion. Hip hop’s emphasis on dancing led to athletic wear and baggy clothing growing extremely popular. She said coming out of the 1980s no one wanted to wear tight pants. It was around this time Alford said a lot of kids, especially in New York, started buying their pants two and three sizes larger than their fit.

“It became an extremely popular movement which really just started because Black kids were like, ‘They’re too tight. The pants are too tight,’” she said.

These larger sizes were easy to dance and pop and lock in and eventually led to the popularity of sagging pants. Alford said people will often say sagging started in the prison system, but that’s not where the trend originated.

“Many give credit to the godfather of Urban Street wear, Karl Kani, who upped the waist sizes when creating his line,” Alford said. “Black men don’t like tight pants. If you bought a 34, it fit like a 36. This would be a staple in street wear brands.”

During her travels around the world, Alford has seen variations of this fashion choice, including observing cases of kids sewing their boxers to their pants so they don’t sag down too far. Originally Alford said the hip hop trend was to wear large T-shirts, which hid the sagging. However, eventually people wanted to show off their colorful boxers.

“What ends up happening is more and more of the community gets to a point where it's like, ‘I want people to know I'm sagging because I want people to know what I'm wearing’ because underwear becomes a fashion statement,” she said.

It became important to wear stylish underwear. She said men would often coordinate the color of their boxers with their outfits and when the boxer brief was invented it was a game changer.

In the ‘90s, Calvin Klein was on the verge of bankruptcy, Alford said. He would be the first to showcase what is now the boxer brief with his name on the waist band. Klein placed rapper Marky Mark – Mark Wahlberg – with supermodel Kate Moss in an ad with him sagging his pants with the brands name on the waist band. This caused many brands to have their names placed on their underwear including luxury brands.

By the 2000’s, the trend could be seen on the luxury runways. For example, fashion designer Thom Browne brought the fad to the runway with a collection of sagging highwater pants that models wore down the runway.

“Then you start seeing what happens when hip hop fashion starts to influence mainstream,” Alford said. “It was a fringe in fashion. It is no longer a fringe, especially in menswear.”

She attributes one of the reasons that it is no longer fringe to the influence of Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams and Jerry Lorenzo. All three went on to start their own brands or work for major fashion houses and all three at one point worked for Kanye West.

“Virgil Abloh just passed, but he was the creative director for Louis Vuitton Men. He brought that entire hip hop look to Louis Vuitton,” she said. “Matthew Williams is now the creative director for Givenchy. Jerry Lorenzo created the line Fear of God, which is an extremely popular menswear line right now that pays homage to Black baseball players.”

Alford said hip hop fashion designers who moved into luxury menswear have changed the face of what menswear looks like. Today, this can be seen in the popularity of more relaxed fit pants and hoodie sports coat combos.

Appropriation versus appreciation

In recent years, the debate has sharpened over the difference between appreciation and appropriation as it relates to Black culture and fashion.

Alford traveled the world widely from about 2007 to 2015. During that time, there was a resurgence of hip hop fashion in Japan, with men wearing afros and picks in their hair, she said. In 2007, Nissan ran an ad with Japanese people in a barber shop, some with dreads and one person getting their hair braided. The ad said, “The Black Experience is Everywhere.”

“Black Americans went off. That's not the Black experience, right? It's Black appropriation. It's not the experience,” Alford said. “You have no clue what it is to be Black.”

She received funding to go to Japan to explore trends there related to Black fashion and culture, including investigating where people were shopping, how they were getting their hair braided, and how they were even wearing makeup to darken their face. She went in with the question, “Is it cosplay or is it appropriation?”

In Takashima Dori, one of the fashion centers of Tokyo, she found stores for every substyle from Elegant Lolita Fashion to hip hop. In one of the back areas of Takashima Dori was a store called “Black Annie.” The store sold items that had to do with Black culture. They had Michael Jackson T-shirts, sneakers, Black television paraphernalia and African mementos.

When Alford asked why the shop was in the back of the street, she was told it was because Black culture was not accepted in many Japanese families, so kids sneak there.

“Their attitude was like, ‘This is what I love. I love hip hop culture. I love Black culture and Black style, so why not be a part of the culture?,’” Alford said.

She said there’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation and wanting to wear black style. For example, wearing sagging pants. “I’ve noticed that even golfers sag their pants while playing,” Alford said. She said the main point is while people love the styles and trends set by the Black community, there is no recognition of the culture’s pain and struggles or that it is Black style they are adopting.

“Another problem is when something you wear is popular, but you're not recognizing where historically it comes from and how it may or may not be culturally appropriate for one to wear,” Alford said.

While in Japan, someone approached her and said, “I love your Black style.” Alford said her husband was taken aback by the comment, and it took her a moment to digest it as well.

“I had to think about it and I said, ‘You know, at least they recognize it's Black style,’” Alford said. “How often in the United States do they go, ‘Oh yeah, that comes from the Black community, and I love wearing Black style.’

“There was a recognition in some countries of Black style, and that people wanted to wear the ‘Black style’ to pay homage to a cultural way of dressing that they wanted to wear and emulate (appreciation),” Alford said. “However, when you get to the United States and some European countries, persons of color find themselves screaming this is cultural appropriation, because there's no recognition culturally of where the design or print comes from or whether or not it’s culturally appropriate to wear.”

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