The revolving door of fashion trends often comes back around, and with the internet at our fingertips, the cycle only becomes increasingly apparent. Though conversations around iconic figures who have shaped fashion as we know it often highlight names such as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and Kate Moss, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the Black talent that stands behind a number of memorable fashion moments, and continues to influence the industry today.
Cultural references, or trends promoting empowerment in the face of oppression are evident when looking at the history of Black fashion and the many ways it has evolved over the years. However, once adopted by the masses, these styles are often separated from their origins without credit. With Black History Month fast approaching, the revolutionary figures behind the various aesthetics we embrace today deserve a moment of recognition. Luckily, with brands such as Ashro championing Afrocentric styles and trends rooted in Black fashion, you can still channel many of these looks today.
Jewelry is one style component which has always held significance in Black fashion, and an area where trends spearheaded by Black culture continue to propel forward (just look at the booming gold and blingy jewelry trends). Arm cuffs are an example of pieces which both serve as a beautiful statement piece, and are tied to an array of cultures, including that of Africa. Bold, extravagant cuffs were often depicted on the arms of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, African queens who ruled in Egypt thousands of years ago. In more recent years, Jamaican singer and model Grace Jones has been known to sport this style. When the star wasn’t donning a fierce, androgynous look during her reign, she was often seen drenched in jewelry akin to that of royalty: think jeweled choker necklaces and spiraled cuff bracelets.
Similarly, Black people are often left out of the conversation of major fashion movements as a whole. Take, for instance, the flashy and sexually liberating dress of the “flapper girl” during the 1920s. Slip dresses and garments almost entirely embellished in crystals and sequins continue to soar in popularity today, and this is in part thanks to American-born French entertainer, Josephine Baker. The musician’s signature style included finger-waves, headdresses, and costumes with silk, feathered and jeweled finishes. Echoes of Baker’s influence still rings in contemporary fashion, with one example being Rihanna’s 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards attire—the infamous Swarovski crystal-encrusted “naked dress.” In true Baker fashion, the singer paired the gown with a matching bedazzled head wrap and fur scarf.
While a plethora of other fashion trends can be traced back to roots in the Black community, historic Black culture is undoubtedly to thank for more than a few points of inspiration in the realm of hair styling as well. While fashion brands such as Commes des Garçon and Marc Jacobs have sent lineups of mostly European models down the runway wearing headwraps and cornrow wigs, it’s important to look first to where such fashion originated.
Both wigs and head wraps began their historical journeys as prided cultural items in Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa respectively. These would later evolve into symbols of oppression. Once a symbol of rank, family lineage or marriage, wigs became an object of conformity for Black people in white-dominated spaces. Similarly, headwraps became symbols of enslavement as white slave masters forced captive African women to wear them. To understand the history of these hair accessories is to understand why they remain important to Black people, especially after they’ve been taken back and redefined in meaning. Wigs since became a form of creative expression with the help of trendsetters such as the popular ‘60s girl group, The Supremes. Similarly, Somali supermodel Iman is among the Black fashion pioneers who breathed new life into headwraps and what they mean for its wearer.
Looking around at the fashion industry today, the influence of Black culture cannot be denied — from the repurposing of African patterns, to the globalization of streetwear, to the popularization of braids, headwraps and durags. While it’s true that not much in fashion is revolutionary any longer, and is instead a part of an inevitable cycle of trends of fashion’s past, that stands as no excuse for the intentional erasure of Black contribution. Behind much of the fashion embraced by the masses today is a story of how the stylistic choice was once frowned upon by the majority. Behind these stories are the trend-bearers — the Black purveyors of fashion.