Formed in Oakland in 1966, the Black Panther Party (BPP) was known for its radical, communitycentered work aimed at liberating Black people from the institutional, psychological and physical violence of White supremacy. But the party didn’t just offer hope, pride and protection, it also revolutionized fashion and the broader Black counterculture for decades to come.
Panthers stepped out in now iconic establishment-defying uniforms of black leather jackets, black pants, powder blue shirts, black berets, dark sunglasses and Afros, and dared the world to tell them they weren’t the baddest mother (shut yo’ mouths) walking. Although the party’s mission was never about fashion, what the members wore held significance.
Their uniforms fostered organizational cohesion and pride. As for the berets, when asked about them, BPP cofounder Huey P. Newton said, “They were used by just about every struggler in the Third World. They’re sort of an international hat for the revolutionary.” In that meaningful attire, party members stood unbowed and unapologetic in the face of Eurocentric beauty standards and shouted that Black is beautiful.
Black children were taught that Blackness was and is melanin and magic, power and purpose, and that the Black Panthers’ uniform signified unity in a continuing struggle for freedom. The group’s aesthetic exuded effortless cool as well as a spirit of fearlessly living out loud.
Now, more than 50 years later, when we hear the words Black Panther Party, we can’t help but envision people in leather jackets, fists in the air, Afros reaching to the sky, swag on a million. The Panthers’ outfit was an unmistakable political statement; it came to represent the Black Power Movement and screamed Black Lives Matter long before that call for justice became a hashtag. Indeed, the style is still a potent shorthand for the Black liberation movement.
Witness the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, when Beyoncé, dressed in all black, was flanked by dancers in fros and black leather, topped with black berets. The sartorial nod was obvious as, during America’s most watched television event of the year, Queen Bey and her team raised fists in the air and put the sanctity of Black lives on prime time. Today, when we see this nonconforming uniform, we remember the Black Panthers’ revolutionary free breakfast program, which provided a blueprint for public schools.
We recall the alleged orchestrated FBI killing of chapter leader Fred Hampton and party member Mark Clark and the death of 17-year-old party treasurer Bobby Hutton at the hands of the Oakland Police Department. We marvel at the resilience, beauty and brilliance of women in the movement—including Afeni Shakur, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown and Ericka Huggins—and stand in awe of the Black solidarity on full display after the 1967 arrest of Newton.
Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr., who wrote and directed 2016’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, was only 15 when the group was founded. “They had a whole different look from what we’d seen before,” he recalled in an interview with The Guardian. The Panthers’ iconoclastic style has often been imitated, but their mission to liberate Black people has never truly been duplicated. But it’s time.