“and black people created style”: adornment as self-expression and rebellion

February 3, 2017

My most vivid memory of my maternal grandmother is set in her bedroom, in front of her vanity. I sat and watched her adorn herself in jewelry, putting decorative pieces in all four of her ear piercings. She told me to look through her jewelry box and pick out the pair I wanted to take for myself. Feeling overwhelmed and unworthy, I spent hours looking just to decide not to take any. I knew I couldn’t wear them like she could. Her style was aspirational to me, and I needed a proper rite of passage before just diving in headfirst. Since then, I took notes and studied the style habits of her and my great aunts. They didn’t dress like the women I saw on television, or in magazines or teaching my classes. But they dressed like every woman I had ever loved, adored or been even relatively familiar with. Unafraid of attention, they layered necklaces and stacked bracelets until the gold reflected off of the melanin in their skin.

I think of this moment now in terms of Zora Neale Hurston’s language describing black people’s “willingness to adorn” as “a centerpiece of an expression” in her piece, Characteristics of Negro Expression. And I consider how lucky we are–how lucky the world is–that black people have such willingness not only in language, as Hurston examined, but also in dress.

By Jaylin Paschal*, AFROPUNK contributor

“Perhaps his idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator,” Hurston explained. And this statement appeals to the notion of clothes operating beyond the functional use of covering one’s body appropriately for the occasion, to serving as an declaration of self. Now, there’s always been fashion, of course, for almost as long as there’s been clothes. But style, the idea of soulful satisfaction or individual expression through dress, has origins in the black community.

Since “Sunday’s Best” came about in the days of slavery, where nice outfits were reserved for church, black Americans have been styling from the church house (with large hats and delicate details) to the political landscape (with black berets and leather jackets). Clothes have been used by black people to send messages like “Look how much I’ll stunt, in the name of Jesus” and “By any means necessary,” suggesting that to the black community clothing is much more about message than it is about function.

This is why playwright George C. Wolfe was valid in his statement, “God created black people and black people created style.” The intention of communication and attention to detail regarding clothing is the key aspect which separates style from fashion. It’s buying jeans and jerseys three sizes too large, or balancing snapbacks on the side of your head, or taking a baseball cap and flipping it backwards, or looking at one chain and deciding to wear five. There’s a reason why all of your favorite aunties wear at least ten rings on each hand. Or why your uncle insists on pairing every suit he owns with a pair of gators. Or why Historically Black Colleges or Universities and neighborhood barbershops are considered style meccas. There is a “willingness to adorn” in the black community that is the bedrock of all we consider “style” to be today: individuality, communication, flavor, gumption.

And because blackness is so commodifiable, it was only natural that style would be something revered globally. It’s no longer about what clothes you wear, but how you wear them–a concept black people have understood since the beginning. Think about today’s universal style icons, like Rihanna or Solange, and the way they abandon traditional “fashion” norms in the name of artful expression. Black people have even created specific styling devices which laid the foundation of several mainstream and high fashion trends. “Door-knocker” earrings, cornrows, vibrant Beauty Supply Store-esque lipstick, durags and “baby hairs” have graced the runways and the pages of countless magazines. The “urban,” code word for “black,” style has dominated the fashion market for years. (Even though these trends by us aren’t always shown on us, or credited to us, for that matter.)

But while my grandmother and great aunts may never be in a fashion campaign, they will always be a true frame of reference for what it means to be stylish; to dress with conviction; to be willing to adorn.

*Jaylin Paschal is a journalism student and blogger who is passionate about politics and culture. Follow her blog at creativeliberationblog.com. Contact her at creativeliberationblog@gmail.com or through Twitter @creativelbrtn.