The first bars of gospel singer Shirley Caesar’s 1983 hit “Jesus I Love Calling Your Name” are blasting from the cassette deck, and when Mom joins in, singing terribly out of tune, I know our dressing ritual has begun. Pretty soon, she’ll be calling out, telling me to wake up and start getting ready for church. My mother wasn’t an extremely devout Christian, but we usually attended church on Sundays. I always believed it was because she loved strutting into the sanctuary in her carefully curated ensembles—big-brimmed hats in bold colors, painstakingly selected stockings, pumps, and accessories that coordinated perfectly with her color-blocked sheath dress, tailored pantsuit, or black leather pencil skirt. I watched in awe as Mom adorned herself, clipping on earrings and selecting the perfect necklace as she strained her way through Caesar’s greatest hits.
Church has been a house of style for Black Americans for centuries. During slavery, plantation owners outfitted their bond women and men in weekday clothing made from drab, cheap fabrics such as osnaburg and denim; but on Sundays, the enslaved could dress themselves in clothes of their own choosing and often of their own making. Women wore dresses and headwraps in vibrant material purchased with the meager wages they had earned from doing side work on nearby plantations or selling vegetables grown in their own gardens. The community, dressed in its Sunday best, would pierce the early morning air with their hymns and patterned handclaps as they sashayed from the slave quarters to the church house.
This dignified Sunday morning parade is the foundation for most modern-day Black adornment rituals and fashion theater. Everything from the fashion-show fund-raisers of the early 20th century to Black models such as Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison dazzling on the runways of 1973’s Battle of Versailles fashion show and queer folks strutting and posing in today’s ballroom shows can be traced to those early church parades. Even now, the fight to reclaim our humanity plays out in the clothes we wear on our fleshy bodies. For more than a decade, I have studied the rituals that link my mother and me to previous generations of Black Americans, analyzing how Black women and nonbinary people across ages, occupations, and regions have turned trauma into both sartorial pleasure and innovative fashion.
Dress and the Black Power Generation
Style matters a great deal to Black families, which is one of the reasons style rituals begin in the home. Black children have been told for generations that everything from their faces to their underwear have to be clean and neat. Racist stereotypes that originated with the enslavement, rape, torture, and forced labor of Africans have long painted Black people as smelly and unkempt. Thus, Black parents were always committed to their children being presentable before the world: a sign that nothing was amiss in the household, that their children were loved and looked after. “My mother always wanted her children to look good, despite the fact that there were so many of us,” remembers 73-year-old retired teacher and school administrator Rosa Stephens. Stephens was one of nine children in her Sanford, Florida, family; though money was tight, her stylish mother always ensured that her children were clean and tidy when they left the house. Church became a place for young Rosa, who shared her mother’s penchant for accessorizing, to explore her own fashion proclivities. Some of her choices were wild, like the time she wore an oversize pilgrim-chic hat to church. “Nobody on earth would’ve worn that to church!” she says, laughing.
In Colleen Cooper’s rural Louisiana childhood home, thrifting was essential. Cooper, a human-resources manager now in her 60s, was raised by parents who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. “I didn’t wear pants when I was young,” Cooper recalls. Instead, her mother made clothes for Cooper and her siblings, buying a single dress or skirt pattern and then using it over and over again, making the same silhouette in different fabrics for each daughter. Cooper always cared a great deal about her appearance, and delighted in going with her mother to select fabrics that would make her garments stand out against the drab black-and-white color palette worn by most of her peers. As soon as she graduated from high school, though, Cooper traded in her parade of homemade dresses for the psychedelic style popular among city kids.
“I left the country and went straight to the city,” Cooper remembers. “I fell right into the style [in Houston].” She and her dormmates at the historically Black Texas Southern University would take trips to downtown Houston, where they’d marvel at local fashionistas who strolled down the street in colorful minidresses, midriff tops, and miniskirts. Back at her dorm, Cooper would put the sewing skills she learned from her mother to work. Her style continued to evolve as she entered the workforce—first as a telephone-company employee, then as a human-resources administrator—with red leather pants, cheetah-print dresses, and snakeskin shoes that became, and remain, her go-to statement pieces. “I kind of want to look a little glamorous,” she adds.
Many Black women of retirement age want to remain stylish, an impulse that society tacitly tells women to pack in before they reach middle age. Rosa Stephens decided to put some extra sauce in her style when she turned 50. “I was [a school] administrator, so I dressed conservatively, but when I turned 50, there was a shift. I wanted a more funky look.” Stephens, who describes her style as “so unusual,” adopted an unapologetic look when she moved to vibrant Detroit during the height of the Black Is Beautiful movement. Back then, she wore colorful geles and caftans purchased during a trip to West Africa in 1972. Stephens, who was old enough to remember the days when women couldn’t wear pants to classes at her college in Knoxville, Tennessee, followed through with her plan to dress funky. Now, at 73, her go-to pieces are a suit jacket with 100 different buttons, anything with a camouflage print (from palazzo pants to hats), and a snazzy, artfully ripped denim jacket. Even in Detroit, a city known for its ostentatious style, Stephens is stopped regularly on the street by people who yell out, “Miss, miss! That’s sharp!”
Though sales clerks have told Stephens that she still “has the body” to pull off looks popular among young people, she prefers to stay in her own lane. “I don’t want to compete with the younger people. No miniskirts for me. I’m too old for that.” But her style choices underscore that women can be stylish at any age, even if they have different ideas about modesty. Older women don’t lose the desire to carve out an identity, even as they face a different set of challenges including menopause, retirement, and not seeing fully fleshed-out pop culture images of middle-aged Black women. So they must create and recreate themselves in their own social spheres, in part as a way to announce, I’m still here!
Diane Rogers, 60, has also found postretirement liberation through fashion. Rogers worked as a uniformed officer for the Fort Wayne, Indiana, police department for more than 20 years. Each day, she squeezed herself into men’s uniform pants (it was difficult to come by quality police pants designed for women) that didn’t properly fit her “meaty and curvy” body, along with tight work shirts and Kevlar vests that smashed her large breasts. “It was suffocating to wear a police uniform every day,” Rogers, who retired in 2017, recalls. “The first thing I did when I got home [from work] was take the uniform off so I could breathe.” And by “breathe,” Rogers means being able to reconnect with herself—the her that is more than a worker, a civil servant, or an enforcer of laws.
Not getting to wear her clothes was soul-crushing for a woman who grew up improvising with any textiles she could get her hands on. “We couldn’t afford clothing, so I made my [own],” Rogers recalls. “I would take [the] fur off a fake-fur coat and add it to my outfit.” Just imagining herself draped in fur—the epitome of luxury for white women when Rogers was coming of age in the 1960s—was a transgressive act. She was claiming something for her poor, Black body—even if the fur was faux—that the mainstream fashion industry had declared wasn’t for her. Wearing a uniform every day made the ritual of getting dressed in her own clothes all the sweeter. When Rogers was able to step out on the town, she would show out in short skirts that showed her “thick, pretty” legs in the brightest neon colors she could find. She also refreshed her old sewing skills, converting patchwork jeans into full-length skirts that paired well with her favorite dressy boots.
From Black Power to Black Lives Matter
Many of the rituals and attitudes about dress that shaped the experiences of women born in the Black Power era hold true for folks of the hip hop generation. “Glamour presents an opportunity for Black femmes to come and play,” Atlanta-born artist Fatima Jamal tells me. She also acknowledges the thread connecting the rituals and experiences of Jamal and her peers with those of their Black Power–era parents: “My mama kept us fly.” For Jamal, it was all about jeans from Marithé et François Girbaud, the French designer label that found an unexpected American audience among urban Black teens in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Owning a pair of Girbauds meant one had the financial means to manifest their desire—or at least the ability to imagine a world in which they were the Girbauds’s dream clientele. When Jamal wore her Girbauds she felt “cool and popular…so, so, so fresh!”
The imperative for flyness instilled in her by her mother has guided Jamal her entire life. “My personal style is determined by what I consider three c’s: comfortable, ‘cunty’ [a term used in the Black queer community to mean extra femme and confident], and chic.” Jamal needs clothes that can transition from studio spaces to meetings to model shoots to tv and movie sets, so she usually reaches for a wrap dress, a garment popularized by designer Diane von Furstenberg. She loves the way a wrap dress complements her curvy frame and can be dressed up or down: “It makes me feel my most feminine.” After spending several years living in New York City, Jamal recently moved to Pittsburgh for an artist residency. With her new environment comes new concerns about safety, an issue that she and other Black trans women have to think about differently than cisgender women. “It’s like a different territory here. People are a little more closed-minded. [So] I’m just thinking about what’s going to get me to and from my destination safely,” she says. The typical statement t-shirt and funky jacket that she’d feel comfortable wearing on a night out in New York City, for instance, might draw too much attention in Pittsburgh, making her vulnerable to transphobic insults, harassment, and possible assault.
Tabitha, a 32-year-old artist and organizer originally from South Florida, considers their clothing not only as a form of self-expression but also as armor. They describe their sense of style as “androgynous,” in that it doesn’t necessarily adhere to masculine or feminine scripts of dress but instead moves back and forth between both, sometimes blending, sometimes privileging one over the other, but always disrupting. “My body type lends itself to stereotypical androgynous style,” Tabitha says of their lean, nearly 5’8” “straight” frame (language the fashion industry uses to describe bodies without curves) and closely shorn hair. While Tabitha loves seeing curvy and other body-typed, gender-fluid people disrupt the mainstream notion of what an androgynous body and androgynous fashion looks like, Tabitha also recognizes that having the so-called “ideal” form affords them the privilege of shopping in women’s, men’s, and children’s departments.
Tabitha uses color to disrupt both gendered and regional adornment rituals. “One of my favorite blazers is pink,” they say. “I wear white all year. I grew up in a warm place, so all [the] rules around color and fashion [in the North], we just never had. And I still don’t believe in them.” Even during winters in Ohio, where Tabitha moved after grad school, they are known to rock bright shades of yellow, pink, green, and teal, along with loafers and no overcoat. It’s a throwback to their days in South Florida, where Black teens styled out in boat shoes, polo shirts, pastels, and plaids—filtering the prep and yacht culture of the white and affluent through a Black streetwear aesthetic.
It’s that same hip hop–inflected influence that helped to birth the message t-shirts and hoodies and overall “non-respectable” attire typically associated with the church-based Black Freedom movement of the early 1960s. Tabitha is still particularly drawn to shirts with “extra-Black, extra-queer” sentiments such as “Black Thighs Matter” and “Black Sex Matters,” often showing up to work meetings in a “Listen to Black Women” shirt. Though they are weary of wearing shirts with the names of murdered Black people on them, Tabitha sees power in this very direct form of sartorial pronouncement, noting, “[The shirts] allow me to say things I want to say without having to actually say [them]. Your body becomes not a poster, but a reminder—and that has become part of my fashion.”
Many Black women of retirement age want to remain stylish, an impulse that society tacitly tells women to pack in before they reach middle age.
Black Fashion’s Future Past
Fashion rituals are a set of acts, an unwritten code of survival, that are passed down from generation to generation. That legacy can be expressed materially too, through the act of passing down designer watches and handbags, fur coats and stoles from one family member to another, as gifts or inheritances threading Black families together. While it may sound frivolous to some, it is anything but. In the era of segregation, in particular, when Black Americans were often denied home and auto loans, an expensive timepiece or a fur became a representation of their attempt at social enfranchisement, their symbol of the American dream. For many Black women, those passed-down pieces are essential to their style.
Kimberly Jenkins, a 38-year-old part-time lecturer at New York’s Parsons School of Design, is a fashion visionary who describes her style as “very intentional.” “The clothes I wear are very cognizant of sustainability,” she says. “I love finding things. I wear things that tell a story.” Jenkins, who was born in Detroit but raised in the affluent Dallas, Texas, suburb of Trophy Club, was often the only Black person in her town. “I had really low self-esteem. I didn’t know who I was because I couldn’t see myself. I thought I was ugly. I thought I was grotesque.” Through clothing, Jenkins created her own world in which Black girls got to be the star: She dressed as a John Galliano model for Halloween one year and hung on every word Naomi Campbell and André Leon Talley uttered about fashion as she rocked Versace sunglasses and Yves Saint Laurent lipstick. Jenkins goes on to say, “There is so much value and joy in the theater of dressing up—showing different elements of your identity and making it a composition, almost like a quilt.”
Because of her family’s class status, Jenkins had the means to explore haute couture in ways most Black girls don’t, but these days she only owns a few things that she purchased new. Today, her style is a hodgepodge of the various parts of the country she’s lived in—and the grunge and neosoul phases they inspired. Jenkins loves to wear clothes designed by her students, as well as garments that she has a personal connection to (like her favorite vintage white fur coat). Most everything in her closet is vintage or secondhand and she doesn’t own jeans, considering them “too casual” for the 1960s and ’70s silhouettes she favors. It’s no surprise that Jenkins is inspired by a time when women’s wear was much more dressy: As a child, Easter was her favorite holiday. She delighted in wearing the new dresses, stockings, and matching gloves her mother would buy her for church. Since her mother’s passing, Jenkins has become particularly attached to her mother’s jewelry, which was handed down to her. “I carry [her] with me, on my body,” she says.
Seattle-based artist and professor Bettina Judd uses clothes to engage in “intentional queer femininity” or “Black femmeness” inspired by conspicuously feminine archetypes like the “first lady” of the church (wife of the senior pastor). “She’s the first kind of feminine superstar” that many Black children see growing up, Judd notes. Yet she plays with this archetype, saying: “I’m clearly not a first lady, as a queer Black woman who is round-bodied and not looking to appear demure.” She very consciously disrupts the trope by wearing “all kinds of red lipstick, and cleavage, and crop tops [where] my big belly’s out.”
Judd, who was born in Baltimore and raised in Los Angeles, has been on a long journey to find the self-confidence she exudes today. “Growing up in low-cal, bleach-blond So-Cal, what was understood as beauty and femininity was not me. I struggled a lot to find my own sense of self in that.” And the fashion industry, whose pre-internet plus-size market offered few options and less affirmation than it does today, only exacerbated the issue. Judd recalls walking into Lane Bryant as a teen and seeing only matronly looking clothes: “I’ve been a chunky girl my whole life. I’m a 14-year-old kid and I wear a size 18, but I don’t want to look like I’m much older.” Much of the freedom Judd now feels as an adult came when she began embracing her identity as a Black lesbian. “In finding my way, I found that I enjoyed outrageous femininity.” These days Judd, who lives and teaches in Seattle, has taken to wearing vintage coats that once belonged to her grandmother and statement eyewear by Miu Miu and Dita, bringing her queer first-lady glam to the land of Columbia and Patagonia sportswear.
Black women and Black nonbinary people alike are constantly redefining and remixing what it means to be “glamorous.” In the mainstream fashion world, “glamour” is often associated with the lithe, milky-complexioned bodies of white women in 1950s films or those who ruled the runways in the “supermodel” era of the early ’90s. But as everything from Vintage Black Glamour to RuPaul—the drag “Supermodel of the World”—has shown, Black people have always been invested in our own notions of glamour, and that act—by extension of the ways in which we disrupt the normative—has always been queer—just as queer and as spectacular as those early church parades, which saw Black women and men disrupting the peculiar institution of slavery in their self-fashioned Sunday best.