Mainstream fashion has long used Black style as a means of inspiration: Designers warp Black aesthetics, turning our spray-painted t-shirts, acrylic nails, hairstyles, and gold hoops into suddenly runway-worthy pieces. This repurposing reeks of cultural appropriation, defined by Merriam-Webster as “to take or make use of without authority or right.” This isn’t to say that Black fashion doesn’t belong on runways, but it should be worn and understood on our terms and in our names. Despite fashion’s long history of anti-Blackness, there was a definitive shift in summer 2020 as a reckoning swept through multiple industries in the aftermath of police officers and vigilantes killing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people in quick succession. Fashion brands scrambled to respond to nationwide unrest, and by and large, they missed the mark.
PrettyLittleThing, a fashion retailer based in the U.K., posted a now-deleted Instagram photo of the words “Stand Together” over an illustration of a white hand holding a Black hand. Sustainable fashion brand Reformation posted a graphic on Instagram listing a few places where it would donate an unspecified amount of money. And corporations such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced initiatives to create “systemic change” within the industry. Many of us have accepted that whiteness and cultural appropriation have long dominated fashion, but these issues have tangible roots that deserve interrogation. The “prairie dress,” the flowy midi dress popularized by Reformation and fast-fashion brand Revolve, is one of the most poignant examples of appropriation. After making headlines as a trend in early 2019, the style swiftly became a staple among largely white influencers and high-fashion magazines, which dubbed prairie dresses the “summer’s most romantic trend.”
Harper’s Bazaar dedicated an entire 2019 article to the prairie dress, which said in part, “The prairie dress has roots in rural 19th-century America and is defined by its high neckline, long skirt, full-length sleeves, and often ruffled details or ditsy prints. While the style has had plenty of modern updates, it always retains the same romantic, bohemian feel that it has always had each time it reemerges in fashion.” The article included photos of white models wearing the fad on catwalks for Erdem, Cecilie Bahnsen, Batsheva, and other brands, and suggested that people should sport this dainty, retro ensemble during their summer vacations. But the truth is that prairie fashion harkens back to a popular slavery-era style, though its origins have been overlooked. Romanticizing historical garments can be dangerous because it raises the question: Who gets to wistfully dream about the past? Lovingly admiring the prairie dress conjures images of white women who ache for a Gone With the Wind–esque existence in which they drink lemonade on their porches and attend plantation weddings without a second thought.
Some current prairie fashion reimagines the outfits worn by enslaved Black people. In 1740, South Carolina passed the Negro Act, which required enslaved people to adhere to a dress code or face consequences: They were required to wear the cheapest of clothing, including “Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnaburgs, blue linen, checked linen or coarse garlix, or calicoes, checked cottons, or Scottish plaids.” According to the National Park Service, “Clothing was also used to reinforce social distinctions among enslaved Africans and between the masters and their slaves.” A digital archive for Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation, details Washington’s clothing expectations for the people he and his wife enslaved. He wanted them to wear linen due to the cheap price of the cloth; he also required his slaves to create their own clothing to further cut costs.
Washington’s farm manager detailed in a 1774 account book that enslaved women received “a petticoat, two shifts, one jacket, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes each.” Other Southern states adopted similar measures, and these laws around clothing remained in place until 1865. In a 2012 article for the Textile Society of America, Eulanda A. Sanders, chair of the Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management department at Iowa State University, wrote that enslaved people wore cheap blends of fabrics such as “Negro cloth,” defined as rough, unfinished fabric, and their clothes generally lacked color because colored cloth was rarely available. “Often fibers were mixed or combined to create durable textiles…rather than comfortable fabrics,” Sanders wrote. “Generally, both outer and under garments of slaves were produced from rough fabrics that might have caused skin irritation.” Given these limitations, enslaved people worked around the attire they were given (a testament to the creative resilience of the Black community), often embellishing their looks, adding fabrics and prints from their heritage and adding accessories such as collars, cuffs, or hats.
According to the National Park Service, citizens complained in 1744 about the eclectic style enslaved Black people were creating and wrote letters to newspapers that read, “Negro Women in particular do not restrain themselves in the Clothing as the Law requires, but dress in Apparel quite gay and beyond their condition.” These styles were significant to Black people’s cultural heritage, but now, brands such as Reformation and Urban Outfitters (including UO sub-brands Free People and Anthropologie) have monetized this free-flowing look, activating a form of prairie-farm cosplay. Prairie dresses, which are created from a light fabric, stop directly at the knee, and flow loosely on the body, are a staple on Reformation’s website. The brand renames these so-called prairie fashion pieces to make it seem as though they have new origins: Take, for example, the “Norwich Dress,” potentially named after a small town in Connecticut, which recalls imagery of free-spirited, happy white women rather than the style’s truer, more painful origin.
Many of us have accepted that whiteness and cultural appropriation have long dominated fashion, but these issues have tangible roots that deserve interrogation.
“The resurgence of the prairie dress, and of the frontier femininity it represents, is shorn entirely of the racism and colonial entitlement it once cloaked,” Peggy O’Donnell wrote in a 2019 article for Jezebel. “The mythology of the homesteading woman is infused with just enough adventure, strength, and pluck to make its version of womanhood appealing to women who have rejected other models, in particular, the postwar-era American ideal of the suburban wife and mother.” Not only are white brands rewriting the history of this style, but white women also are seeing it as a form of reclamation. Unsurprisingly, this racism isn’t only external: Reformation founder Yael Aflalo stepped down as chief executive in June 2020 following allegations of anti-Black business practices, and Anthropologie was called out that same month for profiling Black shoppers.
Richard Hayne, a white 72-year-old billionaire, helms Urban Outfitters, and under his leadership, UO has become known for creating racist products. Companies that have made millions from selling so-called prairie fashion could be clueless about the trend’s roots, but I have to ask: How do they choose the influencers who are gifted these dresses for their Instagram feeds? Most important, why is Black culture so rarely credited for inspiring fashion trends? Fashion is as anti-Black as it has ever been, and white women’s deep desire to clothe themselves in attire from the sinister past should give us all pause. Fashion is something to engage with rather than something to hide behind; if we’re going to finally have a reckoning with fashion’s racism, we need to examine the industry’s continuing disregard for Black people’s contributions.