“Fashion is a key component to understanding the history of slavery,” Jonathan Square, a professor of History and Literature at Harvard University, tells CR. His work centers on the clothing and expressive culture of enslaved people, particularly within the history of Black America. At the core of his research is a belief in the power of materials and aesthetics to shape the human experience, and a deep sense of empathy and compassion for each person and garment that he studies. Along with this intimate perspective, Square looks outwards towards the development of the fashion system in conjunction with mass enslavement.
As the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the externalities of a fast-paced fashion calendar and the Black Lives Matter movement pushes industry insiders to consider fashion’s structural racism, Square’s work feels particularly relevant. By looking to the past, his work speaks to contemporary questions of how marginalized people use clothing and fashion to express themselves and how individual garments are the product of complex economic and political systems that span the globe.
In American history, slavery designated Black people as capital within a colonial political system. While their experiences were largely shaped by their oppressors, they found opportunities to exercise agency through expressive actions. This is where fashion comes in.
In some cases outfit curation was a method of political statement. “Enslaved people rarely had access to the press or governmental bodies, but they had access to their own bodies and how they style them,” Square says. “There is a lot of political information encoded in enslaved people’s clothing if you take the time to analyze it.”
The vast majority of enslaved people’s clothing was, as Square says, relatively uncomfortable or drab. However, this was not always the case for each person or each item. Because most of their clothing was bought or bartered second-hand or handed down from other slaves and their owners, they had to be resourceful. Oftentimes, they were given textiles and would fashion their own designs.
Square calls textiles–the literal threads of garments–the metadata of clothing. Textiles provide insight into the sensory experience of wearing certain garments, as well as illustrate the interconnected nature of slavery and the globalized fashion system. Mass enslavement enabled the production of cheap cotton, which in turn perpetuated slavery. “If you do not consider the genesis of the fashion system, particularly the growth of readymade clothing industry, then you’re missing important information about the development of slavery and its relationship to global capitalism,” Square says.
Though his work focuses on the experiences of people of African descent from the 16th to 19th centuries, Square is quick to highlight parallels to today’s modern industry. The creation of ready-to-wear allowed for standardized dressing, creating status items and strengthening the global textile and clothing trade. Both of these phenomena set the precedents for today’s It-bag-dominated global economy. Moreover, fast fashion and cheap clothing often relies on labor exploitation in developing nations. “Just as slaves made, bought, and sold clothing (more often than not against their will), many people involved in our current fashion system work in conditions predicated on coercion and oppression,” Square explains.
This history remains relevant–large brands today rest on foundations of oppression, labor exploitation, and even American mass enslavement. Brooks Brothers’ archives show that it sold “servants” clothing to Southern plantation owners. Scholars like Square have inferred that this means Brooks Brothers clothing was given to enslaved people by plantation owners who used the ready-to-wear garments as a symbol of status and wealth. This action gets at the question of where the artistry in a garment truly lies. Enslaved people in Brooks Brothers clothing were treated like objects for adornment by plantation owners, and Square has held the brand accountable for its complacency in this phenomenon in his work. But, his scholarship implies, this does not negate the artistry of curation: when enslaved people put on a garment and fashioned their own bodies, they were still defining and constructing their own identities.
Square launched digital humanities project Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom to share the importance of these practices. The project began as an academic course, but when not enough students enrolled, Square created a Facebook page to share its content. (The course ultimately came to fruition, and he has since taught the class twice.) He later expanded Fashioning the Self’s footprint to multiple social media platforms and created a zine with writing from scholars, artists, and activists.
“I think of how my life has been enriched by the education I’ve been able to obtain, and I wish that everyone could have access to it,” he says.
On social media, Square utilizes archival imagery and offers poignant commentary on current events related to the portrayal and understanding of mass enslavement. He also shares information about contemporary exhibits and performances, such as artist Dread Scott’s “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” historian-artist Nell Irvin Painter’s recent show at Harvard, and the Noah Davis exhibit at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery. On the project’s Youtube page are discussions with academics and artists. Recently, Square shared a conversation with British opera singer Peter Brathwaite about recreating famous works of art using family heirlooms.
Through sharing these dialogues, Square highlights how the relationship between fashion and an enslaved past relates to present-day identities. This is not only significant to people of African descent but to contemporary pop culture at large. The legacy and power of Black expression has helped shape culture as we know it. As people work towards anti-racist goals, the history of beauty and aesthetics within the Black community are particularly informative regarding the techniques individuals have historically used to protect themselves and their loved ones in the face of oppression.
Of course, Square has thoughts about how fashion industry leaders can react to the current moment. He claims it is not enough for companies to simply declare their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “Black lives are trending right now,” Square says. “If [they] really matter, make sure you are treating the black lives that you encounter [in real life] fairly and respectfully before you trot to social media in the name of Breonna Taylor. What annoys me most is when industry leaders wring their hands about how to solve ‘the problem of diversity.’ Here’s a solution: hire more diverse staff now.”
As Square and his work reminds us, though fashion can be a tool for expression or liberation, it can also be a tool of oppression. It’s in these pivotal times that looking back on fashion’s history with race can inform how we move forward.END
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createdAt:Mon, 03 Aug 2020 14:50:56 +0000