Despite a large history of fashion and sartorial culture within the African American community, blackness did not truly enter the mainstream American fashion industry until the latter half of the 20th century, after the civil rights movement. Prior to this breakthrough, many black designers exhibited their clothing in their communities and held runway shows and pageants in churches and other public venues. In New York City’s Harlem, an uptown hub saturated with black creatives, these fashion shows happened frequently, becoming a sort of cultural tradition within the neighborhood.
The Harlem Renaissance was defined by the many literary and musical geniuses that emerged during the time. The writings of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston illuminated the black experience in America, while the music and entertainment that Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker perfected left a lasting legacy on the industry today. The revival of black creativity led to a great awakening in black fashion, as well. Zoot suits, cloche hats, and other early 20th century styles became popular as Harlem designers took the styles and trends of the time and altered them to appeal to black audiences.
Though the Harlem Renaissance marked the beginnings of these fashion shows, they began to increase in number and popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, during the civil rights movement. During this time, more black people began to take interest in black fashion and heavily promoted the concept of buying black. At that point, roughly 300 fashion shows a year were being put on in Harlem alone. Eve Arnold, then a photography student at The New School, was invited to a fashion show to meet and photograph a modeling agent’s star client, Charlotte Stribling, also known as “Fabulous.” Like many fashion shows of the time, the show was in a church, with the models dressing up in the back and the aisles serving as runways. Arnold hoped to capture natural, unstaged photographs of both the models and the audience at the show. However, their awareness of her whiteness made it difficult for them to act completely candid, so she decided to go backstage, capturing low-lit scenes of models in their uninhibited, relaxed state. Many of Arnold’s photos were of Fabulous, but she was able to photograph lesser known models as they dressed up and down in the back of the deconsecrated church.
Arnold’s photographs shed light on the lesser-known culture surrounding black fashion at the time and slowly introduced black fashion into the dominant fashion culture and press. In the late ’50s, Harlem documentary photographer Kwame Brathwaite formed a group called the Grandassa models. During the height of the civil rights movement, the Grandassa encouraged people to buy from black designers and embrace natural beauty. Their inaugural fashion show, Naturally ’62, was as much a celebration of black beauty and hair as it was black fashion. It promoted the Black is Beautiful movement, and models wore clothing from both local designers as well as designers that drew from afrocentric influences and themes. These shows occurred annually throughout the ’60s, but began to phase out as time went on with the last show taking place in 1992.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the drag ball scene erupted in Harlem and uptown New York. Ball culture had emerged in the city some decades before, but many black drag queens felt excluded, and those who participated often had to lighten their faces to fit into the predominantly white spaces. These queens eventually created their own underground ball culture, one where they could express themselves freely through fashion and performance. The underground culture expanded to include not only black queens, but other marginalized members of the drag community, making the balls a safe space for these individuals. Harlem’s influential ballroom culture is chronicled in the seminal film Paris is Burning, and it continues to influence not only LGBTQ+ culture, but pop culture, as well.
Today, Harlem remains an epicenter for black creatives and black fashion. Harlem-native Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan, continues to run his fashion label from its streets–his original storefront was on 125th Street, but the shop and atelier relocated to the historic Lenox Avenue last year. The designer has had a renaissance of his own the past few years, most notably marked by a successful collaboration with Gucci. Best known for the custom counterfeits of luxury fashions that made him famous in the 1980s, Day and the Dapper Dan label continue to turn out untouchably cool clothes worn by hip-hop stars, A-list actors, and the fashion set, alike.
Blocks away from Dapper Dan’s store, the famous Apollo Theater, a popular location for many fashion shows of the 20th century, continues to host the creations of black designers. Last May, British-Ghanaian menswear designer Ozwald Boateng showcased his newest creations and first womenswear collection at the theater to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. Then in September, Tommy Hilfiger and Zendaya Coleman’s collaborative TommyNow Fall/Winter 2019 fashion show was held on the street outside the Apollo, channelling the spirit of the historic venue and the Harlem Renaissance with vintage cars, a live jazz band, and ’70s-inspired fashion.
The sartorial legacy of the neighborhood also continues through events like Harlem Fashion Week and organizations such as Harlem’s Fashion Row, a company that provides a platform and resources for black designers. Brandice Daniel, the founder of HFR, started the organization in 2007 and utilizes the platform to host multicultural fashion shows and provide networking opportunities for black designers in New York. Now, nearly 13 years later, HFR has put on countless shows, hosted dinners, and continues to preserve black fashion history, as well as propel the future of black fashion in America. In 2018, HFR released its first collaboration with Nike and Lebron James, with three designers from the organization helping James create his first women’s sneaker with the brand. Last year, the second collaboration with James was released, selling out within a day.
As the industry continues to move towards diversity and inclusion, more black designers are entering the dialogue and showcasing their designs during fashion month. However, only nine black designers were listed on the official New York Fashion Week schedule in 2018, and the numbers have hardly increased since. While only a handful of designers that show during New York Fashion Week are black, communities like Harlem continue to foster the vision of black designers. The historic neighborhood’s fashion scene provides an inclusive space and a platform for these artists, both established and up and coming, to explore their creativity and display their talent.END
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