Last Wednesday I was so happy to have set time aside to watch “Micropolis: Black is the New Black”, which was one event in a series of discussions hosted by The NEXT New York Conversation, aimed at social and economic topics in today’s society. This event was specifically focused on Black men’s style in America and included a panel featuring writer/activist Michaela Angela Davis, music exec/creative director Hollis King and my personal favorite, Harlem fashion icon,Dapper Dan.
The discussion began with a presentation of black men’s style from the 1920’s through 2015 but what struck me was the abrupt transition in style from pre-civil rights into the 1960’s and on.
:1900’s-1950’s Style Snap:
There was previously such a uniformity in fashion. Conservative values had women shamed to show a little ankle, and men were dressed for business to read newspapers on the couch. A variation of conservative skirts, dresses, suits, slacks and dress shirts were the everyday standard. In this era of refinement, it was especially important to Blacks to dress well and maintain a respectable appearance in efforts to be accepted by a racist society; the panel referred to this as “presenting”. With this, Blacks have always held a great sense of pride in their appearance, a value that has been carried into the current generation. Though the tone of this value has shifted, it is arguably the most ubiquitous viewpoint in Black culture today.
.:The Sixties: Revolution:.
The 1960’s brought rebellion to these conservative standards and catapulted the shift in Blacks perception of themselves, and how they wanted to be perceived by the rest of the world. Instead of “presenting” to fit in, the style was to embrace the unique qualities of Blackness.
Blue jeans became popular in the 60’s as symbol of anti-establishment. During this wave, fashion transitioned to become a reflection of identity and a form of visual communication.
Dashikis(a printed top traditionally worn in West Africa) were a popular garb that expressed Black consciousness. This design was also worn in solid colors as seen in the photo below, paired with ethnic accessories and afros, creating a new style unique to the Black Power Movement.
Young men from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, 1966
Life magazine photographed Los Angeles “gang members” a year following the 1965 Watts riots. It’s amusing to view these men as gang bangers in comparison to the images you think of LA gangs today. We think of gangs as reckless, homicidal criminal clubs, but gangs were initially formed in the area to protect the neighborhoods from police brutality and hate crimes.
The irony is that these photos remind me of Solange’s Losing You video and these “gang bangers” look like they read Street Etiquette and shop at Brooklyn Circus. Rolled up jeans revealing colored socks, chino pants, layering and Clarks Desert Boots? Please, lets give these boys a hand, this could easily be a lookbook feature. This is the early style aesthetic of millennial “lifestyle” brands pushing forest scented beard oils and premium flannels…the irony.
..::The Seventies: The Original Swag::..
The socioeconomic changes following the 1960’s included epidemic proportion drug addiction in Black communities that had lasting detrimental effects into today, BUT were also a first chance for many out of poverty, and brought about the “Pimp style” of the heroin era in the late 60’s to early 70’s. Let’s be clear, Pimps have been turning tricks probably since the dawn of time, but in the 70’s they were $hinin’, as they were of the firsts in the hood to dabble in the narcotics biz and really get their paper waaayyyy up.
Pimp style aesthetics were large, flashy and glamorous but at the same time revisited the refined clean lines of the past. Floor length furs, tailored suits, diamond jewelry, leather trenchs and oversize panama hats were classic pieces of this style.
Pimp culture was a major influence in Blaxploitation films and fed their audience this image repeatedly through media.
I consider the 70’s the Era of Swag. Though everyone wasn’t walking around looking like a pimp, there were definitely characteristics that trickled down into the wardrobe of the everyday man, and a swag that was present in their demeanor. “Pimp style” was about flash, luxury and glamor, yes, but it was more in the way you carried yourself to fit the aesthetic— that slick, suave, boss presence in whatever you wear.
Billy Dee Williams covers Ebony Magazine with permed hair, a hand in his pants and lets not forget the stache; you can’t tell me he’s not out here. (left), My Father in a red leather button down with bishop sleeves, a red leather belt at the waist and bell bottoms, swaggin at the club. (right) peep these poses…
Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the flyest man of the NBA in my opinion, pictured at the tailors and again leaning on his infamous Rolls Royce. He really personified the pimp style— fitted rib knit turtle neck, sleek high waist trousers, panama hat and a gold medallion; back to the clean lines but with a twist.
Walt makes a couple interesting points reiterating this idea of “presenting”, and the cultural connection blacks have to fashion in an interview from 2013 with GQ Magazine.
GQ:”What was the scene in Atlanta like?”
Walt Frazier: “Nobody had any money. But when you went to church, people look nice. When you went downtown, you were taught that you were not only representing your family but your race.”
GQ:”So when did it become important for you to not just fit in, but to make a personal statement?”
Walt Frazier:” I first found out that I was an icon for blacks, say, like, we’d go to Detroit and after the game we’re on the bus, and all the kids would go, Clyde, c’mon, man, where’s the mink? Clyde, c’mon, man, we wanted to see you dressed up! That’s when I realized that people were really into the way I was dressing. So that’s when I went somewhere I made sure I was dressed up.”
Well put Clyde… well put……..
In reviewing this style synopsis, it’s amazing to recognize how culturally connected Blacks are to fashion yet how disconnected we are from the fashion industry. We haven’t gotten to the renaissance of 70’s players as of yet, but it will be cool to see if some of those style traits come back. If there’s any presence of pimp style currently, I’d point towards A$AP Rocky’s recently dapper ensembles and Kanye’s velvet trench, gold chains and chelsea boots. I will say we’re unknowingly revisiting the phase of casual 60’s style basics and some degree of Black consciousness, as we pull away from the earlier 2000’s XXL white tee trend, the Abercrombie identity crisis, Oceans Eleven level Polo theft and sneaker head camp fire and tent desperation, we’re slowly moving back into lax looks with subtle refinement.
In the past few years as traditional malls have been dying a slow death, and smaller scale brands and boutiques rise, I see less ethnically unique fashion trends and more socially driven style and brand buying. By 2020 I wonder if we will be able to pinpoint any distinction culturally in our fashion choices of the previous decade, or have we become so socially connected that those cultural lines have blurred or no longer exist?…..hmmm….food for thought.
The panel touched on so many great topics, I encourage you to watch the discussion here!
Come back for Pt.2 reviewing Dapper Dan in the 80’s and fashion moving into the millennium.
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