Haute Couture In The ‘Ivory Tower’

By Guest Contributor Dr. Tanisha C. Ford

Southern Methodist professor Willard Spiegelman, from New York Times “Class Acts” spread. Courtesy: New York Times.

A New York Times Magazine spread titled “Class Acts,” featuring six professors styled in designer fashions, recently resurfaced in the social media sphere largely due to the media’s budding interest in fashion in unexpected workplaces. Initially, I was thrilled to see the NYT acknowledge that we professors could be stylish, too. But, as I removed my rose-colored Burberry glasses to examine the slide show again, I saw that there were no professors that looked like me. No professors of color.

I instantly took to my Twitter and Facebook pages to post the “Class Acts” spread for my diverse group of colleagues to weigh in on. Their responses ranged from a sarcastic “… apparently black professors can’t be fashionable” to an admonishing “A truly pathetically pale slide show … shame on you NYTimes.” I felt vindicated that they shared my concerns that faculty of color were not represented. We began comprising our own list of “fierce and fly” faculty of color, including (but certainly not limited to)  Mimi Thi Nguyen, Darlene Clark Hine, Davarian Baldwin, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Siobhan Carter-David, Treva Lindsey, and Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar.

But even after our insightful social-media venting session, I was still bothered by the spread. And it wasn’t simply because “we” weren’t included. It was because the spread ignored the battles related to dress and adornment that African Americans have endured, both inside and outside of the academy. A brief look at major moments in Black history reveals how battles over race, class, and adornment have majorly influenced mainstream American fashion trends.

From slavery to the present, African Americans and other people of color have used fashion as a form of cultural-political resistance and creative self-expression. The “Class Acts” photo shoot–with its Dries Van Noten dresses and its Brooks Brothers suits–erases this long history. Under the system of slavery, whites dictated how people of African descent dressed, purchasing inexpensive fabrics such as denim and osnaburg in dull colors for them to wear. To develop their own identity outside of that as laborers, bond women often sewed their own clothes to wear to church—garments of more brilliant colors made from materials they purchased with their own earnings.

After emancipation, some former bondwomen and men began wearing flamboyant outfits full of color as a means of resistance. Though many black Americans adhered to styles that reflected the mores of whites in an effort to assimilate into white society, they created their own dress aesthetic by using non-traditional fabrics and unusual cuts to embellish their looks. Over time, their innovative modifications morphed into dramatic fashions like the zoot suit (with its long suit jacket and tightly tapered pants), which came to symbolize youth rebellion, jazz culture, and black and Latino urban life in the interwar period. These styles were then appropriated by mainstream American and European fashion designers.

During the Civil Rights Movement, a politics of adornment was employed to garner media attention for the movement. Images of black activists dressed in their “Sunday best” attire (dresses, cardigans, pearls, and suits and ties) being attacked by white segregationists highlighted the barbaric nature of American racism and the system of Jim Crow. Wearing such fine clothes was a subversive act, in the U.S. South especially. Dressing nicer than working-class whites placed African Americans in danger of being beaten, arrested, or lynched because their clothing was an outward sign of their challenge to southern social order.

By the late 1960s, young African Americans had ditched the Sunday best look and the integrationist politics for a more radical, African-inspired “soul style.” Organizations such as the Black Panther Party and countless black youth in cities across the country donned Afros, dashikis, miniskirts, and ornate jewelry to showcase their cultural pride and their political solidarity. Black women in particular used the soul style look to challenge conventional notions of feminine propriety, which mandated that they wear their hair straightened and dress in conservative clothing. The mainstream fashion industry responded—as it had in the early twentieth century—by appropriating this politically-influenced soul style, selling the look everywhere from department stores to haute couture fashion boutiques.

Clothing still remains an important political tool in the struggle for social justice in communities of color. After Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black Florida teen dressed in a hoodie–was viciously murdered by George Zimmerman, people of various races, classes, nationalities, and genders began wearing hoodies in solidarity, organizing “Million Hood” Marches across the globe to call for justice for Trayvon.

The NYT editors ignored this narrative of American fashion that is entrenched in histories of racial oppression and brutality. Instead, the fashions selected serve as a sartorial shorthand for a politics of adornment within the “ivory tower,” which bolsters notions of white privilege and high-class refinement. Not only is this a dated image of the academy, it is one that effaces the reality that, everyday, faculty of color use fashion (along with their teaching, research, and social justice activism) to challenge discrimination and prejudice within the academy and beyond.

The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.

Portrait of the author, taken in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Photo: Kimisha Ellis. Courtesy of the author.

So my disappointment was not just about the fact that “we” as professors of color were left out of the spread because the larger issue at stake is not simply about professors. It’s about the seemingly innocuous ways that popular culture is used to obscure and omit important histories related to communities of color.

What the “Class Act” spread has done, however, is illustrate that the struggles over race, gender, and dress within the academy and those waged everyday in neighborhoods across the country intersect. We need to have some serious conversations about how fashion and adornment politics have been and continue to be a critical part of the black struggle for social justice. Not having these conversations means ignoring histories of human rights struggles in this country.

Dr. Tanisha C. Ford is an award-winning writer, intellectual, and activist designing her own brand of “Haute Couture Intellectualism.” She is currently writing a book, “Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment.” She is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Follow her on Twitter@SoulistaPhd.

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  • elise

    Cornel West is the first person I think of when I think “fashion” and “professor”.

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  • sophia

    Jodi Kim – UC Riverside Ethnic Studies prof – is one of the flyest dressers I’ve ever met. But with scholarship so brilliant, how could she not be!?

  • http://www.facebook.com/cary.webb Cary Webb

    I would love to see a critique like this in terms of POC, fatness, and fashion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1230797383 Koritha Mitchell

    This is EXCELLENT! Glad that you’re working in this area. Sounds like you’re building in important ways on Monica Miller’s *Slaves to Fashion* and, I’m sure, other innovative studies. I will stay tuned. Looking forward to learning more from you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1230797383 Koritha Mitchell

    This is EXCELLENT! Glad that you’re working in this area. Sounds like you’re building in important ways on Monica Miller’s *Slaves to Fashion* and, I’m sure, other innovative studies. I will stay tuned. Looking forward to learning more from you!