Hey everybody! First off, Happy Black History Month!
My name is Vanessa (she/her), Point’s resident fashion engineer. So naturally, I’m going to talk about my queerness, my Blackness, and FASHION! Black fashion designers have often been categorized as dressmakers, tailors, and seamstresses. Their rightful place at the helm of the design process was often overlooked and understated. Though you may not know their names, there are many notable black designers and artisans who have left an indelible mark on the fashion world at-large.
Our school’s Office of Educational Opportunity Programs created this window display, ‘Threads of Bondage’ to celebrate these hidden figures, many of whom I’ll touch on in this post.
Harlem’s Fashion Row, a prestigious platform for multicultural fashion designers, has a new eBook that can make you more familiar with many of these legends. Fashion in Color, Preserving the African American Legacy in Fashion, highlights 25 influential fashion designers of color in the 20th century and I HIGHLY encourage you to take a look. Founded in 2007 by Brandice Daniel as a project of passion, Harlem’s Fashion Row strives to fill the void for multicultural fashion designers and high profile professionals in the industry.
Perusing these vibrant pages, I found many familiar icons; Stephen Burrows, of the famed 1973 Battle at Versailles, Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal designer Elizabeth Keckley, Beauvais Kennedy’s wedding dress designer Ann Lowe, and model and entrepreneur Audrey Smaltz. (If you want to see one of the sweetest videos ever, please watch Audrey and her wife Gail talk about their courtship and marriage.)
There were plenty of new names that I found as well. Mildred Blount was a milliner whose designs were famously showcased in the 1939 period drama, Gone With The Wind. She was the first African American admitted membership into the Motion Pictures Costumers Union, paving the way for those who followed. She designed stunning headpieces for celebrities such as Marian Anderson, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Madame CJ Walker. Ed Austin, was an accomplished retail buyer long before meeting Halston in the summer of 1964 on Fire Island Pines. Together, as his Assistant Designer and then Vice President of Halston Ltd., they went on to create the famous Ultrasuede textile. Fashion’s Grandfather, Arthur McGee, earned his stripes with the American couturier, Charles James, and went on to become the first African American to lead a design studio on NYC’s famed Fashion Avenue (7th Ave). It was his commitment to future generations of Black designers that led him to mentor many of the artists who followed in his footsteps. These elders lived during climates that were far less amenable than ours today. As a Black, Queer, Woman, I am thankful for their tenacity. It paved a way for me to have access to spaces where I can showcase my full identity.
Choosing to stand tall in one’s queer identity is a conscious and personal decision. I started to think about those who move so candidly through the fashion world, embracing both Blackness (throughout the diaspora), and membership within the queer community. Here are some notable highlights:
Anita Dolce Vita of dapperQ & Hi Femme!, Amy Stretten of Chief of Style, and Sexuality Educator Ericka Hart are just a few of the Femmes I love and admire. They’re kicking a** and taking names. Seamlessly incorporating social justice and identity politics into conversations around fashion & beauty; because that’s exactly where they belong!
André Singleton & Justin Fulton of The Very Black Project turned a simple t-shirt design into a cultural movement.
Devin-Norelle, Assistant Editor of Out Magazine, celebrates trans bodies and advocates for folks to gain access to self-affirmation.
Edward Enninful, Editor in Chief of British Vogue, became the first male, Black, gay editor in the heralded publication’s 102-year history.
Jamall Osterholm is doing marvelous things in menswear and is on this upcoming season of Project Runway.
Kimberly Drew is an art aficionado and certainly fashion-adjacent. “Being a highly visible, queer black woman in a field that is overwhelmingly homogeneous across lines of race, class, and disability often leaves me with more questions than answers.”
Munroe Bergdorf struts her stuff down the catwalk AND shuts down bigots.
Tolu Aremu at Chromat just designed a phenomenal, Nigerian inspired look for the NYFW Black Panther: Welcome to Wakanda, charity presentation.
This list could go on and on.
What I’m most present to is the ways in which we are tearing down the structures and mindsets that preached respectability politics and intimated that our queerness was thereby a detriment to Black excellence. As Lena Waithe said in her Emmy award winning script, “...your kids are like trophies and me being gay ‘tarnishes’ her trophy.” Well, not any more. We’re reclaiming our positions of power and showcasing that our queerness is in fact quite excellent!
We’ve always been here, and there are countless, budding artists waiting in the wings. I see you and I can’t wait to see your talents unfold. And remember, in the words of RuPaul, "You better work."
This post was written by Barbey Point Scholar Vanessa Watson.
Vanessa is studying Production Management in Fashion and Related Industries & Technical Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Innovation and diversity are themes that inspire her as she works tirelessly to create systems that facilitate access and equality. Read more about Vanessa here.