What you wear can be a statement about yourself, your identity, culture and worldview, and can act to define the symbolic boundaries between people. Fashion and clothing is a field where one’s attire has the ability to construct and reveal socio-cultural identities.
Background and Context
In our forthcoming literature review, we will explore the significance of fashion-messaging and the role of fashion within black communities and subcultures. We’ll start from the epoch of the great empires of West Africa, such as those led by Mansa Musa, Sunni Ali and the Ashanti rulers, through to the modern Americas, Caribbean and European.
Then, over the last 100 or more years, this has become even more pronounced. In the 1940s, African Americans found solace in the jazzy vibes and zoot suits of the era, about which Bonnie English states in her book A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries represented a form of social commentary.
The 1950s witnessed the "black bohemia" trend, while mainstream popular culture was becoming enamoured with the Rock and Roll craze. Interestingly, in the 1950s, the significance of clothing styles was pivotal for African Americans, yet it would be somewhat later that the same would apply to African-Caribbeans. Grant (2019) in Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation notes that Caribbeans did not possess prior fashion sense and it was upon arriving to the UK they began to dress flamboyantly and stylishly. During the Windrush era, immigrants from the Caribbean forged their own unique black diaspora aesthetic which would then go on to inform fashion and styles up until today.
The 1960s symbolised radical hip-garments which heralded the expression of black pride as not merely symbolic but also as “an emphatic proclamation of an oppressed people’s psychological reorientation” (Powell, 1997: 121).
Then came the flamboyant, slick and smooth styles of the 1970s, which Tulloch (2000: 224) regards as the “high point of anti-fashion” in which African Americans sought to impose their own cultural disunion and deliberately create a solid countercultural identity based on being "black". It was during the 1970s, although flares, platforms and flamboyant styles were prominent, that anti-fashion fused more palpably with radical politics (Steele, 1997) as per the urban guerrilla leather of the Black Panthers.
The early 1980s witnessed the arrival of the exuberant and confident streetwear pioneered by African Americans and Hispanic youth influenced by the subculture of Hip-Hop with its graffiti artists, break-dancers and rappers of New York. This attire subsequently gained more brand recognition in the mid-1980s with Run DMC. Adidas became an official sponsor, capitalising on the promotion of their brand which was exuberantly displayed and bragged about in what was a form of proto-hip-hop commercialisation.
Then through to contemporary couture of the 2000s which has seen a proliferation of the different, the unique, the original and the profane.
The Anti-Fashion Statement
The “anti-fashion” aspect is particularly significant as Stan Cohen (1973), one of the ‘Three Cohens of Subcultural Theory’ (the others being Phil Cohen, author of Sub Cultural Conflict and Working Class Community, and Albert Cohen, author of Delinquent Boys) discussed how police and the media demarcate young people with certain distinctive styles in music and dress as folk devils and moral panics about them will abound. Blake (2013: 232) explains:
This routine of youth demonisation and consequent legislation has continued to operate, especially around events such as pop festivals; rave music and its parties were quickly demonised by the tabloid press in the late 1980s and repressive legislation was enacted in 1994 to control them.
While the former Clash filmmaker, Don Letts, noted how the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot was not:
…the black kids against the white police, it was youth at a black festival against the police. Don’t forget this is 1976 you are talking about, a time when the country is in a bit of a state, there are no opportunities, there is depression, recession, a lot of unemployment. Then you have all this “SUS” stuff going on.
The protest was dressed, not merely while on demonstration and this was when fashion took on a distinct subversive agency. Fashion as a form of protest became prominent, facilitating the actual physical donning of the political statement and sentiment. Almila (2017: 17) notes that a range of T-shirts for specific communities have emerged for “those seeking to communicate their identity through verbal or image messages”.
Punk culture, Wilson (2003: 197) opines, aspired to be outsiders alongside black youth culture of the 1970s with a subcultural style which, although not a substitute for politics or real-world engagement for the most part, reinterpreted conflicts in wider society. Though Geczy and Karaminas (2016: 85) suggest that:
“punk and the designs of Vivienne Westwood are labelled anti-fashion because they make a statement at a particular historical moment of anti-establishment.”
Indeed, Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the 1980s began to promote “confrontational clothing made of cheap and untraditional materials” which represented anti-fashion protest styling which included (English, 2013: 86):
T-shirts with rips and tears and offensive slogans and other pieces of clothing overlaid with social references – symbols of resistance – to mainstream culture*.
Yet, despite its subcultural or oppositional hallmarks, anti-fashion can get effectively rebranded for mass-consumption by large and luxury brands seeking the ‘new haute couture’, thereby commodifying working-class cultures, or rather underclass subcultures. This happened with jeans in the US.
However, brand association also became the mire of well-known brands and labels. During the 1980s, Burberry became associated with football hooliganism and in 1997, Selfridges decided not to stock the brand’s attire. Burberry responded by scaling back particular items, such as its check-patterned caps which it completely axed and black-and-tan check clothing, which had become football hooligans’ brand of choice. Chief executives from Ralph Lauren sought to immediately disassociate themselves from Mexican drug barons who had been seen wearing their attire.
Similarly, brands now seek to extol their “green” credentials and their commitments to ethical production and sustainability. However, this merely led to the rising phenomenon of greenwashing.
Alongside an exploration into how fashion has been used to make statements, give platforms and act as a subaltern counterpublic sphere, we will also be exploring the coalescence of brand awareness and responsibility in fashion. Looking also at how spaces can be created for environmentalism and sustainability away from a middle-class monopoly over the green and climate change agenda.
The urban contribution to this has been effectively class-washed, as it were. There has to be a move away from the saviour complex and paternalistic ideals where token black people are invited to be involved at the end. This project therefore will illustrate Centric’s contribution to world agendas rather than being ushered in at the end.
* English, B. (2013). A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk. Second Edn. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Jul 14th 2022
Jordan Taylor - Founder & Director, Cenethics LtdRead More
Jul 14th 2022
Jordan Taylor - Founder & Director, Cenethics LtdRead More