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A Measure of Worth


The folklorist and curator on self-expression through adornment in African-American communities, and fashion as a political act.

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In an essay published in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston cited “the will to adorn” as one of the defining characteristics of African-American expression. The “idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards,” she wrote, “but it satisfies the soul of its creator.” Hurston was referring to embellishments of language and speech, but she could just as easily have been talking about the creative traditions of dress in African-American communities.

Diana Baird N’Diaye, a longtime curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC, borrowed Hurston’s phrase to launch her 2013 Smithsonian exhibition and Folklife festival program The Will to Adorn. Over the course of her career, N’Diaye has conducted research in anthropology, folklore, and visual art with a special focus on cultures of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. The Will to Adorn is an ongoing project that seeks out “artisans of style”—including hairdressers, tailors, milliners, and more—in order to examine “the cultural dimensions of African American identity in the twenty-first century.”

On an afternoon in early February, I met with N’Diaye in Iowa City, where she was serving as the University of Iowa’s first interdisciplinary writer-in-residence. While we talked, I learned that she is also an artist. She’d made the necklace she was wearing that day, weaving cowrie shells into the fiber strands because of their significance in West Africa as both a staple of dress and form of currency.

To N’Diaye, dress is exactly this—a kind of currency, a form of social capital. Dress may also be a passport permitting admission into specific geographic spaces, economic classes, or social groups distinguished by heritage and identity. The way we dress reflects community, aspiration, and selfhood—that multifaceted, curated thing we project into the world. N’Diaye’s work examines how traditions of African-American dress reveal continuities of ideas, values, tastes, and knowledge rooted in African-American experience.

We met a second time in mid-May at N’Diaye’s home in Maryland. Shortly before my arrival, Baltimore had erupted in protests and riots following Freddie Gray’s brutal death in police custody. The city curfew had been lifted only a week before. The protests seemed a particularly striking example of the relationship between politics and performance: the urgent necessity of self-expression.

Gemma de Choisy for Guernica

Guernica: What is the will to adorn?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: It’s the name of an exhibit I did for the Smithsonian Museum, and the name of a book I’m writing on the same topic, but the phrase belongs to the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who said—I’m paraphrasing here—that the will to adorn is one of the most important components of African-American expression. She was talking about embellishing words, about the aesthetics of African-American oratory. But I think the phrase also applies to the way that the African-American aesthetic, as a whole, embraces adornment and self-adornment as a part of creating identity, shaping identity, expressing identity. I believe social dressing is an art form that has been under-studied and under-discussed.

Guernica: Let’s discuss it. How did you start putting the exhibition together?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: The exhibition started with a project where I traveled and worked with researchers in nine different cities throughout the country. We were getting a sense of what people thought about what they wore. Some of our questions were: “Why are you wearing what you’re wearing?” and “What do you choose to wear?” Another question we asked was: “What would you never wear?”

The question we were trying to answer with that project was: How is what you wear related to the community you feel you belong to? How is what you wear related to your aspirations? To the way you want to project yourself to the world? Because clothing, dress, adornment—it’s all part of a visual language and it’s one of the ways that people project a sense of identity. We looked at different regions of the United States. The major cities, mostly; we didn’t do too much research in rural communities. We went to New York City—that was our first place—and Washington, DC, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and Oakland. San Francisco, a little bit. We got to New Orleans, of course.

Guernica: What distinguished each location?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: In each place there was a very distinctive African-American regional culture, and therefore regional dress. In Washington, DC, for example, women who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s talked about wearing “nineteens.” Nineteens were a type of slingback shoe, and if you went to high school in Washington, DC, in those decades then you’d want to have several pairs of them, and sometimes you’d share with girlfriends who had different colors. They were called “nineteens” because they cost $19.95. They were just basic slingbacks, but if you didn’t wear them you’d be really out of it. They’re still being made, too. There are these artifacts of style—things that people wear that help define the communities they belong to.

Guernica: Did younger generations have a similar sense of regional style? It seems like globalization has homogenized adolescent style, especially. You go to any mall and the same stores are selling the same brands.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: That’s true. A lot of talk in the narratives of younger people has to do with branding. And a lot of the brands, of course, have status attached to them. There’s this very poignant narrative we collected from a young man who was talking about how, when he was younger, his family wasn’t doing so well and so they shopped at Walmart and had non-brand clothing. Well, Walmart brand, White Stag—something unrecognizable. Then, as his family gained means, he started wearing True Religion and North Face and Adidas. It was really interesting to hear him talk about the fact that he pitied those kids in his school who weren’t able to wear the brands that he wore. Because these brands are so ubiquitous in the United States—you see folks on Facebook, on Instagram, on BuzzFeed, especially in music videos—there builds a sense of brands being connected to identity across the country.

As a folklorist, we talk about how traditions are ways people give meaning to their relationships and to their communities. When you’re looking at traditions of dress, and the aesthetics of dress, they sometimes have origins within small communities like neighborhoods or families, and are passed along by observation and imitation. So in Brooklyn, or the Bronx, a group of friends will start wearing a style and then it’ll go viral in their community, which will then become identified with the borough, or the city.

Going back to the premise of the exhibition—which, by the way, was a Folklife festival, so we actually brought designers, whom we called “artisans of style,” to the National Mall in the Capital to demonstrate what they did—we saw that there were differences in gender, sexual orientation, class, and region, as well as faith and ideology.

Guernica: How do you distinguish between those two, faith and ideology?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: It overlaps. But in addition to people dressing according to religious faith, people wear their history, or as much of it as can be gleaned. From the 1970s on, a lot of African-Americans were looking at how dress could affirm African heritage, and as part of that affirmation, started to wear items of clothing that came from Africa. Or they wore jewelry like my own, which is made of cowrie shells, or they wore clothing that might have been mass-produced, but tweaked it in a way that gave it a profile they associated with the Continent.

Around the same time, there was an influx of people from the continent of Africa who were coming to the United States in larger numbers than they had in the decades before. And they—people from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria—had a very different take on African dress because their dress was whatever their particular ethnic group might have been wearing back home. Now, because many of us who were born in the West have been historically separated from the Continent for many hundreds of years, we don’t have those specific ethnic references to where we came from. Instead, we would claim the Continent. We combined clothing or styles that came from many different parts of the Continent, whereas African immigrants would harken to back home and those clear, established traditions of dress. It’s been really interesting looking at the variations of aesthetics among people who wear African clothing in the United States who are of ambiguous Continental descent.

If I were to talk about something that projects itself through many different African-American communities in the United States, I would say that it’s an aesthetic of cool.

Guernica: If we’re talking about the 1970s, then we’re talking about a time when politics were often conveyed in dress, too.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Very much so. The dress of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis’s afro—these things have become iconic statements of assertion and identity, of politicized resistance to the status quo. One of the people we interviewed for the Will to Adorn exhibit was Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ minister of culture. He talked about how the Panthers really thought about what they were going to wear and how they could dress to project an idea of strength. They wanted to create a uniform that asserted African-American identity as one of agency. The leather jackets, the berets, the afros—they were part of this uniform, but they also made a very important statement when the Panthers were marching or recruiting.

Douglas said the leather jacket was a great recruitment tool, because it was very cool, and the aesthetic of cool was essential to the very important work the Panthers were doing in terms of raising political consciousness, and the things they did within their communities. The Panthers had breakfast programs; they had educational programs; they had educational programs specifically for young people. They did a lot of social good within the community. It’s interesting, the quasi-military look of the Panthers and then the activities they did for the benefit of the community.

Guernica: It’s a sharp juxtaposition. Were the Black Panthers militarizing coolness?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: In a way, I think they did, but they didn’t have a monopoly on cool. If I were to talk about something that projects itself through many different African-American communities in the United States, I would say that it’s an aesthetic of cool. It’s just a little more stylish. Within the communities in the 1960s and ’70s, dress became associated with music as another means of expression. Think of Zoot Suits—no, go back further. From the 1920s up through present day, musicians have been exemplars of style. Musicians have been representative of the fullest expression of African-American dress in whatever aesthetic they choose, whether it be a Continental aesthetic, whether it be an Afrofuturist aesthetic. I’m thinking of people like George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelics and their wonderful costumes, wonderful concert regalia.

Guernica: Bootsy Collins and his glasses?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: That’s right. And before him, in the 1950s, people wore berets and were very cool. Laid-back clothing with an almost Parisian sensibility. And now, people like Common and folks like Pharell, you know, with his hat. His “Happy” hat. Of course, Tupac was an enormously strong influence in dress for young people. Also, you’re talking about someone like Denzel Washington, or other actors who could really wear a suit, who could take something that might’ve looked too preppy but doesn’t because of some extra flare, something just left of center in the color, or the way you turned your collar, something edgy in the buttons, the tilt at which you wore your hat. You see this all throughout photographs of African-American families and individuals: that extra-special flare.

The women who’ve had the biggest impact on African-American dress were known not only for wearing beautiful clothing. Whatever they wore, they wore it with some kind of defiance of expectation.

Guernica: Do you remember the dress Halle Berry wore when she won the Oscar for best actress for Monster’s Ball? That full burgundy train, and then a sheer top that dipped over her hips, and was embroidered with pink flowers and green leaves?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Oh, yes, I remember.

Guernica: If you’d looked at it on a mannequin, it would have looked antiquated, and the embroidery clashed with the color and sheen of the skirt. But something about the juxtaposition of the very traditional, florid dress with Berry’s short, spiked, punkish hair saved the dress. It was made to be princessy. It ended up being cool.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes, that juxtaposition again, the element of surprise. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about exemplars of African-American style. Women like Halle, and now, Lupita. I love Lupita! Who else? Viola Davis, certainly, and Lena Horne. The women who’ve had the biggest impact on African-American dress were known not only for wearing beautiful clothing, but for wearing it in a way that made it extra stylish. Whatever they wore, they wore it with some kind of defiance of expectation.

Guernica: Isn’t that a political act?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: It’s so important to consider how feminism, and the way it’s been interpreted, has changed over the years, and how it’s contributed to the diverse ways African-American women present themselves. In our study, we looked at performance of dress. We looked at things like the contributions African-American gay men have made to traditions of vogueing. I mean, people think of vogueing as something Madonna started, for goodness sake. But these traditions came out of African-American gay communities, and they were around pretty early on. Certainly since the 1960s and ’70s. They incorporated gesture. That was very much about the performance of identity.

Guernica: How have you used that in your work?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: One of the aspects of African-American dress that we found throughout many communities is the idea of the visual concert. Within churches and community centers, there are traditions of people from the community coming out and doing fashion shows. Showing people’s own collections of clothing, or showing local designers when mainstream America hasn’t been looking at fashion outside of that very constrained view of the Paris runways, of New York Fashion Week.

The idea of fashion show as a visual concert was something we found very interesting, so in 2013 when we did the Folklife festival, we had a runway as our stage. We had a “Rock the Runway” stage where folks from different communities would do fashion shows. Women from the Muslim community did one show; we had a vogueing performance; we had church hat fashion shows. These are all actual genres of fashion shows that take place in African-American communities. We had a “Miss Africa in America” fashion show where people from different African immigrant communities came dressed in traditional clothing, but designers from those communities were also creating more contemporary versions of historical styles of dress. The idea is not only of what we wear or what’s in our closet, but how we perform both in an informal way—at work or walking down the street—and in formal presentations like fashion shows. That’s something we found throughout African America.

Guernica: How did traditional dress merge with contemporary style in those fashion shows? What did that look like?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Sometimes it was contemporary shapes and cuts made from traditional fabrics, and sometimes it was a traditional shape made out of contemporary fabric. We had designers doing what artists like Yinka Shonibare do, using print fabric associated with Africa to make clothing that’s very much European in form. Now, in his work, he was recreating classic paintings in three dimensions—Fragonard’s women on “The Swing,” for example—wearing African print fabric. In terms of African-American designers, they might be making pencil skirts and very fitted jackets using traditional African fabrics. But what’s interesting is that nobody’s using traditional textiles.

Guernica: Oh?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Most of the textiles people are using are like Vlisco textiles, which are actually printed in Europe and have a long history as design elements. They’re not printed in Africa.

Guernica: They’re Dutch, right?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes, which is… well.

Guernica: I mean, the Dutch and Africa…

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Mmm.

Guernica: So why use Vlisco fabrics instead of traditional textiles?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Well, at one point they were the most affordable textiles you could find that were produced commercially. And I think Vlisco had a tradition of working with African designers, and they really, really know their market. As a result, what is now identified as “African” print is in fact made elsewhere. Which is not unusual. It’s not great, either.

Guernica: The Council of Fashion Designers of America has 470 members, and only twelve of them are African-American. Of the 260 shows on the New York Fashion Week calendar this year, only three were by African-American designers with a global reach. That number jumps up to seven or so if you count brands with annual revenues under $1 million. But the buying power of African-American consumers is already $1 trillion, and is predicted to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: I’m very concerned about that. When African-American designers are not being promoted or marketed, they’re not in control of the means of production, and that’s a really serious issue.

As far as the industry is concerned, there is a real problem when it becomes appropriation without representation, or anything that comes with representation, like money.

Guernica: You then get black bodies wearing clothing made by white designers sampling heavily from African-American style.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: I mean, Euro-American white bodies can wear black clothes and vice versa. That’s obvious. But as far as the industry is concerned, there is a real problem when it becomes appropriation without representation, or anything that comes with representation, like money. There’s no money being fed back into the communities that are doing so much of the buying, and that are the inspiration for the clothing.

Guernica: You said that Vlisco knows their market. What did you mean by that?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: The Vlisco prints were made to appeal to an African sensibility and to an African aesthetic. Bright colors, complex patterns. Woven patterns juxtaposed with something reminiscent of batik. Actually, I would compare it to polyphonic music.

Guernica: In what way?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Polyphonic music has many drum rhythms all happening at the same time, with many different kinds of drums. Together they form a thick, cohesive texture to the music. And I think the prints do the same thing to the eye that the drums do to the ear.

Guernica: Music and fashion. The happiest marriage.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: They definitely go together. I’ve been very interested in a new artist working with Janelle Monáe. His name is Jidenna and he’s very involved with a fashion movement out of Brooklyn called Black Ivy.

Guernica: As in the so-called Black Ivy League, colleges like Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes, that’s right. And there’s a recent music video for the song “Classic Man” that Jidenna and Janelle Monáe put together in collaboration with Black Ivy. In the video, everyone is dressed to the nines, and in Western European style for the most part. Suits, collared shirts. But the lapels of the shirts have Vlisco-like fabric—something that claims African origin within the Western style.

Not only is Jidenna singing about style and identity, but about using dress in a political way. Underneath the message of “I look good,” if you listen to the lyrics and watch the plot of the video, you see overt mentions of community self-defense, taking younger men under one’s wing, adult involvement in youth education. This is what the Panthers did in the 1970s. So when I saw Jidenna’s video and Black Ivy’s website, I thought, Whoa! This is amazing. This is familiar. This is the same ethos, the same assertion of confidence, of ego—of sense of self. I think this could be a very significant movement. Fashion as a means of politics.

Guernica: There isn’t a single item of clothing in that video that isn’t totally enviable.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Those suits!

Guernica: The suits play a role in the video’s plot. At one point we see a few cops pressing two teenagers up against the wall, either for a stop-and-frisk kind of situation, or to arrest them. We’re not sure. And then Jidenna rolls up in his single-breasted periwinkle slim-fit suit and diffuses the situation. He’s ultra calm, ultra dapper.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes, and one of the kids is in a hoodie. He’s the only one dressed like that in the whole video, I think.

Guernica: It made me think of the cover of Claudia Rankine’s latest book, Citizen. The hood ripped off a black sweatshirt, alone on the white background. It’s a startling cover.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: The hoodie has become such a symbol of African-American male youth and of the violence perpetuated against young black men. It’s not insignificant that the guys having trouble with police in Jidenna’s video were wearing hoodies. Yet it’s interesting that the symbolism is so narrow. Everybody wears hoodies. The real troubling outfit, of course, is the skin.

Guernica: What does that mean for projects like yours?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: I emphasize groups and communities that are looking to take things into their own hands, which is why I think it’s important to look at the t-shirts that are being worn to further protest. The “Black Life Matters” message, the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” I’ve seen others that recall the hoodie, that have the image of Trayvon Martin wearing his hoodie as either a photo or an outline.

Guernica: Like a logo.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: That’s what clothing can do: push it all into the political sphere. There’s an exhibit at the Prince George’s African American Museum, Transforming Anew: Perspectives of Black Men, and many of the artworks there also use the hoodie as an emblem.

Guernica: An emblem of what, exactly?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Of race, men, youth, but also, and very importantly, class. There is class, too, in the hoodie. And then there’s Black Ivy and all that is represented in Jidenna’s video attesting to the middle class, the upper class. It’s not stated, but it’s implicit.

Guernica: What is the implication there?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Well, it makes me think about the civil rights movement. The first civil rights movement, I mean—we’ve got a new one now, don’t we? In the first civil rights movement people were told that in community organizing one was to wear their finest, their Sunday best. It was about presenting an image that the larger, mainstream… What’s the word I’m looking for here?

Guernica: White?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes. What was wanted was an image that that world could associate with dignity and self-respect. I wonder, though, if there’s now a changing balance between that kind of clothing and the street wear that imitates and glorifies so-called “thug life.”

Anyone is susceptible to police violence. It’s not comfortable, but here we are.

Guernica: What makes you wonder if that balance will change?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: I think that for a while the African-American middle class had really—I wouldn’t say abandoned, but there was a lot less emphasis on working within their immediate community in certain ways. Assimilation was fine, but lifting up those of lower income, those with fewer opportunities? I think people became a little bit complacent. And now, I think the recent murders have sharpened people. It’s been a wake-up call, especially, for those who are in college or have most clearly benefited from the first civil rights movement. Recognizing that there are still a disproportionate number of African-American children and young people growing up in difficult conditions, and that they’re being punished for that, or as a result of it, anyways. Recognizing that anyone is susceptible to police violence. It’s not comfortable, but here we are.

There are many different kinds of dress codes. One person’s transgression of taste is another person’s high style. When you allow for the political aspect of dress, then the consequences for dressing in one way versus another become important. W.E.B. Dubois talked about the “double-consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” And part of that double-consciousness is being conscious of what you wear: of the rhetoric of it, and the effects your visual presentation is going to have, whether those effects are warranted or not.

Guernica: I can’t help but think about the way women’s dress is policed, and the way we’re told that how we dress dictates what kind of treatment we’re “asking for” or “deserve.” But I’m thinking about the Black Panthers, too, and what you said about making political radicalism a kind of high fashion.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: I recently had an invitation to the Nation of Islam’s Women’s Day. My family is Muslim, not part of the Nation, but I went and I was really interested to see how they were interpreting dress code. Because there is definitely a dress code. One of the things that women talked about was that as part of their education within the Nation, along with self-defense—my cousin, who invited me, taught karate—they were encouraged to design their own clothing based on the Nation’s idea of acceptable dress. They were encouraged not to purchase mass-produced clothing. What the Nation is about is self-determination. In the beginning they were creating a space within the United States that was different from everything going on in the country outside the community. Like many religious groups, this was an important part of their process: bonding, naming themselves.

There were a lot of things that would make sense in a feminist context at this meeting I went to: an emphasis on self-defense, martial arts, pushing women to get the highest degrees that they can. On the other hand, they’re also saying that women need to know how to cook nutritious food and care for families. It’s a lot more complex than I initially thought—and especially from the point of view of dress. They had fashion shows, and women were doing incredible variations on the standard Nation of Islam dress. I thought that was really incredible. I saw one woman who’d raised the neckline on her tunic, and had filled the added fabric with beautiful embroidery.

Guernica: She made extra room for adornment.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: And thus, for self-naming. You know, I think it’s worth noting that Black Ivy is, particularly, a black men’s movement. I don’t think there’s anything comparable for black women right now. I haven’t seen anything, at least.

Guernica: What do you think that would look like—something comparable for women?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Now that’s the question. I’ve seen a great deal that harkens back to the glamour of the 1940s, vintage cuts, the dancehall look, that sort of thing. But I’m hesitant to say that that’s representative of the revolution, because that look is still restricting women. The style restricts women’s bodies, even if it does celebrate them, which is also debatable. So I think we will see a strong emphasis on a freedom to dress without fear that dress will define our interactions any more so than it does men, that it will in any way allow or explain bad treatment.

Guernica: That seems especially important given the persistent sexualizing of black women’s bodies.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Exactly. Now, I should mention that Jidenna has said that in his view, this is a women’s movement as well. But I don’t know if that’s the case. He talks about women wearing comparable clothing in terms of an update to the Harlem Renaissance, and that gives me pause, merely linking the movement by period style.

Guernica: Why?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Because the struggle for women is different and always will be. True, for both black men and black women there is the issue of violence from outside societies.

Guernica: Are you talking about media representation? Because black women are also accosted and killed by the police, even though it isn’t talked about nearly as much as police violence against black men.

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Yes, there is that. But I’m talking about the struggle of self-image, too. And that’s why I think androgyny in dress is a more comparable revolutionary movement for black women.

Guernica: Like Janelle Monáe?

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Like Janelle Monáe!

Guernica: Those suits!

Diana Baird N’Diaye: Oh, yes.

Guernica: A tweet of hers went viral not too long ago. Some man tweeted at her, “girl stop being so soulful and be sexy…tired of those dumbass suits.” And she tweeted back, “Sit down. I’m not for male consumption.”

Diana Baird N’Diaye: And I think that’s it! Certainly there are many ways to say this through dress, but androgyny is a statement about not being for male consumption. Or for consumption by the patriarchy, if you’d prefer. That’s not to say that gender, like race or community of origin, is totally irrelevant. But as a measure of worth? It should be.

G

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