On October 10, I decided to take a walk through the National Mall. I rode the Metro in and exited the station with some difficulty, as huge lines of people were waiting to buy tickets. Maybe there’s an event going on? At ground level, crowds of mostly African Americans surrounded the station, while vendors sold water, trinkets, and T-shirts.
I finally caught a glimpse of one of the shirts, and the realization hit me. “Justice or Else!” it proclaimed. “20th Anniversary Million Man March.” The design featuring the Capitol Building was familiar to me; I had just encountered that very T-shirt in my research.
My internship at the Center is focused on The Will to Adorn, a project developed by Folklife curator Diana N’Diaye exploring African American dress and identity. She conducted research in eight U.S. cities and the U.S. Virgin islands, analyzing communities of style based on religion, ethnicity, region, class, gender, music, and more. Each community approaches dress differently, but she found common threads that connect African Americans across the country.
Dress can be a positive statement of identity and culture, but personal choices also affect public perception. In a few high-profile cases, negative associations have led to women’s professional lives put in jeopardy for wearing their natural hair. After delving into the project, I began to appreciate the fundamental power adornment holds in political action.
“One of the ways that I really felt that I could do it, besides singing songs of freedom and change, was to change the way that I presented myself to the world,” Pamela Rogers said at a Will to Adorn roundtable discussion called “Fashion as a Political Statement” at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. “It was just a community—almost uprising—in clothing design at the time, where we were all looking for a different way to express [ourselves] that was more reflective of our culture and political status.”
Recently I had been looking at political T-shirts from the civil rights era, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Million Man March. On October 16, 1995, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan led a gathering on the National Mall designed to reshape the image of African American men in the media, the country, and the world. T-shirts from the time display graphics of African American men holding hands in solidarity, while others recited messages like:
Is the Black Man
Walking on the National Mall on the anniversary of the march was like seeing Will to Adorn research come to life. Vendors sold buttons and T-shirts with designs of American flags, black power fists, and graduation caps, bearing slogans of Black Lives Matter: “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” The spirit of the original march to change stereotypes was evident twenty years later: other shirts read “#humanizeblack” and “Educated Natural Queen,” and students wore shirts from the local historically black college Howard University proudly.
Posters read “Straight Outta Patience” in reference to the recent biopic of N.W.A. named after their debut album, and corresponding locally created T-shirts read “Straight Outta D.C.” I wandered through these expressions of hometown pride, political urgency, and calls for an end to prejudice. They featured images of leaders like Obama, Mandela, Public Enemy, and Farrakhan himself.
But there was more than the explicit political messaging. In my research I had immersed myself in images of women in hijabs and caftans, of barbers styling hair, of older women in elaborate church hats, of people sporting locs and Afro-inspired fabric. Our collection of photos document “exemplars of style,” those who encapsulate their communities’ ideas of what it means to be well-dressed. I saw many exemplars of style at the rally: one older gentleman fully decked out in a three-piece suit with a brightly colored pocket square and a jaunty hat, another man in a red, black, and green kufi, a cap from West Africa, paired with a dashiki. Young people were dressed up in modern and upcoming fashion genres like hip-hop or Afropunk. Female followers of the Nation of Islam wore headpieces and colorful full-length ensembles.
The roots of modern style can be traced throughout history. During slavery, clothing had to be mended with whatever fabric was available, and over time a patching, quilt-like aesthetic became stylish. In the book Stylin’: African-American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, Shane and Graham White describe this deliberate clashing of patterns, colors, and textures as an example of improvisation within a structure, like a visual equivalent of the improvised, polyrhythmic sounds in jazz or traditional Sub-Saharan African music. From these practices, they say, a distinct African American sensibility emerged.
Contemporary artisans create clothing inspired by this heritage, continuing to combine patterns, as well as interweaving items of heritage into contemporary styles. On her website, Will to Adorn participant and artisan Barbara Winstead describes her practice of combining traditional hand-woven African fabrics like mudcloth or kente with modern silks, linens, and tapestries. Following the tradition outlined in Stylin’, “the garments are constructed as a collage of complementary asymmetric sections reminiscent of quilt making.”
A main element in Will to Adorn research—also evident at the rally—is the care people put into curating their appearance, from elaborate headscarves wrapped with precision to one older man’s vibrant red pinstripe suit that made him stand out proudly among the crowds. The will to adorn is demonstrated in the time and effort people invest in creating something beautiful they are proud of, how they pay homage to their communities, and how they express their individual personalities.
In an age when blackness is, by default, political in the media and immediate perceptions, this research gives me a deeper understanding of a cultural heritage and an appreciation of how it influences sensibilities across diverse communities. Our will to adorn is a fundamental need to express self, belief, heritage, and belonging. The original Million Man March was a statement in taking ownership of identity, and the twentieth anniversary rally continued that role and its call to action, both verbally and sartorially.
Aly Schuman is a curatorial intern working on The Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity.