Throughout their history in the United States, people of African descent have used adornment and the body arts as channels of economic, social, and political independence and activism.
Before emancipation, African American couturiere Elizabeth Keckley built a thriving business with both African and European American clientele that later enabled her to purchase her own freedom. As Mary Todd Lincoln’s designer and confidante, Keckley was able to support the movement for emancipation both financially and through her influence in the White House.
Enterprising inventor and educator Annie Malone created the model that inspired and guided a proliferation of family-owned beauty schools. Rosa Parks, a central figure of the civil rights movement, was working as a skilled dressmaker at the time her actions initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to the end of legal segregation.
For many years, when African Americans were banned from using dressing rooms in upscale department stores, clothiers opened stores specifically for an African American clientele. In the 1970s, Rufus Isley’s Mr. Man store in Washington, D.C., held a niche in African American communities catering to socially mobile clients.
In more recent years, immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America have brought custom tailoring, dressmaking, braiding, and other hairstyling techniques and traditions to the barber shops and the beauty salons that are still mainstays in African American neighborhoods.