Charting Black America's Fashion Savvy The fashion sensibilities of African-American tastemakers, from Cab Calloway to Beyonce have had a major influence on the global fashion industry. A new museum exhibit charts the evolution of black fashion.
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Charting Black America's Fashion Savvy

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Charting Black America's Fashion Savvy

Charting Black America's Fashion Savvy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From Cab Calloway in the 1940s to Beyonce in 2006, and let's not forget church finery, African-American fashion has shaped American fashion at large. Now the Museum of the City of New York has mounted a new exhibit. The premise: Black style is global style.

NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

(Soundbite of song “Déjà vu")

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singer): (Singing) Baby I swear it's Déjà vu. Know that I can't get over you.

ALLISON KEYES: At the gala opening for the museum's Black Style Now exhibit, the black glitterati strutted down the red carpet, flaunting the fashion savvy that many believe has propelled black style into an international commodity. Hip-hop mogul, rapper and clothing designer Sean Diddy Combs, resplendent in a cream-colored jacket and gray tie, is featured in the exhibit. He believes that what black people wear has ignited the imaginations of others for decades.

Mr. SEAN DIDDY COMBS (Rapper, Clothing Designer): From where it got started during the Harlem Renaissance to what happens in our music videos every day has inspired, you know, international designers all over the world.

Ms. SARAH HENRY (Deputy Director, Museum of the City of New York): Fashion is a window into the cultural history of the city.

KEYES: Sarah Henry is deputy director of the museum. She says that history, particularly in New York City's legendary Harlem, is sumptuous and rich.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: The first section of the exhibit runs from the 1920s through about 1970 with a series of black and white photos that, Henry says, illustrate the attitude and projection of style that African-Americans have always had.

Ms. HENRY: It's a way that people project their identity, their own dignity, their sense of self worth, their sense of power and to give light to the stereotypes that are endemic in the world in which they've lived.

(Soundbite of song “Say It Loud”)

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Say it loud!

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'm black and I'm proud.

KEYES: Museum officials believe there was a turning point for black style after 1970 on the heels of the civil rights movement. African-Americans began to get the idea that black is beautiful. It revolutionized the style of dress.

Stephen Burrows became the first black designer with his own boutique in a major store, and black models like Barbara Summers began getting work.

Ms. BARBARA SUMMERS (Fashion Model): All these different kinds of changes were coming in. There was a show at Versailles in 1973, Beverly Johnson, the first black woman on the cover of Vogue, and then more. You know, every year or every couple of years there was some amazing breakthrough.

KEYES: Then, there was hip-hop.

(Soundbite of music)

RUN DMC (Rap Group): (Rapping) My Adidas walk through…

KEYES: For many at the museum on a recent Tuesday, this was the sexiest part of the exhibit. You've got Run DMC in their Adidas warm-ups, gold rope chains as wide as three fingers, and of course the hats.

Ms. HENRY: The turning point comes in many ways with MTV, when they first start running rap videos. And the first one that we have on view here is the Run DMC Rock Box. And it's important also because Run DMC is really embracing whole-heartedly the street look.

KEYES: This was also the period where companies suddenly realized there was money in hip-hop when the crowd at a 1986 Run DMC concert held their Adidas sneakers in the air. And the next thing you know, the company had signed its first non-athletic endorsers.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) They say she a gold digger…

Hip-hop fashion is now a multimillion-dollar industry. Along with a gown worn by Beyonce and one of the Polo shirts favored by rapper Kanye West, there are pieces from black-owned companies like FUBU. But exhibit co-curator Michael Henry Adams points to a wall full of 800 images of people of all colors in hip-hop attire.

Mr. MICHAEL HENRY ADAMS (Co-curator, Black Style Now): What you've got are people who are proclaiming by the way they dress and carry themselves that I am strong and I am tough. You will mess with me at your peril.

KEYES: Adams believes there is a separate black style, but he also believes it's been appropriated for white and world use.

Mr. ADAMS: We realize that they have absorbed this African-American culture. But you know what? This happens to black people over and over again. What we do gets appropriated. And what do we do in response? We go on to something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: But iconic actor, costume designer, dancer and director Geoffrey told NPR over lunch that he believes a special relationship of fashion is part of the nature of black people.

Mr. GEOFFREY HOLDER (Costume Designer; Director): With my race, we are always dandies. We know how to dress. Dressing is a part of our ceremony; dressing to go to church, dressing for respectability, you know. And we have only because we are physically beautifully built.

KEYES: The 6'6” 76-year-old artist says he remembers seeing the French come to Harlem to copy the fashion blacks wore on the streets.

Mr. HOLDER: They would see what we are wearing and not what we're wearing. It may be very inexpensive clothes, but how we wear it. And then they would bring that fashion right back to France and have it copied in different fabrics that are more expensive.

KEYES: While the influence of black style around the world is undeniable, that success is not trickling down to black designers. Very few are sold in major department stores. From his studio in New York's fashion district, Courtney Washington explains that his clothes are sold in boutiques around the world, but it's expensive to keep your name out there.

Mr. COURTNEY WASHINGTON (Fashion Designer): The business also takes so much money to get a little bit of limelight. And you have to have the money and also the money to make sure that you're always in the limelight every single year, every single season.

KEYES: Former model Barbara Summers adds that things are tough these days for models of color as well.

Ms. SUMMERS: When you come down to the covers on fashion magazines, you don't even see us. When was the last time you saw a black girl on the cover of Vogue?

(Soundbite of song "Survivor")

DESTINY'S CHILD (Singing Group): (Singing) I'm a survivor. I'm not gonna give up.

KEYES: Still, Summers worries that the black style that once shattered stereotypes is now all about the money and that today's African-American celebrities think they can buy elegance. But she has no doubt that black style still belongs to black people.

Ms. SUMMERS: We had to sew little tags in the scene. Remember where this came from? Remember this came from black people.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Survivor")

DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Without your perfect vision. You thought I couldn't last without ya, but I'm lastin'. You thought that I would die without ya, but I'm livin'.

CHIDEYA: To see photos from Black Style Now and to learn more about the exhibit, go to our Web site

(Soundbite of song "Survivor")

DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) You thought that I would self-destruct, but I'm still here. Even in my years to come I'm still goin' be here. I'm a survivor. I'm not gonna give up. I'm not goin' stop. I'm gonna work harder. I'm a survivor.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the Africa American Public Radio Consortium.

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