Black History Month: Historic Black Women in Fashion

Fashion comes with a long and extensive history. The beautiful thing about that is fashion reflects life in the current moment. The ability to identify particular styles with a specific decade says a lot about what’s happened, what is happening and what’s to come. Clothing serves more than just the purpose of protection. For centuries, humanity has utilized fashion for adornment. Personal style is an outlet for self-expression and becomes so important to a person's identity. Fashion moves through the world with us but it’s only as lively as the people who push it forward. Throughout the years Black women have been one of the many driving forces that influence fashion. Elizabeth Keckley, Joyce Bryant and Anifa Mvuemba are just a few of the women that have left their mark on fashion history. Each of these women sparked a pivotal moment in fashion and society. 

Elizabeth Keckley, 1818-1907

Elizabeth Keckley was a 20th century dressmaker, civil activist and author. She led a difficult life as a former slave and still faced many challenges as a freed woman. After buying her freedom she moved to Washington D.C. in 1860 where she would spend the rest of her adult years. Keckley opened up her own dressmaking shop. Shortly, the socialites of the Victorian-era grew fond of her work. Keckley became so popular amongst high society women that a recommendation landed her a position in the White House to work for the then First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. As the First Lady’s personal dressmaker Keckley gained insight into personal life at the White House. She witnessed intimate moments between President Lincoln and his wife. Many times Mary Todd Lincoln confided in Keckley. The two bonded over motherhood and the devastating fact that both women experienced the loss of a child. Following the assassination of President Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln kept Keckley’s company close. In an attempt to support the First Lady financially, Keckley published a memoir titled “Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House.” The book entailed her life as a slave and the firsthand accounts she witnessed while working in the White House. Though Keckley hoped the book would alleviate some financial burden for Mary Todd Lincoln, it backfired quickly. Keckley’s book was met with lots of criticism. The public disagreed with the idea of White House private life being revealed. The book then destroyed Keckley’s reputation and her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. Her dressmaking career promptly ended after the book’s publication. Although Keckley’s book was met with immense disapproval when it was released, historians today are thankful for this work. Scholars often refer to her book as a primary source to gain an accurate understanding for what Lincoln’s life was like. Keckley’s livelihood and quite literally herself were a part of a very important period of U.S. history.

Joyce Bryant, 1928-Present

Joyce Bryant is an American Jazz singer who dominated the nightclub scene between the 1940s and the 1950s. After a spontaneous performance at a LA nightclub Bryant was offered payment and a two week contract on the spot. In a few short years, multiple Jazz clubs were eager to seize one of her captivating performances. The impressive four-octave singer was attracting this attention with her talent and with her alluring glamour. Bryant’s powerful voice and her glitzy style enabled her to have a stage presence unlike other performers at the time. As a result she earned nicknames such as “the Bronze Blonde Bombshell”, “the Black Marilyn Monroe”, and “the Voice You’ll Always Remember”. Bryant’s wardrobe pushed the boundaries on modest style. Her performance costumes often included tight low-cut mermaid dresses adorned with sequins. The majority of her gowns were sewn by Zelda Wynn Valdes, an African-American fashion designer. She dyed her hair silver to compliment her stylish looks. Bryant also pushed boundaries socially. As a Black performer, she reached new heights by performing at high profile establishments such as Miami Beach Hotel and Royal Casino. Bryant promptly ended her career as a singer in 1955 after being physically assaulted in her dressing room when she refused sexual advances and being exhausted by the pressures of the industry. In the mid 1960s, Bryant returned to the stage and became a vocal instructor with various musical institutions. It is rumoured that Bryant’s aesthetic influenced other famous singers like Etta James. Bryant was one of the women pioneering the diva style. She remains highly remembered for being extremely gifted and glamourous. 

Anifa Mvuemba, 1990-Present 

When the pandemic disrupted normalcy across the world Anifa Mvuemba refused to let it get in the way of her success. Mvuemba is the fashion designer behind the womenswear brand Hanifa. While many designers made the tough decision to cancel their fashion shows, Mvuemba decided that the show must go on. With the challenge of the pandemic, Mvuemba got creative and put on a fashion show the public had never seen before. On May 22nd of last year Hanifa presented a digital fashion show on Instagram Live. The virtual fashion show used 3D animation to showcase Mvuemba’s bold creations. The audience caught a glimpse of Hanifa’s Pink Label Congo collection right from the screens of their electronic devices as they watched each garment strut down the runway. Mvuemba’s digital fashion show transformed the idea of traditional runway shows. Mvuemba told Teen Vogue, “I want these pieces to tell a story of meaning. I want them to remind us to be intentional about what we create. Not for clout or for Instagram likes, but for the sake of meaning what we say by storytelling through our designs.” The decision to present the show on Instagram had to do with Mvuemba’s commitment to making fashion more inclusive. Knowing that there are people who won’t ever get the opportunity to experience fashion week fueled Mvuemba to think outside the box to make fashion more accessible. As a result, Instagram worked as the perfect platform. Hanifa’s supporters all got front row seats to a groundbreaking show. Mvuemba’s work combined the two worlds of fashion and tech. Her innovative thinking will surely have an influence on fashion’s future. 

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