Episode #8: All Black Everything

Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of True Style in 2022. My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future. 

If you’re listening on the day of release then we are just about to close the curtains on Black History Month, a month that, contrary to what Kanye West might think, is extremely important for not only preserving the beauty and legacies of Black people of the past but also for creating a better future for Black people of the present by building on what our ancestors fought and bled and died to accomplish against every possible odd. 

As I am sure you are aware, the world suffered an immense loss on January 18th, with the announcement that Andre Leon Talley had passed away at the age of 73. As the first African-American male creative director of American Vogue, and, later, editor-at-large—as well as America’s Next Top Model judge, fashion advisor to Michelle Obama, and radio host, Mr. Talley was not only a style icon, but a champion of designers and models of color. His career, spanning six decades, was nothing short of legendary, while his caftans and encyclopedic knowledge of all things fashion lead to his establishment as a household name. 

That said, while his life certainly did not lack its own struggles and strife, Mr. Talley was one of the lucky few Black American fashion artists and appreciators to gain the spotlight that so many have been robbed of, despite crafting some of the most impactful and famous works this world may ever know. 

Today, I want to focus on a few of the lesser known stories. Starting with that of one Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. 

Elizabeth—or, Liz—was born enslaved in 1818. Her mother, Agness Hobbs, lived with and worked for Colonel Armistead Burwell and his family on a plantation in Virginia, where she sewed clothing for Mary, the mistress of the house, eventually teaching Liz. While Agness gave her daughter the surname of Hobbs, for her husband George, who lived on a neighboring plantation, Liz learned much later that she was in fact the daughter of Colonel Burwell, making her mother’s choice an act of defiance and autonomy that was unusual for the time. 

In 1847, after Burwell’s death, Liz, now in St. Louis, offered her services as a seamstress in order to earn money to rescue Burwell’s son-in-law, Hugh Garland, from bankruptcy, eventually making enough to support Mary, Burwell’s widow, their daughter Ann, and the rest of the seventeen members of the family with whom she was now living along with Agness. 

Using Garland’s connections and her own business savvy, she was eventually able to buy her freedom, though, it wasn’t easy. Garland refused at first, but finally agreed after two years, to a fee of $1,200, or a little over $33,000 today, which one of Liz’s patrons took up a collection to loan her. 

Liz remained in St. Louis until she had paid off the loans, and moved to Baltimore in 1860. She aspired to work as a seamstress in Washington, but couldn’t afford the cost of a license to practice business as a free Black. Again, one of her patrons stepped in and petitioned the mayor for a license for Liz, which was granted free of charge. 

After a few more years establishing her shop, employing over 20 seamstresses and creating dresses for the likes of Mary Anna Lee—the wife of Robert E. Lee—and Varina Davis—the wife of Senator Jefferson Davis—Liz was approached by Margaret McLean to complete an urgent order in time for Margaret to join Abraham Lincoln, and his wife for dinner. Liz initially declined, as it just wasn’t enough time and she had prior commitments, but, Margaret offered to introduce Liz to the soon-to-be First Lady, knowing of her aspirations to sew for the women of the White House and Liz accepted. 

In her memoir, Liz wrote of her deep friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, for whom she both worked as a dressmaker and served as a confidant. When Willie Lincoln, Mary’s son, passed only six months after Liz’s own son George, the two went on an extended trip to New York and Boston—and when Abraham Lincoln was violently assassinated, it was Liz she wanted by her side, as well. Unfortunately, Liz’s memoir was very poorly received, even being used by the media as an example of why Blacks shouldn’t be educated, and her business suffered greatly. As her customers disappeared, Liz took to teaching other young Black women to sew, eventually becoming the head of Wilberforce University’s Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. 

She died in 1907, at the age of 89. 

Elizabeth Keckley may have been the first African American to sew for a First Lady, but she wasn’t the last. 

Ann Lowe was born in Alabama, in 1898, the third in a line of seamstresses that included her mother Jane, who was highly skilled in the same floral embroidery that would later become Ann’s signature, and her grandmother Georgia Cole, who sewed clothing for her plantation mistress before being granted her freedom. 

Together, the three women ran a dressmaking business whose clientele was primarily the first families and other members of high society in Montgomery. Unfortunately, Ann’s mother passed away when Ann was only 16, leaving her to take over the business.

After graduating from S. T. Taylor Design School where—though segregated—her work was often held up as an example, elevating her far above her peers, Ann moved to Florida where she opened her first dress salon, and then to New York City. In New York, she did commissions for Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. But, after designing the dress Olivia de Havilland accepted her Oscar for Best Actress in and receiving none of the credit, she opened her second salon. Ann Lowe’s Gowns on Lexington Avenue was an immediate success, an Ann’s signature design elements like her embroidered flowers, intricate hand work and quilting technique called trapunto lead to her gaining true, widespread recognition for her work. 

She was extremely selective in who she designed for, describing herself as quote, “an awful snob” who refused to sew for quote “Mary and Sue” but rather for the families of the Social Register, a semi annual publication often referred to as a directory of so-called “old money” families from the Northeast US. 

In 1953, Ann accepted a commission from Janet Lee Auchincloss, the mother of Jacqueline Bouvier, a woman you may know as Jackie Kennedy-Onassis. She designed not just Jackie’s wedding dress for her marriage to then-senator John F. Kennedy, but also the dresses for the wedding party. During the creation of the dresses, however, Ann’s studio flooded, ruining everything just ten days before the wedding. Her team managed to recreate the dresses, and Ann never told Jackie or Janet about the hiccup, but, despite her hard work, Ann did not receive public credit until years later, and ate the cost of replacing the fine fabrics as well as hiring extra seamstresses to complete the gowns in time, leaving her approximately $2000 in the hole. 

Throughout her career, Ann was referred to as society’s best kept secret, but she admitted later that, even at her peak, she was virtually broke. Her wealthy clients would “negotiate” her prices down by hundreds, so she rarely turned a profit on her designs. In 1961, she won a Couturier of the Year award, but failure to pay taxes following the death of her son and bookkeeper forced her to close her salon the following year. 

She died in 1981, at the age of 82. 

Ann’s Couturier of the Year award served as a mystery for costume historians for years: it was assumed to have been an industry award presented in New York City. It turns out it was actually a plaque given to Ann following her work creating gowns for the women attending the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Ball in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Now, I don’t know anything about Nebraska Couture, but I do know that true couture must be designated as such by the French Federation of Fashion and Ready to Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers, the governing body for the French fashion industry. 

For those that don’t know, that’s not an exaggeration. You are not allowed to present as a couture designer in Paris or call your house a couture house without approval from the Federation, and, as of 2019, there was not a single American house or designer in the official list of members.

However, once upon a time, there was.

Patrick Kelly was born in 1954 in Mississippi. His love of fashion started early, after his grandmother brought home a fashion magazine she’d taken from, quote “a white lady’s house.” At only 6, he noted the absence of Black women in the magazine, to which his grandmother replied “nobody has time to sew for them.” He vowed to be the one to do it, but, growing up in rural Mississippi, he had to keep his passion to himself. 

After attending—but not graduating from—Jackson State University on an art scholarship, Patrick moved to Atlanta, where he worked at a thrift store, modifying the donated designer dresses and coats and selling them, along with his own designs. 

Over time, word of mouth about his work travelled, and he began to put on runway shows, honing his theatrical style and drawing inspiration from the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair traveling shows. It was through these shows that he met supermodel Pat Cleveland, who suggested he move to New York. He did, but, after struggling to drum up any interest in his clothes, he moved again at Miss Cleveland’s suggestion to Paris. 

Patrick immediately found a job designing dance costumes for the popular nightclub Le Palace. At one point, he was churning out 1,000 costumes a week from his tiny hotel room. Once that job ended, he began selling his clothes on the street in front of the Kashiyama France boutique, which eventually came to stock his designs.

One day, at one of the flea markets where he sold his clothes, Patrick spotted a roll of cotton tube jersey, leading to the birth of his tube dress: a hem less, seamless cylinder of jersey with holes for the arms and decorated with colorful buttons, something he’d gotten from his grandmother who would often replace the buttons from his own clothing with random ones from her sewing kit. 

It was this dress that finally blew his name up, getting his clothes into trendy boutiques and earning him a six-page spread in the French edition of Elle Magazine. He never missed an opportunity to pay homage to the Black women he’d promised to design for so many years before: dedicating an entire show to Josephine Baker, and reclaiming symbols like the golliwog which he used as his logo. He believed there was a power in seizing these images back from the people who’d created them to disenfranchise Black Americans, though it made many of his white customers uncomfortable. 

In 1988, with the help of equally legendary French designer Sonia Rykiel, Patrick was admitted to the French Federation of Fashion and Ready to Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers as the very first American, let alone Black American, to achieve such a milestone. 

Patrick Kelly was not just a champion of Black culture, and Black women, but also of inclusivity. He told people Magazine that he designs for, quote, “fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message,” he added, “is that you’re beautiful just the way you are.” 

In 1990, after suffering in silence with the hopes that he would recover enough to present a new collection, as well as carry out plans for lingerie, perfume, and menswear lines, Patrick became a casualty of the AIDS crisis, and died at just 35 years old.

I could go on and on about the Black names that fashion history often forgets. Zelda Wynn Valdes was the first Black person to own a boutique on Broadway, and is credited with designing the original Playboy Bunny costume. 

Jay Jaxon was the first American to head a French couture brand when he took over at Jean Louis Scherrer at only 24 years old. 

Stephen Burrows invented the lettuce hem, a form of finishing the edges of garments that’s extremely popular to this day. And Willi Smith, one of the pioneers of American streetwear who mixed relaxed sportswear with high-end tailoring, was the first designer to house both womenswear and menswear under the same brand.

I strongly encourage you to look into them, as well as other non-American Black fashion icons such as Stella Jean, Oswald Boateng and Victor Glemaud. 

So, like, the internet is very conflicted on what the definition of cultural appropriation actually is. In some terrifying corners of Tumblr, you’ll see some heavy implications that eating food from another culture, or learning another language is enough to be cancelled for stealing culture. Others are a little more lenient, but, by and large, the act of profiting off a culture of which you are not a member seems to be pretty consistently bad. 

That very simple definition is why sometimes, as a Black fashion lover, it can be a bit difficult to partake in certain trends or uplift and support certain designers, and even more difficult to parse what’s simply inspiration from what’s blatant copying and erasure.

Dolce and Gabbana is, naturally, permanently on my personal shitlist after sending white models down the runway wearing earrings reminiscent of Blackamoor statues, an anti-Black caricature not dissimilar to the blackface golliwog character that many are familiar with as dating back to the 1930s American South. It wasn’t much of a loss, but the same can’t be said of Comme des Garcons, who presented their A/W2020 show on white models with cornrows. 

Gucci very blatantly ripped off Dapper Dan in 2017, though they rectified this by forming a partnership with him in 2018— and the Kardashians…I mean, where do I begin with them? Perhaps with Khloe blatantly ripping off Destiny Bleu of D*bleudazzled with a crystal bodysuit for her Good American brand. A bodysuit that Destiny produced literal receipts of purchase by Khloe mere months before the knock off appeared on the Good American site. 

So many things we take for granted now have deep, deep roots in Black culture, and yet, some would say Black Americans have no culture at all. But that’s just patently false. In fact, even after being ripped from our homes, forced into slavery, and punished for practicing any of our customs and practices, we still managed to build a rich, distinct, varied, and, most importantly, cool heritage that’s constantly copied, appropriated, and to a certain extent, bastardized by non-Black people worldwide. 

Even when they were given clothing only twice a year, if that, and forced to wear scratchy, uncomfortable scraps that they were barely allowed to wash, enslaved women would wear head wraps as was common in the Western and Southern African villages they were taken from. 

Prior to abolition, as well as directly following it, freed Black men who managed to barter or purchase the nicer, more high end clothing of their former masters would wear it in order to present themselves with the dignity they’d been robbed of during enslavement, sparking what we, to this day, refer to as Black Dandyism. 

Back then, it was viewed as subversive for Black men to wear the tailored suits and class markers such as top hats and pocket watches that are typically associated with white society. And even now, descendants of the original Dandies don suits as a form of protest. Though, in 2022, it doesn’t quite have the same effect. 

That said, it wasn’t until the early 20th century—particularly the Harlem Renaissance—that Black Americans—still relatively newly freed and only recently able to access any sort of wealth and abundance—really began to build a more collective and distinct identity through art, including fashion, and along with that collective identity came more specific in-groups based on background, interests, and style, laying the foundation for some of the major subcultures and movements that still influence the world today.

One of the first Black subcultures that went on to influence both African American and white American culture at large was centered around jazz. As Jazz clubs and dancing became a more common pastime for women in Harlem, their clothing changed to accommodate them with shorter hemlines to make movement easier, loose tailoring that eliminated the need for corsets, and dropped hemlines to create a slimmer figure. This look eventually made its way out of the predominantly Black clubs into the few non-segregated ones and, naturally, onto white women, or, flappers, as you may know them.

It’s worth noting that while the flapper look is one of the main things we associate with 20s fashion overall, it was actually pretty far outside of the mainstream. Flappers, because of their association with the sinful genre that was jazz and because of jazz’s association with Black people—at least early on—were considered rebellious. 

Of course, flappers weren’t the last time that Black people’s aesthetics and art forms would be used by other ethnicities—especially white people—to express their deviance and build their own counterculture movements. 

Around the same time the flapper look gained popularity, Black men were quickly popularizing the Zoot suit. First spotted in predominantly Black jazz clubs along the Chitlin Circuit, the suits were described by a young Malcolm X as a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell. That is to say, loosely tailored jackets with huge shoulders and lapels, and extremely high waisted, peg leg trousers. 

The suits were considered gaudy and even offensive by white society, but the men wearing them considered them a literal call to attention for a historically ignored population. The excess fabric marked them as luxury items, leading to them being outright banned during World War 2 rationing, which in turn made wearing them into a blatant act of protest. 

At the same time, the suits quickly gained popularity among Mexican Americans, with both young men and women in said community donning the suits as a challenge to social norms surrounding gender. The Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles in 1943 targeted these youths, accusing them of being unpatriotic for their choice of dress. 

Though the riots also affected African Americans and Filipinos, it was Mexican Americans who took up the defiance of zoot suit wearers and channeled it into the Chicano movement, as well as the Pachuca and Pachuco subculture. 

As Civil Rights became a more prominent and widespread battle for Black Americans, fashion was one of many tools utilized to express our humanity, along with culture. Of course, Black people had always fought for our freedom in America, but with more concentrated efforts came unified movements, such as the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s. 

With roots stemming from the Negritude movement of the 1930s, the Black is Beautiful moment emphasized the importance of a shared identity among people of the African Diaspora, as well as the beauty of African features. 

Black Is Beautiful was a rejection of the idea that the Black body was only suited for slavery, and to reject European standards of beauty. The movement expanded into fashion first with the idea that dressing with a certain sophistication would allow for Black people to command respect from those around us. 

This lead to a return to Black Dandyism, which later morphed to include the wearing of loud, African inspired prints and kente cloth along with the typical sharp Sunday’s best attire. 

Only a couple decades later, African inspired prints would once again show up on the streets of Black America as both political and fashion statements, this time as a part of the burgeoning hip hop culture. Rappers like Queen Latifah and The Fresh Prince, aka Will Smith, as well as athletes including Michael Jordan would combine these colorful textiles with new streetwear staples like basketball jerseys, bucket hats, gold chains and tracksuits, creating a cultural identity that, as you know, influences trends across the globe to this day. 

If Black people create it, you can rest assured that, eventually, someone with a lighter or whiter face is going to profit off of it. We’re just the arbiters of cool, we shape what’s hot. Unfortunately, once that same cool—or some version of it—has been acquired by another group, we tend to be erased from the narrative.

Just as we deserve to be seen, we deserve to be credited, and we deserve to be remembered, and that’s why Black History Month is so important, to this day, to me. Our stories are important, and our pasts are important, but, so is our present and our futures. I encourage you, even and especially if you aren’t Black yourself, to seek out and support ethical Black owned business when you can. And yes, even if a business is primarily targeted toward Black people, you are allowed to shop there, even if you’e white! Stop asking! 

Now, I wanna switch gears a bit. Let’s talk about black fashion, but, like, literally black. As in black clothing. Tay, in Los Angeles, wants to know how to wear all black without being bland. 

Before I answer this, I wanna make an observation: one of the absolute most common things I get asked as a stylist is how to introduce more color into one’s wardrobe. A lot of us, including myself, default to all black either out of comfort or ease. I can, of course, help you expand your color palette, if that’s what you want, but, if you want to wear black all the time, that’s 100% fine. 

A lot of us, when figuring out our own wardrobes, will prescribe ourselves things we think we need. People who wear jeans a lot think they need dresses. People who lean toward solid colors think they need to start loving prints. But, let me be the first to tell you: you don’t. In fact, I actively discourage this line of thinking because it often just leads to buying things you won’t really use. 

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your comfort zones and seeking ways to push your own limits, but that doesn’t mean you have to go against your actual taste. And if your taste is all black, I’m gonna help you wear all black in the coolest, most you way. 

Most fashion outlets will tell you the easiest way to add some flavor to an all black outfit is to add a pop of color, but that’s not the only way to spice up a monochromatic look. 

In fact, none of my favorite ways to make an all black look pop require you to buy a yellow clutch, or red pumps, or whatever. 

Instead, I recommend you 1. Play with textures, 2. Play with proportions, and-slash-or, 3. Get metal. 

Let me explain. 

One, playing with textures and fabrics can be as easy as switching out denim jeans for wool trousers, but, you can also get really wild with it. You could go hard vs soft by mixing, say, a satin blouse with leather boots, or lux meets lax with cozy sweatpants and a faux fur jacket. 

Take your basics like cotton, like leather and suede and combine them with super chunky knits, or shiny vinyl or latex, or, consider the design features of the pieces: like a pleated mini skirt with a ruffly top, or a sheer t-shirt layered over a sheer tank top, or something crazy like a thick quilted jacket with a tulle or chiffon dress. All in black, of course. 

Playing with texture is also a great way to overcome the dreaded “my blacks don’t match” problem that plagues all-black wardrobes everywhere by simply making it less noticeable. 

Two, playing with proportions is something I’ve touched on on the True Style Substack before, but, it’s something I feel doesn’t get nearly enough attention, especially in the conversation around casual outfits. Imagine a simple black T-shirt with black jeans. Comfy, an easy go-to, but not necessarily that exciting. Now, take your typical jean and replace them with, say, a wide legged, super high waisted style, or a newer balloon style that flares out at the hips and tapers at the ankle. If you typically wear a more fitted top, try a looser, slightly cropped version, and suddenly, you have a whole new look. 

Experimenting with proportions in this way can take trial and error, but, as a general rule of thumb: you want something looser with something more fitted. You want something more voluminous with something cut more closely to the body, and you can typically pair boxier, masculine cuts with more feminine silhouettes. Of course, this all depends on you and your personal idea of what’s flattering on your body, so, try different pairings, but don’t be discouraged if what’s quote-unquote supposed to work doesn’t float your boat. 

Lastly, and this is my favorite, add some hardware. Of course, the easiest way to do this is through things like belts and jewelry, but there can also hardware on your clothing like studs, chains, buttons and zippers. You can pick gold or silver, or, and I know this is controversial, you can do both. Of course the key to mixing metals is making it look intentional. If your purse, say, has a gold chain, but your clothing has silver hardware, add jewelry that’s both, like a gold chain layered with a silver chain, or a gold bracelet with a silver bracelet, just to sort of pull everything together. 

And that’s all she wrote for Black History Month 2022. I hope y’all were able to get past the utter tomfoolery that went on the past 28 days and celebrate the richness that is Black American culture in some way. If not, you have my permission to go eat some smothered pork chops tonight or something.

As always, you can find transcripts of this and all episodes at True Style dot show, and you can also submit your questions for the next episode! Be sure to follow the newsletter as well, that’s True Style dot Substack dot com. And I will talk to y’all later. Bye!

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