Black community’s contributions to fashion have been chronically overlooked and under-reported throughout American history. From extraordinary figures like Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress) to events like the “ Battle of Versailles” (a fashion show walked by predominantly Black models that marked a turning point for American ready-to-wear), history is rife with ignored incidents of Black creativity. In an overdue effort to shed deserved light on these contributions, we’ve put together a list of books — memoirs, biographies, and historical accounts — that detail the lives and works of unsung Black visionaries who helped shape the fashion industry.
To help us build this reading list, we turned to Jasmine Helm and Joy Davis: two fashion historians who co-founded
Unravel (along with Dana Thomas), a podcast that expounds on everything from Claire McCardell’s iconic ballet flat to the history of secondhand clothing. With their bird’s-eye view of sartorial culture throughout human history, they helped us pinpoint ten (a small number of countless) important Black players, movements, and moments in the world of style. Scroll ahead to educate yourself on and further illuminate the Black community’s momentous contributions to fashion. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to chime in on your suggested reading material in the comments below.
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“Behind The Scenes” by Elizabeth Keckley
The 19th-century dressmaker’s arresting memoir matter-of-factly details her remarkable life, starting with a horrific period of enslavement that ended when she bought her own freedom at the age of 37. Keckley went on to establish a clothing business in Washington, DC, dressing Victorian-era power wives and eventually becoming the
modiste — personal seamstress — to then-First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. “[Keckley] was a self-made woman who took care of her children, raised a household, and also had a seamstress business,” says Joy. “The respectability politics of the day and how she had to navigate space is important. She had a lot to contend with.”
It examines the role of seamstress outside of an everyday chosen profession and inside a job or task that was forced upon enslaved people.
Eno Publishers Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, $, available a
“Slaves to Fashion” by Monica L. Miller
Barnard professor Monica L. Miller explains how dandyism — the (usually male) practice of projecting a loftier-than-actual social status through refined dress — was a style foisted on slaves held captive in Europe, but it was subverted before long. “This book is huge — it’s a big, important moment in Black fashion history in the dialogue,” says Joy. “Before [Miller], there weren’t a lot of Black folks referring to Black historical references beyond the 20th century, but she goes as far back as the 1600s.”
(For further reading and inspiration on this topic, check out
Shantrelle P. Lewis’s dazzling “Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style.”)
Duke University Press Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, $, available at Amazon
“Vintage Black Glamour” by Nichelle Gainer
This treasure trove of sepia-toned images — spanning almost a whole century, from 1900 to 1980 — depicts well-known Black performers (like Josephine Baker and Donna Summer) alongside lesser-known luminaries (like dancer Pearl Primus and musician Valaida Snow), all costumed to the nines onstage and off.
Rocket 88 Vintage Black Glamour, $, available at
“Something to Prove” by Julia Faye Smith
A virtuosic sewer who came from a long lineage of seamstresses, Ann Lowe’s career spanned the 1930s to the 1960s, using her couture-level training and an exacting eye to create wearable masterpieces for high-society families (like the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers).
“In her heyday, she worked with the Bouviers, doing their cotillion dresses,” says Joy. This relationship culminated with Lowe’s most famous creation — the dress that Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe, $, available at Amazon
“Liberated Threads” by Tanisha C. Ford
“Tanisha C. Ford is a great author,” says Joy, and one of Unravel’s top recommendations is the fashion and culture scholar’s “Liberated Threads,” which explores how Black women’s style and sartorial choices played a role in activism — from the Civil Rights movement to the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.
Liberated Threads Liberated Threads, $, available at Amazon
“Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful” by Tanisha C. Ford and Deborah Willis
Ford also co-authored a breathtaking tome on the work of Kwame Brathwaite, a Harlem-based photographer whose work embodied the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s. Alongside his brother, the activist Elombe Brath, he co-founded the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios and Grandassa Models, a coterie of Black mannequins.
Aperture Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful, $, available at Amazon
“Battle of Versailles” by Robin Givhan
Conceived as a charity event to raise money for the restoration of Versailles, this historic fashion “battle” featured the influential Black designer Stephen Burrows, alongside contemporaries like Halston and Bill Blass, pitted against a team of reigning French houses (Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior among them). Even more significant was the trailblazing parade of Black models that dominated the runway, including Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and Alva Chinn.
The energy of the American contingent ruled the evening and the country emerged as a clear “winner.” It’s perhaps most significant that “that night, [there] weren’t African-American models and Burrows’s clothes weren’t African-American designs,” wrote the New York Times, “they were American models in American clothes.”
Flatiron Books The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, $, available at Amazon
“Willi Smith: Street Couture”
“Willi Smith is extremely impactful for fashion Black history and moving the Black fashion canon forward,” says Joy. The Philadelphia-born designer enjoyed both critical and commercial success during the 1980s, winning numerous
Coty awards for his work and grossing up to $25 million a year in sales with his WilliWear imprint. While we’re still waiting for a chance to catch his first-ever solo show at the Cooper Hewitt museum, we’re making do with the rich exhibition catalog, featuring over 300 photographs from the designer’s archive.
Rizzoli Willi Smith: Street Couture, $, available at Amazon
“Jamel Shabazz: Back in The Days”
“Jamel Shabazz’s books are
such an important part of chronicling New York culture — he was probably the Bill Cunningham of New York for people of color,” says Jasmine. The prolific street photographer has authored eight monographs over his multi-decade career, tirelessly documenting the city’s inhabitants and their singular style. “Back in the Days” showcases residents of the five boroughs during the 80s, when hip-hop and its associated sartorial flair dominated the streets.
powerHouse Back in the Days, $, available at Amazon
“Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem” by Daniel R. Day
“Dapper Dan has been a controversial figure in fashion throughout his career,” says Joy. The Harlem-based haberdasher rose to prominence alongside the hip-hop artists that he dressed, remixing logos from luxury houses like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Gucci to create high-style garb for pioneering musicians like KRS-One and LL Cool J.
However, lawsuits from these European labels decimated his business, and according to his
son, he “went underground” — only to re-emerge in 2017 after Gucci unveiled a voluminously-sleeved windbreaker that looked identical to one that he had designed in the 1980s. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg in this designer’s fascinating and inspiring life.
Random House Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, $, available at Amazon
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