In understanding fashion as means of communication and articles of clothing encrypted with powerful messages shaped by social and historical value systems, scholars define fashion activism as the visual representation of social political beliefs and ideology to achieve change. During the civil rights movement and Black is beautiful movement, African American activists utilized clothing and hairstyles as means of resistance and to show affiliation to their respective political organizations. This study asks: What role did clothing and hairstyles worn by Black women activists play in the advancement of the civil rights movement and the Black is beautiful movement?And how did these stylistic decisions challenge the dominant views of African American femininity and beauty at the time? I analyze the speeches and fashion of Kathleen Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and Ella Baker from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to address these questions.
The civil rights movement during the 1960s and early 1970s commissioned a compelling moment for the intensification of women of color in social political engagements. Particularly, African American women activists garnered demand for legislative reform through the harmonization of activism and fashion. Forms of resistance amassed solidarity and unity among African American women in which particular modes of dress were attributed to manners of resistance and embodied the identity of particular groups and its members. Furthermore, through this moment arose the cultural shift of Black femininity in resistance to contemporary standards of beauty known as “Black is beautiful.” The two movements in concurrence shifted the dynamic of Black female expression in which styles of dress employed a sense of identity and pride to African heritage in counter to the oppression of the African American community, especially African American women.
Specifying the role clothing played in advancing the movement, I look to the two prominent political organizations that were fighting for political reform during the time—The Black Panther Party and The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Black Panther Party’s main initiative was to get more African Americans elected into political office and to institute many social programs and engage in political activities. However, the group is often thought of for its involvement in violent encounters with the police and as a target for the FBI as “one of the greatest threats to national security.” The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed to give younger African American activists more of a voice and, conversely from the Black Panthers, as it’s written in the name, the group limited the amount of violence throughout its service by focusing on voter registration for African Americans. Although fighting for the same convictions, discrepancies within the groups derived from contradicting ideals regarding political beliefs and the manner of employing resistance to the white controllers and the government, and these differences were easily apparent through each group’s style of dress. Both groups adopted specific styles of dress as uniforms in which they became a source of identification and affiliation to the respective groups and oftentimes shaped the individual member’s identity.
There were many African American women activists who signified their political beliefs through clothing. However, Kathleen Cleaver (Black Panther Party) and Ella Baker (SNCC) both served as forerunners within their organizations and prominent stylistic figures, thoroughly showcasing the styles of each group.
The civil rights movement fostered a moment centered around Black uplift. During the time, many sub-movements encouraged African American citizens to take pride in their African heritage and repel the wider public ideology, especially pertaining to beauty standards. Particularly, the fashion industry and media depicted a wider representation of African American women, encouraging the use of fashion and hairstyles to push back against indoctrinated beliefs.
In the book Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, author Maxine Leeds Craig discusses how grooming was used to convey personal and racial pride. African American women dressed in their “Sunday Best” and straightened their hair to perfection in efforts to be seen by white counterparts, as well as other Black people as “respectable” Black middle class individuals.1 African American women strayed from this style of dress. Eurocentric looks dominated the beauty industry, devaluing African American’s women’s identities throughout society and forcing them to conform to the beauty standards by straightening their hair and lightening their skin. The Black is beautiful movement arose through this moment of Black uplift where African American women resisted the Eurocentric looks and embraced their natural authentic roots. Additionally, Black is Beautiful allowed for a shift in African American portrayal and the development of the African American female representation in the realms of media and fashion.
In the article “The Politics of the First: The Emergence of the Black Model in the Civil Rights Era,” author Janice Cheddie describes the emergence of Black models in mainstream fashion during the 1950s through the 1980s. She reflects on the perpetuated belief, which was shaped by fashion institutions at the time, that Black models were perceived to be less favored than white and other non-Black models by the general public; therefore Black models were unfairly framed as being unable to sell as many goods as white counterparts.2 However, Donyale Luna served as a prominent figure in reconstructing the image of Black women in the media by becoming the first globally recognized Black model. As one of the groundbreakers of mass Black female representation, Luna dramatically shifted the white modeling industry by reshaping the aesthetic space and sparking the contribution of Black models in marketing fashion and beauty products. As a “signifier of democracy,” her portrayal symbolizes the discrimination Black females endured during the civil rights era and the shift for an inclusive representation.3 Additionally, Luna along with the height of Black is beautiful allowed for a change in Black portrayal and the development of Black female representation in the realms of fashion and media that ultimately advanced mass Black female expression and garnered the use of intentional images for activism.
More specifically, the Black is beautiful movement connected to the change of expression through hair. In Style and Status:Selling Beauty to African American Women, author Susannah Walker conveys that using the afro in relation to political change in turn transformed the style into a fashion commodity. This commodification altered the desired look for African American females regardless of political association.4 In Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry, author Tiffany M. Gill explains that as natural hair refined African American identity and opposition to white people, the beauty industry and beauticians served as “leaders and mobilizers” of the movement’s activism. Particularly, the hair industry became central to the movement’s progression, cultivating a space of economic autonomy for African American females as their entrepreneurial leadership contributed to the overall uplift of the African American community.5 The beauty shop also constructed political liberation as it served as a safe space for African American women to openly gather and discuss thoughts pertaining to their activism. Specifically, the afro became a figurative expression of political aversion and a symbol of racial pride.
Tanisha Ford’s article “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress” explores this use of fashion as “political dress” and expression shift for the SNCC women during the 1960s. She describes the shift from the group’s “respectable” stylistic expressions to beginning to deconstruct the notion of dressing up by wearing their natural hair and unisex denim overalls while engaging in their activism. Specifically, Ford describes these decisions as political fashion statements, but she also reflects on their practicality in relation to class and the methods they were engaging for activism.6 For the SNCC women, as they began facilitating and joining more protest-like work, such as rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts, it became impractical and expensive to continuously buy clothes that were being ruined and to maintain freshly done hair. Exchanging their “respectable” style for labor-conforming dress produced solidarity and unity within the group and also made the members distinguishable amongst other political organizations.
Finally, in the article, “Style Activism: The Everyday Activist Wardrobe of the Black Panther Party and Rock Against Racism Movement,” Carol Tulloch defines fashion politics through the construction of style activism grounded in self representation. Particularly, with the Black Panther Party, activism connected to everyday wear from one’s personal wardrobe in which clothing signifiers associated with the organization became an extension of one’s personal activist choice in relation to the larger collective.7
I conduct a content analysis of two prominent female figures and activists, Kathleen Cleaver associated with the Black Panther Party and Ella Baker involved with SNCC, to show the varying ways fashion and hair statements were used to communicate messages surrounding social change. More specifically, this research examines notable videos of the women: Kathleen Cleaver at Hutton Memorial Park in 1960s and a Black is Beautiful gathering in 1968 and with Ella Baker at the Puerto Rico Solidarity Rally in 1974. My analysis draws on both womens’ styles individually as direct reflections of their political affiliation along with their verbal statements throughout the recordings to convey messages regarding beauty standards and activism. This research also includes a comparative evaluation to portray the distinguishing and contrasting styles of dress by the varying political parties to elicit different sentiments pertaining to their activism.
Kathleen Cleaver (Black Panther Party)
As Communications Secretary for the Black Panther Party and the first woman appointed to the Party’s leadership group, Cleaver often acted as “the voice” for the organization in which she spoke at rallies and protests addressing the Party’s beliefs not only to other members of the group but also to the general public through her constant display in the media. Her speaking on issues pertaining to Black appearance and beauty and wearing the organization’s uniform expressed to the other women of the Party along with the rest of the world what the political organization represented.
In the recording of the Black is beautiful gathering in 1968, Cleaver wears the Party’s traditional uniform: turtleneck under a Black coat with her hair in an afro. As Cleaver addresses the camera, she states that herself and some of the people around her “wear their hair like this [an afro] because it’s natural.”8 She breaks down the significance of African American men and women wearing their natural born curly and kinky textured hair as awareness for not only opposition of white beauty standards, but also the self validation in which their physical appearance is deemed beautiful and appealing for themselves rather than others. Cleaver directly articulates the struggle of self validation amongst the African American Community from the constant and inescapable narration that common white features: straight hair texture, light eye color, and fairer skin was the sole standard of beauty. This conception repressed the contrasting African American appearance causing them, as Cleaver states, “to do everything they could to look like white women by straightening their hair and lightening their skin.”9 She connects the change in style and the movement surrounding the shift to the heightened awareness of these issues by African Americans to oppose the norm and change their portrayal.
In the video at the Hutton Memorial Park Rally, Cleaver again displays the look of the Black Panther Party by wearing her natural tresses in an afro hairstyle. She is shown wearing an all Black ensemble featuring a turtle-neck top with a mid-length skirt under a long leather trench coat and leather gloves covering her hands. This style was typical for the members of the Black Panther Party as it figuratively reflected their beliefs surrounding Black power and liberation. Specifically the uniform served as a crucial element in creating an intentional image of edge and defiance to stand out in society. Through their use in other historical moments and adoption by other social groups such as soldiers of WWI and gangs, these particular articles of clothing and materials already signified militancy and insubordination to the law.10 These choices of dress made the Black Panther Party easily distinguishable and signified power and solidarity. However, due to the “aggressive” connotation of the reimagined militia fashion, these decisions contributed to the cultural perception of the Party as overly violent and radical in the eyes of the law and police enforcement often leading members to be constantly jailed and even killed.
Ella Baker (SNCC)
Ella Baker served a prominent role in SNCC’s conception and establishment of the group’s beliefs on African American liberation through non-violence direct action. Her thoughts and views had a major impact on the beliefs and types of engagement the organization used towards advocacy. Known as the “godmother” of SNCC, Baker functioned as the leading female figure at events and due to this dominant position, greatly influenced other members of the organization while also representing the women of the group to the public.
In the recording of the Solidarity Rally in Puerto Rico in 1974, Ella Baker addresses a large crowd of individuals gathered together in a fight against the discrimation of non-white citizens. She voices a powerful message on the challenges and struggles of natural born Black citizens failing to be recognized as equals in the United States. In order to meaningfully connect with the audience’s struggles of being devalued and underrepresented, Baker primes her message with a personal story of herself as a child engaging in confrontation with a boy after being called a racial slur. She sets the stage, relating to audience members who most likely had similar experiences and displays how these issues have not changed over the years. She vigorously incites the inclination for activism and the significance of connection and solidarity against these fights with the oppressors, stating, “one individual is not enough, it takes organizations, dedication, and the willingness to standby and do what has to be done when it has to be done.”11 Furthermore, Baker communicates the importance of eternal dedication and organization. She expresses that individuals have to do more than just gathering but rather showcase activism through a simple conversation with the people around you to unify and encourage the fight for freedom daily until it is won, exhibiting that the more minuscule parts of activism can have the largest impact in the end.
Visually, on the stage, Baker is shown wearing her hair in a refined up-do. Her outfit includes a coordinating women’s suit jacket and mid-length skirt set paired with a white pearl necklace and large pearl earrings. Based on the historical and social connections to wealth and wisdom, these articles of clothing could be described as fashion choices conveying poise and modesty. Although this rally depicts her later in life and the modest style can be reflective of her age, Baker consistently wore this type of dress throughout her life as this style represented the traditional image of the SNCC women since its establishment in which they wore these types of garments and straightened their hair. Furthermore, these selections were similarly worn by younger SNCC women activists at the time like Victoria Gray Adams, displaying the consistency of expression amongst all members of the group. Particularly, these selections represented the traditional image of the SNCC women as the organization was established in which they wore these types of garments and often straightened their hair. Rather than going against the grain, their style of dress, wherein they embraced “modesty” and “professionalism,” reflecting society’s thoughts of what “respectable” individuals looked like. The use of a more formal image and conformity to white beauty was thought by the organization to appear as “polished” and “competent” African Americans that commanded the respect of white individuals and other African Americans. Moreover, this style reflected the more solemn work they were doing, such as their voter registration efforts and international connections, in relation to other more action based activist groups. However, after beginning to participate more heavily in sit-ins, protest, and rallies the group opted out of the “respectable” image and replaced it with traditional labor wear such as denim along with natural hairstyles in efforts to stray from the constant worrying of beauty and image that was keeping them from advancing in their activism.12
Given that representation in media matters heavily in influencing viewers, Donyale Luna changed the game for inclusion and the ability of African American women to be involved in fashion and beauty. Furthermore, through Black uplift and the awareness of Black female identity and expression, the Black is beautiful movement happening alongside the civil rights movement allowed for influencing figures like Kathleen Cleaver and Ella Baker along with other women of the Black Panther Party and SNCC to associate fashion and beauty with political engagement.
Particularly, these two organizations’ contrasting images demonstrates the distinctive infusion of the repositioning of Black appearance within society in which expression of style was directly reflective of political affiliation and cultural beliefs. As Craig expresses in Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, these differences in images stem from the significance of grooming for the African American community as means to resemble the dominant standards of expression and beauty shaped by white features. During its conception, SNCC women remained in this cultural belief as this image also correlated with the degree of activism the organization was engaged in which was professionally based. However, as their approach shifted to more action based work, this “respectable” look became ineffective and impractical in which they began to oppose societital beauty and adopt the change of Black female identity pushed by the Black is beautiful movement. On the other hand, the Black Panther Party’s position on Black power infiltrated through self-defense allowed for this reconstruction of appearance to seamlessly integrate into the organization in which their focus always centered around opposing societal norms and making lasting statements.
Furthermore, these uniforms are reflective of the communicative nature of clothing during and beyond activist duties. First, the appearance of the organizations’ not only communicated their beliefs and ideology, but also shaped how they were perceived by the rest of society. With that being said, both the Black Panther Party’s and SNCC’s stylistic decisions demonstrate their awareness of viewership and perception by their audiences. Specifically, this observation is exhibited by the changing image of the SNCC women. As Ford describes in “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” the group’s shift in appearance allowed them to elicit a different response from other activist groups and white citizens along with learning different social messages. Moreover, Ella Baker’s “respectable” image at the Solidarity Rally demonstrates her awareness of a more formalized space in which her clothing was appropriate for the occasion and to most successfully reach her audience just as other SNCC women were aware of this when wearing denim overalls and natural hairstyles while participating in rallies, protest, and sit-ins. Secondly, the organizations’ uniforms conveyed messages beyond active activism. These outfits, as Tulloch explains in “Style Activism: The Everyday Activist Wardrobe of the Black Panther Party and Rock Against Racism Movement,” contributed to political beliefs as an extension of self identity and representation. The particular clothing items were applied to daily life to show affiliation to their respective groups at all times.
These cultural and social movements proved that not only is activism conducted through conventional direct action work but also involves an intentional image to visually represent group ideology. Although thought of as minute contributing factors to enacting change, fashion activism proves to have a great impact on distinguishing and unifying organizations to most effectively perform their activist duties. In analyzing Kathleen Cleaver and the Black Panther Party along with Ella Baker and SNCC, these styles of dress not only unify and distinguish political organization but also foster figurative communication of beliefs to their audience and serves as a direct reflection of their activism.
- Maxine Leeds Craig, “Contexts for the Emergence of ‘Black is Beautiful,’” in Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2002), 23-44.
- Janice Cheddie, “The Politics of the First: The Emergence of the Black Model in the Civil Rights Era.” Fashion Theory (2002): 61-81.
- Cheddie, “The Politics of the First.”
- Susannah Walker, “Black is beautiful: Redefining Beauty in the 1960s and 1970s,” in Style and Status:Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975 (The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 169-200.
- Tiffany M. Gill, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (University of Illinois Press, 2010).
- Tanisha C. Ford, “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” The Journal of Southern History 79, No. 3 (2013): 625-658.
- Carol Tulloch, “Style Activism: The Everyday Activist Wardrobe of the Black Panther Party and Rock Against Racism Movement,” in Fashion and Politics (Yale University Press, 2019), 85-100.
- “Black Panther,” uploaded by atelierdesarchives History on YouTube, July 27, 2015.
- “Black Panther.”
- Sydney Estes, “History of the Leather Jacket,” The Manor, December 17, 2016.
- “Ella Baker: Making the Struggle Everyday,” Youtube, uploaded by Peaceable Power, March 17, 2017.
- Ford, “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress.”