Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

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This gorgeous photo of a 1963 Harlem fashion show is one of the many images on display at the soon-to-open exhibition, Posing Beauty In African American Culture which has been traveling throughout the country over the last year or so. The exhibition is curated by Deborah Willis, Professor and Chair of the Photography and Imaging Department at NYU. Willis’ work is amazing and this exhibition looks fabulous - if you’re in the Los Angeles area, do check it out. If you’re not in the area and can’t wait for the exhibition to open near you, you can buy the  book by the same name. The New York Times raves:

With “Posing Beauty,” Willis has for­ever changed the conversation about beauty in American life. After centuries of exclusion and segregation in which African-­American beauty existed on the margins of the culture, Willis offers readers a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the relationship of beauty and power. She invites us to marvel at the glamour and elegance contained in the photographs, and in the process instructs us on how to expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination.

To expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination. An exhibition after my own heart.

Photo credits: Top photo by Leonard Freed taken in 1963, bottom photo “Harlem, 1970” by Anthony Barboza.


 

Let one thousand more bonnets like this one bloom! This woman, photographed by famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a participant in the legendary Harlem Easter Parade (1947). I’ve been staring at her Easter bonnet for weeks now and thought I’d finally share it here. (I wouldn’t mind getting a better look at the man behind her either. His pinstripe suit looks impeccable.)

Model Charlotte Stribling a.k.a “Fabulous” at a Harlem fashion show at the Abyssinian Church, 1950. Photograph by Magnum photographer Eve Arnold.

Caption from the Black Studies Database:

The African American model Charlotte Stribling, or “Fabulous” as she was known, relaxes during a fashion show in Harlem’s Abyssinian Church, 1950. During this period Harlem hosted an average of 300 fashion shows a year, many of them showcasing clothes that the models themselves or local seamstresses had made. Many of the shows became both a subtle form of protest at the white fashion industry located in and around New York’s Seventh Avenue, and a source of great pride in local black industry. “Fabulous” had a huge personal following and was one of the most sought after models in the area. The Abyssinian Church itself had been a center for the Civil Rights Movement, particularly under the pastorship of Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.


This is a photograph of Lois K. Alexander, founder of the legendary Harlem Institute of Fashion (opened in 1966) and the Black Fashion Museum (in 1979). There should be tomes written about Alexander, the Institute, and the Museum which recently found a permanent home at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. But the paucity of academic or journalistic research devoted to them speaks to the critical and curatorial neglect of major aspects of U.S. fashion history. The initial idea for Of Another Fashion was, in fact, sparked when I learned about the Harlem Institute of Fashion and is driven, in part, by my continued astonishment that many fashion scholars, curators, and designers know nothing about it.

The only publication I’ve found that offers any details about the Institute is a book Alexander created and published called Blacks in the History of Fashion (published by the Harlem Institute of Fashion in 1982), which is no longer in print. The above image is from this book.

In an article for a local Memphis, Tennessee newspaper (12 November 1978), Alexander explains the significance of the Museum:

The Museum will change the image that black designers are newfound talent. Most of today’s designers tell me they learned to sew from their grandmothers, and that’s who I want to talk to. I want the clothes their grandmothers made.