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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Contestants in the American Legion Pageant at Lincoln Colonnade (ca. 1947).

Credit:Addison N. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

These students of Miner Teachers College in Washington, D.C. are dressed to the nines at what looks like a graduation banquet. Unfortunately, the date of the photograph, taken by the Scurlock Studio, is unknown.

The D.C. Tourism website offers this description of the College:

Miner Teachers College was the principal school to train black teachers in the city for more than 70 years. The school was named for Myrtilla Miner, a white woman, who founded a school that was known as both Miner’s School and the School for Colored Girls in 1851. The original Miner’s School was located in the block bounded by 19th, 20th, N, and O streets, NW. It closed in 1860.

In 1863 Congress granted a charter to re-open the school as the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth, and it held its first classes after the Civil War ended in 1865. From 1871 to 1876 it was associated with Howard University. In 1879, as Miner Normal School, it became part of the District of Columbia public school system. Miner expanded into a four-year curriculum, graduating its first four-year class in 1933. In 1955 Miner Teachers College merged with the Wilson Teachers College, for white teachers. The new institution was named DC Teachers College, which in turn was absorbed into the University of the District of Columbia in 1977.

Such a lovely pose! The woman in the photo is not identified, unfortunately, but the photo was taken by the legendary Addison Scurlock (ca. 1930).

These nine women are members of The Covered Wagon Whist Club. If anyone has any information on this club, I’d love to hear about it. The exact date of the photo is not known but the Smithsonian lists the date as 1930-1940.

Credit: Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

This photograph titled “Picnic group, Highland Beach, Md / 1931” shows 21 girls from the local YWCA sitting in and on what has been identified as a 1929 Packard Model 633 8-cylinder Rumble Seat Roadster. I assume that the man wearing the dress shirt and tie in the background is the adult chaperone. Notice the variety of hats some of the older girls are wearing - they’re using fashion to distinguish themselves from the younger girls in pigtails and swim caps. (Is that a sombrero on the girl sitting at the back of the car?)

Credit: Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Some of the most stunning photographs in Of Another Fashion were taken by Addison Scurlock who the Smithsonian described as “among the very best of 20th century photographers." He and his sons, Robert and George Scurlock (pictured above in the 1950s in the Scurlock Studio) produced nearly a century’s worth of photos capturing the social life of Washington D.C.’s Black middle class from 1904 to 1994 - many of which are preserved at the Smithsonian. To view some of these photos, click on the tag “Scurlock Studio” at the bottom of this post.

In 2009, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture presented an exhibition of the Scurlock photographs called "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise." Excerpts from a Washington Post review follows below:

The Scurlock men loved beauty. A dad and two sons, they prowled this city with their Graflex cameras, pointing and clicking from morning into the deep night. Through their cameras, the world looked sweet, even lush.

Never mind that a good amount of their work was done from the 1920s through the 1950s, when much of black America was enduring a daily harshness.

Addison, the dad, started it all, taking pictures over on U Street, hanging out with jazz folk at night and swearing to naysayers he could make a go of it. He imagined a photographer’s life could put food on the table.

It took guts for a black man to dream the way Addison Scurlock did. The Harlem Renaissance hadn’t exploded yet when he began to capture a swirling world of Washington men in long coats and fedoras, women in silk and fur. He and his two sons, Robert and George, wanted to capture the way sunlight landed on their subjects. They introduced the viewer to the joy their subjects - actors, musicians, socialites, artists - had in simply being alive.

The Scurlock exhibition highlights more than 100 black-and-white photographs that were taken when the world was very different for people of color. It was a world where reports of lynchings were in the daily newspapers, along with “coon” ads for minstrel shows.

“In some ways what amazes me about the Scurlocks,” says Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and a Scurlock historian, “is, how do people believe something when they shouldn’t believe it? There was nothing that told Addison Scurlock he could counter the stereotypical elements in black life at the time. But he countered it.”

Washingtonians have doubtless seen a bootleg print here and there of a Scurlock image in local storefronts, but the original prints are so textured and detailed that sepia music swirls about the subjects and their surroundings. Bunch believes the exhibition will not only cement the Scurlock legacy, but also spread it to a national audience.

Josephine Palmer, in a wonderful floral print halter top mini-dress sits for a portrait photo in the studio of Addison Scurlock (ca. 1945). 

Credit: Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The photographer Addison N. Scurlock took this photograph of Effie Moore and her chorus troupe in the 1930s.

Credit: Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: Archives Center

This image was formerly called “flappers” and it was probably made by Robert Scurlock in the 1960s-1970s from a 1920s negative. In the image we see six African American women (Howard University students) in audience, sitting in stadium watching game. All but one of the women wear cloche hats. The woman on the extreme right was identified as Elise Dowling in “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise” exhibition held in NMAAHC Gallery, NMAH, January 30-November 15, 2009.

Many thanks to Hilary Scurlock, the great grand daughter of Addison N. Scurlock, the original photographer, for providing me important source information for this photograph.