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The African Roots of Modern Fashion

The Costume Designer (1950), a documentary created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, showcased the legendary costume designer Edith Head and provides a compelling demonstration of the power of costume. In voiceover narration, Head discusses the costume decisions involved in the production of a film, while we are shown iterations of the same scene, in which the only variation is what the actress is wearing. With the mise-en-scène and acting unchanged, the crucial function of dress is highlighted. And yet, it seems to me that we tend, including within art history, to downplay the significance of clothes even though they matter so much. I suspect that we eternally discuss our clothes but disavow their import due to the French Revolution, the Terror, and the Enlightenment, which gave rise to the sense of fashion as frivolity. The seriousness with which art history—emerging as a full-fledged discipline during the Age of Reason—strives to understand art seems incompatible with the subsequent rise of the couturier and the birth of the modern fashion industry. The endless, rapid cycles of change that characterize Fashion in the wake of Charles Frederick Worth’s ascendance do not readily conjure the gravitas and sustained attention deemed appropriate to the province of Art.

Tholen Gladden, The Costume Designer (1950). Courtesy the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Despite this evasiveness regarding costume, dress nevertheless plays a major role when decoding works of art that depict human figures. Costume clues us into identity, place, time, and character, especially when we move beyond portraiture. As the artist moves beyond the rendering of a generic figure and defines the particulars of subjects, clothes supply the key differentiating information that enable us to recognize the heroes of the Classical, religious, and popular narratives in our cultural imagination. More so than the actual body generated according to established canons of ideal form, sartorial detail indicates that a figure is Jesus, or Athena, or a Venetian merchant in a picture. The Classically proportioned and invariably fair-skinned bodies of Western art are ultimately largely indistinguishable without clothes, despite each artist’s unique style. Even when nude, we should consider those bodies as costumed, for nakedness is rarely depicted without some form of adornment. To wit: the turban and bracelets gracing the Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, or the flower, earrings, velvet choker, bracelet, and mules worn by Manet’s Olympia. Beyond images, studies of enslaved Africans most poignantly—for me—attest to the significance of costume. References to clothing abound in “runaway slave” ads and “slave narratives,” diaries and oral histories serving as indicators of how essential dress can be for a sense of selfhood and agency, and as an instrument of emancipation.

My research focuses on the emergence of modernism during the early 20th century, when clothing again played a pivotal role, and signified another kind of freedom. The revolution in fashion was fundamental to the process of becoming modern, which entailed a wholly new approach to being, reflecting a radical shift in taste, lifestyle, mores, and belief. As I studied the modernist photography that developed during the same period, which became a highly influential mode of visual representation, the critical role that fashion played in the creation of the modernist persona became apparent. I am particularly fascinated by how an appropriation of African aesthetics and sartorial customs served as the catalyst for a new fashion paradigm. The flapper dress—comprised of a short, straight chemise worn over minimal undergarments, baring a significant amount of skin and allowing for unfettered movement—perhaps most vividly exemplifies this translation from African source into a garment responsive to the conditions of modern life and expressive of new cultural attitudes.

The visibility of the African roots of modern fashion has dwindled to a few signature vestiges such as leopard and zebra prints, geometric patterns, and certain color palettes that are perennially in vogue. The design innovations derived from African prototypes became so thoroughly interwoven into the construction and look of modern fashion so as to become virtually invisible even though they affect what we wear to this day. Already by 1936, despite the headline, “Africa Speaks in the New Fashions,” the garments illustrated in a New York Times article summarizing the season’s key trend bear no overt signs that would evoke Africa to our eyes. By paying attention to fashion I gained a better understanding of modernist self-fashioning and visual representation. Furthermore, acknowledging the meaning and value of dress is not antithetical to my commitment to a critical race approach to art history. Instead it underscores the impact that race has had on both the fabric of American life and what we remember. As was the case with jazz, the seminal influence of African and African-American culture on our nation has only just recently begun to be accorded its proper due.


Unknown illustrator for "Africa Speaks in the New Fashions," New York Times (September 6, 1936): X8. Courtesy the New York Times Company.



Camara Dia Holloway

CAMARA DIA HOLLOWAY is an art historian recognized for her expertise in American Art, African-American Art, and the History of Photography. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale University. She is the founding Co-Director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2017

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