I haven’t posted in a while and recently when I have shown my face I invariably get asked what I have been up to so here is a little a taste of the research that I will be presenting at a CAA2019 talk titled, “Afrochic: Race and the Emergence of American Fashion.”
Above are some of the reading materials that I have been delving into and here is the abstract for my talk:
This paper considers the role of race in the formation of modern fashion design. Early in twentieth century, Women’s Wear editor, M. D. C. Crawford, and the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator of Ethnology, Stewart Culin, forged a productive alliance between the museum and fashion worlds to foster the development of American design. Simultaneously, colonial enterprises delivered increased information about Africa to Western audiences and its raw materials to the marketplace. As the fashion industry sought to contribute to the national effort to modernize lifestyle and taste, it capitalized on the precedent of the primitivist vogue that had sparked a fundamental reinvention of art and culture amongst the avant-garde. When Culin organized the exhibition Primitive Negro Art, Chiefly from the Belgian Congo in 1923, itshowcased not just the aesthetic merits of African expressive culture but its suitability as inspiration for modern fashion. The garment prototypes designed to accompany the show and the promotional rhetoric orchestrated by Crawford reveal that in addition to the appropriation of African design principles and styles, entrenched cultural myths about Africa and racial beliefs profoundly affected emergent fashion trends. Through the lens of fashion, where many would least expect it, this paper demonstrates that race played a significant role in the nation’s modernization at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reinventing American identity, aesthetics and mode of dress didn’t entail abandoning the nation’s traditional recourse to race. Arguably the triumph of the American Century hinged upon an Africanist presence lending its currency to the culture industry.
I will leave you with a sample image that will feature in the presentation demonstrating how Kuba textiles were looked to for inspiration for modern American fashion.
For more Afrochic news, you can visit my new page. Hope to see you at CAA!
I offer up another Afrochic tidbit in celebration: Carl Van Vechten’s 1934 portrait of socialite Emilie Grigsby. The leopard couture gown she is wearing is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum:
The Chinese-American star, Anna May Wong, regularly appeared in films in roles that were non-Asian but always racialized. I am currently obsessed with how often imagery linked her with blackness, as in this Paramount Studio photograph by Eugene Robert Richee:
Thinking about Benton’s relationship to Hollywood and parallels with my research on Carl Van Vechten revealed an interesting thread via the director King Vidor. Benton went to Hollywood in 1937 on assignment for LIFE magazine. Van Vechten had gone a decade earlier in 1927 to write a series of articles for Vanity Fair. Both of them found Hollywoodland fascinating and at times repulsive.
Van Vechten helped to catalyze the production of all-black cast musicals in the late 1920s. His infamous 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven, was considered for adaptation but this never came to pass. Talks with Vidor eventually led to his making the 1929 film, Hallelujah!, one of the first all-black cast feature films. Vidor admired Benton’s work and later purchased one of his paintings, The Negro and Alligator (1927) in the 1940s.
All three held complex views of African Americans that ranged from egregious stereotype to genuine admiration and empathy. All, of course, were the product of their times where the black vogue and jazz craze coexisted with the second heyday of the Klan, lynchings, and race riots. (Doesn’t sound much different from 2015, does it!?)
“American Epics” is a great exhibition and I had the chance to look at my research from a new angle. Win-win!
Writer’s block was conquered and a decent draft of chapter 1 is complete. Summer is off to a good start.
This photograph Marlene Dietrich wearing her tuxedo from Morocco (1930) and this sketch by the Hollywood costume designer Travis Banton didn’t make it into the chapter so I thought I would share them here.