Coming this fall: “Say It with Pictures”

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Organizers Amy Mooney and Deborah Willis have kindly invited me to participate in this project on black photographers in Chicago in the early 20th century.

Check it out on social media @sayitwithpics and @sayitwithpicsthenandnow and see more at sayitwithpictures.org

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James Barnor, photographer

Having spent several summers in Accra, I was delighted to learn about the incredible photographer, James Barnor, who operated the Ever Young studio in Jamestown. Autograph mounted an exhibition of his work: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/james-barnor-ever-young and an accompanying monograph has been published of his work. He has visited the US for the first time and spoke at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Ophelia Devore, founder of first black model agency, teams up with Emory University

CHIC Fancy Black History Through Fashion and Style: Dorothea Towles Church

Oh CHIC Fancy Huh!?

I am a loyal reader of various fashion magazines. I love flipping through the pages, reading the various articles and fashion tips, but most importantly seeing the most beautiful clothes and the gorgeous women that wear them oh so well. Although the representation of african american models can be quite scarce, I can still get a glimpse of some of the cocoa brown beauties that have the opportunity to grace the pages and the runways of major publications and fashion houses. That is certainly more than I can say for my ancestors before me. Seeing a black face on the runways or inside the magazine issues were unheard of until the beautiful Dorothea Towles Church gracefully made her way into an industry, that at the time saw no place for her kind beauty.

Dorothea Towles Church became the first successful black model in Paris is the 1950’s.

Mrs. Church originally set out to become in actress, however…

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Thanksgiving Tidbit

Why I Am Thankful: Survival, Fashion, Language and Family

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/11/26/why-i-am-thankful-survival-fashion-language-and-family-152449

We’re Obsessed With These Vintage Hair And Beauty Ads (PHOTOS )

Since we were talking about black models:

The Huffington Post  |  By Julee Wilson

Posted: 11/21/2013 4:04 pm EST  |  Updated: 11/21/2013 4:37 pm EST

There’s something about old ads that make us long for days gone by — and we’re not just talking about the low retail prices. There was a level of sophistication that we rarely see these days. It seems like women with perfectly coiffed and wearing chic gowns have been replaced with half-naked, photoshopped wannabes .

But thanks to the internet, we’re only a click away from reliving the glory days or advertisements. We did some digging on our favorite Tumblr page, Vintage Black Glamour , and unearthed a few swoon-worthy ads for your view pleasure.

Happy Throwback Thursday (#TBT)!

vintage ads

A 1969 Revlon ‘Colorsilk’ advertisement.

vintage ads

A 1976 advertisement for a fragrance called Noir.

vintage ads

A 1970s Ultra Sheen advertisement.

vintage ads

Whitney Houston in a 1980s Max Factor ad.

vintage ads

Iman in a 1976 Avon advertisement. She is wearing a dress by Giorgio Sant’ Angelo.

vintage ads

Helen Williams in a 1960 Helene Curtis ad.

vintage ads

Beverly Johnson in a 1970s Max Factor advertisement.

vintage ads

A 1965 Ultra Sheen ad.Aren’t you glad these vintage ads don’t look like this...


Halston’s Penney’s Serenade

“Who needs cashmere?

So said the legendary Halston on June 7, 1983, as he made his way through the racks of pieces he had designed for Halston III, his lower-price line for J.C. Penney. Looking back, the pact made Halston a pioneer in the world of high-low fashion , but it was ruinous for him personally. At the time, though, he sounded quite optimistic.

Though his dresses had appeared on Studio 54 regulars such as Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, Halston now had his eye on the Everywoman. “When I think of these clothes, I think of my family,” the Iowa-born designer said. “I have a sister in Little Rock [Ark.] and a sister-in-law in Gainesville, Fla., and they’re dying for these clothes to come out.”

Prices ranged from $24 for a casual shirt to $200 for a coat, and included splashy items such as an ostrich-trimmed velvet jacket. In keeping with the venture’s populist spirit, Halston made appearances on “Phil Donahue” and “Good Morning America.” White- and chrome-fixtured Halston departments were built in the individual stores to house the line. “The idea is to display the merchandise to its best advantage, without things like Dynel wigs taking away from them,” the designer quipped.

But would selling at J.C. Penney hurt his cred with the Beautiful People? “I haven’t had that much flack from the stores,” Halston insisted. “I have a big public, which has been conditioned to buy my things for the past 30 years.

In a separate story that day, several top retailers shared their reaction to Halston III. According to Bloomingdale’s Kal Ruttenstein, the line “is so much lower-priced [that it] will not hit the same customer.” Phillip Miller, then president of Neiman Marcus, agreed: “I don’t think this will have any adverse effect on Halston’s top line.…It’s a totally different market.

In fact, the effect was disastrous. Bergdorf Goodman dropped Halston’s main line immediately, and a year later, he would lose the rights to his company and name. Still, in his vision of high-end design for the mass market, Halston anticipated the trend that Target, Kohl’s and other big-box retailers would mine two decades later.

http://www.wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/halston-j-c-penney-3068848/slideshow#/slideshow/article/3068848/3069992

 

The company behind “Slack Power”

"Slack Power," advertisement for h.i.s. Company (1969)
“Slack Power,” advertisement for h.i.s. Company (1969)

Hoping to tap into the burgeoning consumer market of the postwar era, Siegel launched the company’s first brand, H.I.S (a play on his father’s initials [Henry I. Siegel]), in 1956. The company’s line of branded casual wear targeted teen and college-aged baby boomers with denim jackets, corduroy pants, shorts, sportcoats, and suits. By the mid-1960s, Siegel ranked among the nation’s top manufacturers of sportswear for young men. Sales multiplied from $18.5 million in 1956 to $42.1 million in 1964, with the H.I.S brand contributing three-fourths of revenues by the latter year. Though the creation of a national brand allowed the company to command higher profit margins than it had generated with private-label goods, Siegel continued to concentrate on making clothes for middle-market customers. See http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/chic-by-h-i-s-inc-history/

What Barbie Dolls Have to Say about Postwar American Culture

By Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D
University of Missouri, Kansas City

http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/idealabs/ap/essays/barbie.htm

What can Barbie—the quintessential blond bimbo—tell us about postwar American culture? Inscribed on Barbie are the traditional notions as well as the changing values of a culture that was in the process of dramatic social, cultural, and political transformation. As an artifact of postwar cultural ambiguity, Barbie characterized not only conservatism and conformity but also, as revisionist historians have argued, contradiction, conflict, and contestation. “Reading” the Barbie doll as a historical text sheds light on the continuities and changes in teen culture, gender roles, sexuality, and consumer culture.When the teenage Barbie doll debuted in 1959 she was a rebel among her contemporaries. Baby dolls had socialized “baby boomers” to assume maternal and domestic roles consistent with the dominant postwar gender ideology, devised as a buttress against unsettling change. But unlike the bent-limbed baby dolls, Barbie, who had disproportionately long chorus girl legs, would help girls imagine themselves as autonomous adolescents.

Barbie was the exemplar “teenager” (a term first coined during the war years) who represented a “teen culture” that rapidly proliferated in the postwar years due to rising prosperity, spreading suburbs, and expanding leisure time. As a representation of a middle-class suburban teen empowered with new purchasing power, Barbie’s mini magazines, records, clothing, and accessories were versions of those that fueled the new teen market. Like real girls, “Babysitter Barbie” would have shopped with money earned as a babysitter, one of the only jobs available to suburban adolescent girls in the postwar economy.

Though dressed in her foundational bathing suit, Barbie’s extensive wardrobe exemplified the ethos of an expanding consumer culture where spending replaced saving. While thrift and frugality had prevailed among Depression and war-time generations these were no longer valued; Americans were encouraged to find fulfillment in goods and gadgets. Stimulating consumer desire among America’s youngest shoppers, Barbie TV ads encouraged little girls to “Come feast your eyes on Barbie and Midge. . .” (Doc. 1). And they did! Giddy with excitement over the doll, dream house, and the “extra clothing and accessories” her friends had, one Nicaraguan student recalled that she and her sister incessantly begged their single mother for Barbie dolls their family could probably ill afford. (Doc. 2)

Barbie’s glamorous outfits were like those designed by Christian Dior who had inaugurated a transformation of women’s bodies shortly after WWII. Barbie’s body had been shaped, in part, by the introduction of Dior’s haute couture that contributed to the gradual sexualization of women (mothers included) in the 1950s. The “New Look” replaced the former wartime cultural ideal of broad-shouldered females (like Rosie the Riveter) that spoke to the 20 million women war workers. By the late 1940s, however, a masculinized silhouette had been replaced by the feminine hour-glass. To accentuate female sexual characteristics shoulder pads yielded to padded bras. Sensible “flats” were replaced with high heels that further exaggerated sexual difference: they forced the bust forward and the backside outward. Like June Cleaver who vacuumed the house while wearing pumps in the new TV sit-coms of the period, Barbie had tiny, tippy-toed feet that also kept her immobilized, dependent, and contained within the household domain where women were safely idealized for their maternal devotion. Yet, mothers and other women had steadily and silently continued to increase their presence in the work force. Though Barbie could not stand on her own two feet, like other women she had one foot in the modern era. The teenage model simultaneously represented independent young women “on the go” who were not only accepted but also celebrated in Sex and the Single Girl (1962).

Barbie’s body had been shaped as well by her ancestor, Lilli, a coquettish-looking German doll that male bachelors brought to bars and dangled from their rear-view mirrors. Just like Lilli whom she closely resembled, Barbie donned a striped strapless jersey bathing suit that accented her cinched waist and accentuated her voluptuous figure. (Stripes only provide protective camouflage from predators to zebras in herds.) The stripes on Barbie’s suit underscored her full breasts which looked a lot like the ample bumpers that embellished (and protected) 50s’ progesterone infused automobiles. The new technology of constrictive undergarments reshaped the feminine form, such that breasts like Barbie’s became symbols of postwar abundance, motherhood, and sexual appeal. Despite Mattel’s claims that parents thanked them for the doll’s “educational value,” critics objected to Barbie’s sexually provocative “look” (Doc. 3). To many, Barbie’s eroticized body-sideways glancing eyes (heavily outlined in black eyeliner), pursed red lips, and scarlet finger nails-were markers of sexual desire. But as Ruth Handler, the originator of Barbie and the founder of Mattel, explained: “The doll has clean hair and a clean face. . .wears gloves and [has] shoes to match” (Doc 3). As the sanitized version of Lilli, Barbie simultaneously neutralized the eras cultural dissonance. Barbie embodied both the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and the innocence of Debbie Reynolds.

Like these blond-headed, white-skinned pop culture icons, Barbie emerged in a period of intense cultural negotiation over racial difference. One-half of all the teenage college students who participated in the Freedom Rides that tested the desegregation of buses in the South were young women. But Barbie, who had her own sports car, was unlikely to have used public transportation. Nor was she likely to have counted African Americans among her friends, despite the huge migration of people of color and Latinas/os to American cities in the postwar period. What are the chances that Barbie would have left the segregated suburbs for the city’s slums where most resided? One Latina recalled that while “We did not look like Barbie, [and] nor did we aspire to” (Doc. 2), Barbie’s blond hair, blue eyes, and pink skin nevertheless epitomized an American race, gender, and class ideal that prevailed in postwar popular culture. Nor was this lost on ethnic or African-American girls. “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs-all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl treasured. ‘Here’, they said, ‘this is beautiful’. . . ” (Doc 4) Toni Morrison realized that as an African American girl she could never “look like” Barbie. Unlike the desires of others, hers was “to dismember it.” Clearly, the social uses of Barbie by little girls could also have embryonic political meanings. Later on as teenagers themselves, many former Barbie players were drawn to sixties’ youth culture and movements for civil rights and feminism.

Costuming the Blaxploitation Hero | Clothes on Film

1 Nov ’13

The gangster genre’s central protagonist (antagonist?) is conspicuous in his journey from street kid to street king by coveting the finest fabrics and tailoring that money can buy. He becomes a vain, petty man destroyed by inability to reconcile his old simpler world with the politics of his new one. It is no accident that most of the principal characters in gangster films are minorities, symbolising a detachment from society and upending of the American dream. He/she can be as rich and powerful as he/she wants, but for those born on the wrong side of the tracks (i.e. minorities, if conforming to the genre model), the only way to fulfil this dream is through crime.

Many blaxploitation films take this same storyline as positive reinforcement of the late 1960s Black Power movement. These low-budget movies were made, for the most part, by African American males for African American males. In hindsight this could either be considered racist stereotyping or the first pivotal movement in black cinema. While Black Caesar (1973, no credited costume designer) conforms to the overt blaxploitation model by starring a black lead actor, Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs (the part was originally written for Sammy Davis Jr.), and featuring a predominantly black cast, it was produced, written and directed by a white filmmaker, Larry Cohen. Perhaps in this respect it cannot truly be a blaxploitation movie as it cashes in on the genre rather than strengthens it? It’s an open question.

 

Omer Jeffrey as young Tommy Gibbs. Like all wannabe godfathers of the street, Tommy grew up in hand-me-downs. This formulated his goal in life – the acquisition of money and possessions, especially clothes.

 

Now financed by organised crime, adult Tommy (Fred Williamson) is able to wear expensive pinstripe suits. Tommy always sports details that make him stand out, such as a patch chest pocket and western style hip pockets (above), both indicative of 1970s trends. He checks his suit constantly.

Black Caesar is actually a remake of Little Caesar (1931) starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a Romanian immigrant seeking his fortune in Chicago. He rises to power through organised crime, draped in the flamboyance of success – camel coat, bowler hat, double breasted waistcoats, lush pinstripe suits – and then crashes spectacularly. As with all gangster movies from the thirties, the chief villain is eradicated and a crime-does-not-pay world view stabilised. Tommy Gibbs’ life follows a similar pattern in Black Caesar, although presumably because he is aware of the film Little Caesar his own path is based on adherence to codes established by Rico. Underpinning this point is the moment when mortally wounded Tommy stumbles past a cinema showing The Godfather (Black Caesar is titled The Godfather of Harlem in the U.S.). Tommy would not have seen many movies growing up, but Little Caesar would likely be one of them.

As a shoeshine boy in ripped jeans and t-shirt, Tommy is beaten by racist beat cop McKinney (Art Lund) and hobbled for life. After several years incarcerated he arrives back in New York ready to forge his own criminal empire backed only by gumption, a gun and some funktastic James Brown tunes. Intentionally ingratiating himself with the Italian mafia by murdering one of their enemies, Tommy is given his own part of the city to run on their behalf – Harlem. A montage demonstrates the violence Tommy uses to get a grip on the streets, but not before he becomes distracted gazing in a hat store window. Rico’s codes are being assembled, prematurely perhaps, as Tommy is more concerned with dressing the part than actually doing the work. Tommy does not seem to enjoy violence as much as acting the boss. His goal is less orientated toward crime, which is a means to an end, and instead focused on becoming part a rich, white society that will continue to reject him no matter how much money he makes.

 

One of the first shots in Tommy’s ‘rise to power’ montage shows him strutting through the street playing big shot then immediately distracted by a hat shop. That hat is an essential dress code of the 1930s gangster.

 

Tommy pays cash for an apartment in upscale New York, including all the previous owner’s possessions which he flings off the balcony. This is a metaphor for his assimilation then rejection of so-called polite (read upper-class, read white) society.

Tommy’s new world fears him. He enjoys this, but mistakenly believes that wealth and respect on the street constitute his acceptance. He forcibly buys an apartment in an exclusive complex in Manhattan including all of the previous owner’s clothes that he then drops off the balcony as a rejection their bourgeois ideology. Posse
ssions are so powerful to Tommy that even after raping his girlfriend he gives her a present from department store Bergdorf Goodman and expects that she be grateful. “Nobody appreciates anything I give them” he mutters as she tosses the gift aside. The notion of acquiring possessions in a world that would only allow him hand-me-downs as a boy is what brings about Tommy’s downfall. He forgets who he is and betrays his roots. His best friend even calls him a “white nigger”. Tommy becomes lost in a place that he does not know or understand.

Even though Tommy is inspired by sartorial gangster codes in thirties cinema, his clothes are relatively subdued for a blaxploitation movie, quite unlike the larger-than-life pimp styles of Superfly (1972) or even Shaft (1971). The story is set during 1953-72, but everything Tommy wears appears to be dated from when the film was shot (in ’72). His typical look is a light brown, grey or blue single or double breasted pinstripe suit with wide lapels, homburg or fedora hat, plain pointed collar shirt, Windsor knot necktie and brogues – sometimes two-tone. Trouser flare is kept to a minimum, although all his suits are embellished with fussy touches such as visible seams, a half-belt, bowed lapels and denim-like patch pockets. This helps him stand out against the plain black suit, white shirt and black tie uniform of the mafia, which by this point had become something of a parody. The sequence where Tommy’s crew massacre a mafia family in California is basically cool cats vs. squares; Tommy’s crew wear colourful street fashions while most of the mafia are dressed for a wake (quite appropriate really).

 

The mafia hit is carried out by Tommy’s gang in full street wear. Note the guy in the vibrant white suit (he does most of the shooting) and that two of the gang are wearing berets, which in context are heavily symbolic of the Black Panther political movement..

 

Tommy in full thirties gangster mode wearing two-tone brogues and wide pinstripe suit. After raping his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry), Tommy buys her a present from high-class department store Berdorf Goodman. This is what he does; tries to control people with possessions. Fittingly Tommy is fatally shot while holding a box of jewellery from Tiffany & Co.

When megalomania takes hold of Tommy he lets his guard down. He presumes the white world he bought into is now resigned to his presence. Except he destabilises this world, he frightens it. While they were happy to play his game for a time, Tommy was only ever renting space, he never really belonged. He becomes trapped in a kind of no-man’s land between the old life world he has rejected and the new world that rejects him. It is appropriate that Tommy takes that fatal bullet after shopping at Tiffany & Co., spending more money and buying more things. His final confrontation with McKinney is emblematic of the fear Tommy strikes in white society. McKinney fights on his hands and knees dripping in blood while Tommy paints his face with shoe polish, in essence making him black. His fear is loss of identity through assimilation of the ‘other’; McKinney is terrified not of Tommy, but what he represents – change.

Tommy heads back to the ghetto in a last ditch attempt to reclaim his roots. The apartment blocks where he grew up are now derelict, practically rubble. There is no solace in home. Stumbling around in his blood-soaked tailored suit the gangster dress code is complete. Tommy’s end is met in expensive attire worth no more to him now than the rags he grew up in. The possessions he yearned for are then yanked from his body by a teenage gang perpetrating an endless cycle of crime. Tommy Gibbs is the deconstructed gangster mask, no different now than the 1930s-40’s. In this genre clothes do not create or define identity, they only eradicate it.

If you would like to read more about blaxploitation movies may we suggest the excellent ‘Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide’ by Josiah Howard.

You can watch Fred Williamson in Black Caesar at LOVEFiLM.com .

© 2013, Christopher Laverty .