Review by Nell Irvin Painter. Reproduced with permission from Fashion Theory 5, no. 4, pp. 461-464, 2001.
Shane White and Graham White
Stylin: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings
to the Zoot Suit.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 300 pp.
Reviewed by Nell Irvin Painter
Most histories of American fashion and beauty ignore black
Americans. If authors notice the oversight, they usually explain it away
with two lame excuses: first, that enslaved people, lacking money,
couldnt possibly attend to their appearance; second, that mainstream
Americans who (presumably) decreed beauty standards and set fashion
trends never saw African Americans as worthy of notice.
Happily it is no longer so easy to dismiss so important
a part of American popular culture. Stylin joins a steadily
lengthening list of books either dedicated to the analysis of black beauty
or paying attention to black people within a discussion of American beauty
generally. Noteworthy additions to this list include:
- Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight : Feminism, Western
Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press,
- Wilma King, Stolen Childhood : Slave Youth in
Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University
- Noliwe Rooks, Hair Raising : Beauty, Culture,
and African American Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University
- Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic
Surgery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
- Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: the Making of America's
beauty culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.
- Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters : Beauty, Power, and
Black Women's Consciousness. New York: New York University
While no longer unique, Stylin is the first
book to offer a comprehensive look at black personal style in the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. In those times, as in our own, black Americans
attended assiduously to their personal appearance. As a result, Stylin
offers an absolutely necessary source for anyone seeking a comprehensive
understanding of American patterns of beauty and fashion.
The authors tilt their book toward the nineteenth century,
situating four chapters in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Three of these deal with the appearance of enslaved black people, North
and South; one chapter traces the manifestations of freedom in black personal
appearance in the early nineteenth-century North. Two chapters deal
with the post-emancipation South, and two chapters focus on early
twentieth-century black urban style.
One main theme in this book is the conflict between the
sneering of outsiders and black peoples own creative self-confidence.
The sneering extends to the young black poet Langston Hughes, as he regards
Senegalese clothing in the early 1920s. Mostly, however, the sneerers
in this book are upper-class whites who do not recognize black styles
own internal aesthetics. Those aesthetics, as expressed in body language,
clothing, hair, dance, and other forms of bodily display, constitute this
books capacious subject matter.
On one hand, black people lived in a culture that treated
them as ugly and ridiculous and, when possible, consigned them to unattractive
clothing. On the other hand, black people saw themselves as objects of
beauty. They dressed and adorned themselves according to their own ideals,
which stressed bright, mixed colors. (The authors speak of the polyrhythmic
nature of black culture, including personal appearance.) The
white people in charge tried to reinforce racial hierarchies by limiting
blacks access to attractive clothes. Blacks never accepted being
consigned to ugliness, and they stretched their limited resources to show
off their beauty.
Not surprisingly, hair became (and remains) contested
terrain. Cropping, shaving, braiding, threading, wrapping, and combing,
black people took advantage of the thickness and body of their hair. Elaborate
hair culture became (and remains) central to the appearance of
black fashionableswitness, for example, the attention paid the hairdos
of the stars of womens tennis, Venus and Serena Williams. Dance,
too, has long been central to black self-expression, and this book
pays appropriate attention to a range of dances from the traditional ring
shout to the swing dances of the twentieth century.
Of itself, Stylins wonderful treatment of
the beauty practices of the enslaved renders the book indispensable. The
chapter on beauty contests provides a fine bonus. The Long-Veiled
Beauty of Our Own World confronts the difficulty African Americans
face in American beauty standards. Slenderness, long, straight hair, thin
lips and noses, and light-colored skin all challenge the realities
of black womens bodies. The Whites explain black peoples intellectual
dilemmas before the twentieth-century beauty contest vogue. Fashion
shows evolved as a popular answer to the physical and cultural quandaries
beauty contests created.
As authors, Shane White and Graham White are self-conscious,
perhaps understandably so. They begin by explaining they are two white
men from the University of Sydney who have spent their careers in African-American
history. In racial and intellectual solidarity, they dedicate their book
to two white academic couples at the University of California, Berkeley,
Cornelia and Larry Levine and Rhoda and Leon Litwack.
The research in Stylin merits enormous admiration.
Drawing on a wide range of materials, Shane White and Graham White examine
black style in depth and with great historical nuance. The book stands
as an object lesson on how to exploit sources by reading between the lines
and against the grain. Yet the conceptualization of some of the essays
proves annoying, as the authors sometimes view their subjects through
the eyes of their source material. Time and again they remind readers
that slaveowners or white observers or various other members of the better
classes scoffed at black style. All too often the authors subject their
black fashionables to what feminist film scholars term the gaze,
which reinforces relations of dominance between looker and looked-at.
In comparison with the Whites, Wilma King, and Kathy Peiss convey far
more respect for black Americans who made personal beauty out of meager
resources. Taken together, these four historians and others I listed above
render visible a crucial theme in the history of American fashion. The
Whites deserve the gratitude of any student of the history of American
Return to top Return to Reviews