Nell Irvin Painter


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
Princeton University

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, couldn’t 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, 1993.
  • Wilma King, Stolen Childhood : Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Noliwe Rooks, Hair Raising : Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
  • 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 Press, 2000.

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 people’s 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 style’s own internal aesthetics. Those aesthetics, as expressed in body language, clothing, hair, dance, and other forms of bodily display, constitute this book’s 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 fashionables–witness, for example, the attention paid the hairdos of the stars of women’s 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, Stylin’s 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 women’s bodies. The Whites explain black people’s 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 personal appearance.

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