Denim and the Black Community
Welcome to SecondHand Stories. In honor of the launch of Levi’s® SecondHand, we’re bringing you a series that examines the relationship between sustainability and style.
Dominique Drakeford and Whitney McGuire are the founders of Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization that provides access and insight to sustainability through the lens of the African diaspora. Below, the duo share their thoughts on the longstanding connection between denim and the Black community.
Our work bridges the gaps between the mainstream sustainability movement and marginalized communities. So we know that denim has always been a canvas for sustainable style in the Black community. That includes secondhand acquisition, DIY modifications, mixed high and low fashion, deconstruction and edification.
Black engineers and innovators wore and created staple denim styles that we know and love today, like coveralls. And a whole autonomous ecosystem evolved around Black-centric music, clothing and activism. From indigo cultivation to grassroots activism to mainstream commercialization, denim was armor just as much as it was expression.
According to historian Tanisha C. Ford, in the early 19th century, slave owners bought raw denim and other cheap fabrics in bulk to clothe their bondmen and bondwomen. “Often referring to these fabrics as ‘negro clothes,’” Ford says, “white Americans ensured that clothing created cultural and social difference between themselves and their enslaved workers.”
According to Miko Underwood, designer and founder of Harlem-based sustainable-denim brand Oak and Acorn, “Indigo was the hidden commodity of the slave trade. We’ve only heard about cotton as it relates to the slave trade — maybe rum, sugar and rice but cotton is what made America the capitalist society — where they made the most money. But before cotton it was indigo.”
Photographs by E.E. Burson.
Our grandparents’ generation often saw denim not as a neutral rugged textile but as a symbol of a regressive and painful past, an affront to the affluent lifestyle they adopted post-Great Migration — an affront to the American Dream. As Ford says, since “Black Americans were supposed to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy, dressing nicer than whites became an act of defiance.”
But by the time our parents became politically conscious, denim had gained a new meaning as a signifier of resistance. And then it transformed again as a fashion statement in the era of hip-hop.
Photographs of Whitney McGuire’s mother, Melanie Moore-Seales; and Dominique Drakeford with her father.
Listen, oppressive systems never stopped Black communities from a damn thing. The DNA of Black culture is in remixing — a form of creative reclamation as an avenue of cultural survival and expression — a.k.a. sustainability. The epitome of the Black American expression has stemmed from the art of survival.
To see this remix culture in action today, look to the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), a civil-rights group formed to give younger Black Americans a voice in the movement. As a sign of their activism, they adopted a “uniform” of denim coveralls. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, denim became a marker of revolution for Black people. From the disco era in the ’70s, leading into the “Golden Age” of hip-hop in the ’80s, ’90s and onward, remixing denim became even more instrumental in shaping a narrative of solidarity and reclamation.
Through our professional and academic experience, we know that conventionally made denim has a significant environmental impact. This, combined with our society’s tendency to over consume, has created a perfect storm — the brunt of which impacts impoverished and disadvantaged communities first and disproportionately more.
Denim remains woven into the fabric of our country. In order for it to continue on a positive trajectory, our shopping habits will need to get more creative. We need to focus on creating a more sustainable future for all, especially for the marginalized among us.
Penning a letter to you may seem frivolous in today’s social climate, however, as we transition into a more evolved progressive reality for everyone, this is precisely the time to acknowledge your significance as the fabric of our nation.
I remember the distinct and satisfying feeling of your threads separating between the blades of my mother’s kitchen shears. I was 10 and wanted to kickstart what I thought would be a career as a fashion designer. Between the cut spaces, I sewed a strip of the scarf I typically used to tie my hair each night with coat thread leftover from a failed friendship bracelet venture. Eventually, I emerged from my bedroom and presented my new skirt, converted from a pair of outgrown jeans, prancing down a makeshift catwalk in our living room, interrupting my mother’s phone call. “She’s always making something,” she quipped proudly.
Denim, I have no memories of my grandparents wearing you. On days they wanted to relax, like Sunday after church, they would don khakis. My grandmother was a remarkably well-dressed woman her entire life. In fact, I owe much of my sartorial intuition to her. Yet, the absence of denim in her wardrobe was noticeable. In the early 20th century, a period in which many Black Americans, including my grandparents, migrated north from the Jim Crow south (South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia) in unprecedented numbers, the politics of respectability were a matter of concern for all who sought social reform and a better life. My grandparents were the children of farmers and the grandchildren of sharecroppers. Both sets of my grandparents made their entry into the world between 1919 and 1930. With their migration came the promise of a better life, more sources of income, and most of all, a little less racial terror which they experienced exponentially due to Jim Crow. To them, you were not the neutral rugged textile of choice donned by Hollywood versions of cowboys. You were a symbol of a regressive and painful past, an affront to the affluential lifestyle they adopted post-Great Migration — an affront to the American Dream. My grandparents had their sight set on a middle class lifestyle which, to them, necessitated the avoidance of Denim at all costs.
At the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, when my mother was coming of age, respectability politics were even more heavily at play. These politics are expressed in the ways we dress. According to Ford, since “Black Americans were supposed to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy, dressing nicer than whites became an act of defiance.” And historian, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham denotes Black women’s adherence to this brand of womanhood, “the politics of respectability,” or the pursuit of racial uplift is accomplished through the upholding of Victorian notions of womanhood. Which, as Ford notes, are expressed in the ways Black women style their hair, dress, speak standard English, recite biblical scriptures, and know how to correctly set a table and pour tea, etc.
“This respectability was in effect to situate the struggle for integration as a moral one, basing the opposition to segregationists on morality. But this respectability also created a division between the middle class Black Americans and working class Black Americans as the former inequitably decided to set the standard for Black excellence and liberation.” Ford, Tanisha C. “SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 79, no. 3, 2013, pp. 625–658.
My grandparents grew up on farms in Tennessee and Georgia. My great grandparents were raised by sharecroppers and their parents were enslaved. Denim represented all that my family migrated away from at the turn of the century. So when it became a symbol of liberation and activism, my grandparents and many elders, according to Tanisha Ford, regarded the attire as “hipster” activism, being worn by people who had no real experience with poverty. But the denim uniform “became a symbol of one’s commitment to the movement,” according to Ford. This is something my grandparents deeply respected. While her denim choices may have been driven by popular fashion trends among young Black Americans, my mother’s interest in wearing denim ushered in an acceptance of this textile amongst some elders in our community. And by gaining a new meaning as a signifier of resistance, denim became truly, All-American.
My mother, an artist and educator, aligned with the sartorial expression of resistance as she matriculated through university. SNCC’s uniform of denim overalls was widely popular among young Black Americans at the time.
Denim, my love for you emerged as I came of age in the era of hip hop. Your chameleon-like characteristics made you the obvious choice as I fashioned my adolescent journey — projecting cool like Aaliyah with baggy jeans and loose fitting tops, or confidence in my 70’s patchwork and bellbottoms bag. With age, came storms, some actual, others allegorical and I weathered them with the denim staples in my closet. My healing also required sartorial expression.
As I entered the professional and academic space of Fashion Law, I learned that you have a significant environmental impact. This combined with our society’s tendency to over consume has created a perfect storm, the brunt of which impacts impoverished and marginalized communities first and disproportionately more.
I’m grateful that circumstances necessitated more creative shopping habits throughout my lifetime. And as the intentions of my work become more refined and effective, I’m often drawn to the same pair of jeans I found at a thrift store a few years ago. Because sustainability is right here. Right now.
Denim, You are the constant, reliable, forgiving staple. Though your origins are rocky with my people, your appeal has done more to unite than to divide. And this is why I love you. My personal aspirations are centered around creating a more sustainable future for all, especially for the marginalized among us. Wearing you only feels right for this journey.