A Brief History of Trends That Originated From Black Communities

Jonquil Lawrence celebrates and gives context to prominent fashion trends you might not have known originated from black communities.

WORDS Jonquil Lawrence
IMAGE Nadia Lee Cohen via Vogue Italia

Moving forwards with support for the BLM movement, it is vital that white allies commit to ongoing reparations, and fundamentally the fashion industry as a whole elevates and supports black-owned businesses and creators, whilst also holding problematic companies or individuals – *coughs Anna Wintour* – accountable. 

Historically, the relationship between the fashion industry and black culture has always been complex. We must remember that the fashion industry is built on the subjugation of black and brown bodies, established by a structural form of racism rooted in a fraught colonial past. Many fashion houses, brands and celebrities seem only too happy to appropriate, whitewash and profit off of black culture without respectfully acknowledging their history, striving to diversify and structurally transform their company nor supporting any POC staff they may already have. 

Most recently, big names like Stephen Gan, editor of V Magazine, have been called out by industry watchdog Diet Prada for deeply culturally insensitive costumes and racism in the workplace amongst an array of other issues such as misogyny and homophobia. Comme des Garcons also became subject to outrage and issued an apology after they sent white models down the runway wearing cornrow wigs during their Autumn/Winter 2020 Menswear show, despite Balmain and Marc Jacobs making similar hair faux-pas in 2017 and receiving harsh backlash online. 

The historical and cultural importance of black culture and talent and its monumental influence in fashion today must be acknowledged. With this being said, it’s also extremely important to still recognise the inequities of the acceptance of black style and culture, and to continually support POCs who have been marginalized, misrepresented or stereotyped by the fashion world. This list celebrates and gives some context to prominent fashion trends we have the black community to thank for.

NAILS

Dating all the way back to 3000 BC, Egyptian women were thought to have worn nail extensions created from ivory, gold and bone and in the 14th Century Chinese and Egyptian royals such as Cleopatra and Queen Neferti were believed to have painted their finger and toenails red as a symbol of status. Acrylic nails were created in the US in 1950 and became popular with Hollywood stars. However, the first black woman to be on the cover of Vogue, African-American model Donyale Luna most notably wore them on the cover of Twen Magazine in 1966. Acrylic nails then appeared on the salon scene in the 1970s and became associated with black 70s Disco stars such as Diana Ross and Donna Summers who wore colourful square tipped nail designs. 

During the 1980s black American track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner (aka Flo Jo) – considered the fastest woman of all time – became notorious not only for her incredible record-breaking performances but for competing with iconic flamboyant nails. She is seen sporting these long acrylic nail designs throughout her career on the track and also on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1988 the year she made the world records for both 100m and 200m which still have yet to be broken! Vibrant long acrylics were also a favourite of La Toya Jackson and Coko of the 80s New York R&B trio SWV.

In the 1990s ornate acrylic nails were popularised during the rise of hip-hop and R&B culture, a look endorsed by black artists like Missy Elliott and Lil Kim with her infamous ‘money manicure’ created by talented black nail artist to the stars Bernadette Thompson (get to know). The dollar note inspired nail set is now permanently featured at The Museum of Modern Art and is the first set of nails to ever be displayed there (!). This popularisation in the 90s propelled the concept of ‘nail art’ into mainstream consciousness and laid the foundation of this huge trend that is still prevalent today.

TODAY

Contemporary acrylics and nail art as we see them today are considered an art form. Creative nails are everywhere from runways, to fashion magazines and bustling salons, and although not necessarily black conceived, we must remember black women have been instrumental in leading this cultural wave. However, despite the cultural and historical weight these nails carry within the black community, acrylics are still frequently labelled ‘tacky’, ‘cheap’ and ‘unprofessional’ when worn by a black woman. The use of these negative labels are entrenched with classism and misogyny, and are extremely harmful, contributing to wider stereotypes about black women in society and reinforcing systemic oppression. It’s important to be respectful as a non-POC when choosing to wear nails and please be aware that erasing black women’s history from this narrative of evolution of style is silencing.

If you are a non-black nail tech, consider purchasing your materials from black-owned businesses, work with and elevate black talent, think of ways you can offer your skills to amplify black voices and respectfully pay tribute to black icons/experiences. Sylvie Macmillan has a great resource of black-owned nail brands on her Instagram.

Here is a list of UK based independent black-owned nail businesses to purchase from, support and engage with: @sadiejnails, @yo_keshh, @naysap_, @arjenesisnails, @kaddyfromthewest, @imoannails, @tpfnails, @simmy_nailsandbeauty, @ooh.beauty.byj, @nailsatthecandibar, @sheadbeauty, @aiyananails, @xisnails, @im_pressd, @buffbarbristol, @nichole_wills, @leahhannahbeauty, @beautyby.eme, @lg_nailslondon, @nailsbyromeyann, @ezananailsandbeauty

MONOGRAM PRINT 

Still prevalent in fashion today, the trend of monogram print (AKA logomania) exists to subvert the idea of wealth and status. Burgeoning from the extravagance of the 80s, it really established itself in mainstream fashion as an ironic comment on knockoff culture, luxury goods and fashion as a commodity during the US economic boom of the 1990s. Whilst logos in high fashion were originally considered to denote affluence, they became a visual trope in themselves as big designers began to mimic the very knockoffs that were inspired by them. 

The origination of monogram print is debated, but historically it can be traced all the way back to 1896 when Louis Vuitton’s son Georges Vuitton designed the interlocking ‘L’ and ‘V’ logo with floral symbols and launched the signature Monogram Canvas with worldwide patents to brand bags, boxes and luggage items. Some people argue that logomania really began in the 60s with Gucci’s symmetrical mirrored ‘G’ logo on bags and accessories. 

However, many people believe the real founder and King of logomania was ‘Dapper Dan’, one of the pioneers of streetwear. In Harlem, New York during the 1980s, Dapper Dan ran his own clothing boutique and began screen-printing big designer brands illegally, such as Gucci, Fendi and Louis Vuitton over leather and utilising them in cutting-edge new ways that the original brands hadn’t even dreamt of yet. He printed not only clothes but furniture as well, such as curtains, furniture covers and car interiors. He also had major support and clientele in the form of big names in the hip-hop and rap community such as Jay-Z, P Diddy, LL Cool J and Floyd Mayweather, which was instrumental in the mainstream popularisation of this trend. Unfortunately, he was shut down by the police in 1989 which then generated a gap in the market and demand for logomania products that big commercial fashion houses (ironically) began to fill. 

TODAY

Post-recession we witnessed the minimalism trend overtake the catwalks, but in the past few years there has been a widespread resurgence of logomania particularly with big brands. Interestingly, 2018 saw the collaboration of Gucci and the legendary Dapper Dan, with a collection inspired by the streets of Harlem and custom pieces from Dan’s 80s archive. Today, the monogram trend is still going strong – largely thanks to Dapper Dan and the rise of streetwear culture. 

HOOP EARRINGS

Coming in various forms, shapes, sizes and metals, there’s no doubt that the hoop earring is a classic piece of jewellery. Throughout history the hoop earring has been a powerful symbol for many different non-European cultures. The invention of hoop earrings dates back as far as the Bronze age and 4th Century Africa – Sudan in particular which was then named Nubia – where they were constructed from bronze, silver and gold. Hoops were also an essential accessory for Egyptians, in addition to the Gadaba tribe of India and the Hmong women of Vietnam. 

In the Jazz age, hoops were most notably adorned by American-born, black French Jazz performer and Civil Rights activist Josephine Baker, an iconic figure in history who symbolised the beauty and vibrancy of black culture in 1920s America. Baker became known for the large hoop earrings she regularly wore. Fast forward to the 1960s and hoops were a frequent day-to-day accessory for women of colour during the Black Power movement, with many also choosing to wear and celebrate Afrocentric dress. They were also a popular style with both POC and non-POC singers and celebrities such as Diana Ross and Cher. During this time many women within the black community embraced a more African-inspired look, with natural hairstyles and of course, hoop earrings. This, in turn, led to the ‘statement’ hoop of the 70s, which became widely associated with the disco and soul scene.

During the rise of rap and hip-hop culture in the 80s, hoops got thicker and grew in size, birthing the ‘door-knocker’ and bamboo style of hoop. In the 1990s this trend evolved into the form of large hoops with gemstones, nameplates or phrases that were worn by artists of colour. Iconic artists such as Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Eve and Eryka Badu to name but a few, all contributed to the popularisation of hoops at this time and paved the way for the continuation of this trend leading on from the early 2000s to present day. 

TODAY

It’s undeniable that hoop earrings possess a deep-rooted history in communities of colour and streetwear culture. Unfortunately, not everyone who borrows from streetwear style is keen to acknowledge its significant cultural past and the people it originated from. Fashion has always been inspired by various different cultures, however, an issue arises when some women of colour still face discrimination for choosing to wear hoops. It’s important that non-POCs who wear this style do so mindfully, and use their platform to engage in meaningful discourse regarding race. Hoops as a stylistic choice worn by women of colour should be respected. 

LETTUCE HEM

The lettuce hem is extremely popular today and is a particular favourite with various high street and fast fashion brands, however the history of the hem is not widely known. The now iconic lettuce hem was actually invented by African-American designer Stephen Burrows in the 70s.

As a designer Burrows loved to celebrate and exaggerate stitching and colourful threads instead of traditionally hiding them, and early on in his career the zig-zag stitch became his signature style. In order to conceive his trademarked fluted ‘lettuce hem’ he pioneered a close and narrow zig-zag stitch. Apparently the lettuce hem came about due to editor Diana Vreeland requesting a garment in the colour ‘lettuce’, Burrows took inspiration from this and then created the overcasting hem giving a ruffled ‘lettuce’ effect. 

Burrows was an instrumental figure in establishing the ‘black is beauty’ philosophy of the 1970s and his designs encapsulated the vibrant energy of the disco scene. His electrifying colourful knits, leather pieces with studded nails, midi skirts, form-fitting jumpers, rainbow jersey dresses and suede fringing showcased on African-American and diverse models, were celebrated by both the press and consumers. The alluring fluidity of Burrows’ garments were the quintessential representation of the bold, independent and non-conformist 70s woman. Although the legendary designer’s name is not cited as much as it should be, we can still see his influence on the runways today and his pioneering talent should be appreciated. 

TRAINER CULTURE

Trainer culture (referred to as Sneaker culture in the US), saw its beginnings in 1970s America, as trainers made the transition from sportswear to a form of cultural expression. This emergence became an established trend in the 1980s due to the rise of hip-hop culture, the increasing popularity of basketball and the emergence of Michael Jordan and his ‘Air Jordan’ shoe line which was released in 1985. Predominantly worn by kids of colour, the explosion of signature basketball trainers birthed a generation of trainer collectors whilst the hip-hop scene elevated their credibility as symbols of status. 

By the end of the 1990s this trend had global reach, with hardcore collectors in Britain, all across Europe and the US, people arranged special outlets, swap parties, trainer events and gatherings in desperate search for rare deadstock, vintage or limited edition collectable items. Urban black youth launched the popularity of trainer culture, leading it to also become prominent within the skateboarding community too. In the early 2000s this trend achieved a huge Asian following, particularly within India, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. Popular brands for collectors which are still favourites today are Nike, Converse, Air Jordan, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, Puma and Vans to name but a few. 

TODAY

Trainer culture is inextricably linked to streetwear culture and has revolutionised the last decade. Innovation and technology have augmented and elevated sportswear into something now embraced by luxury brands. The monumental influence of streetwear in conjunction with high profile design collaborations such as Dior and Alexander McQueen, and historical cultural weight from leading figures such as Michael Jordan have transformed the trainer into a sought after cult item. The significant role of trainers thanks to hip-hop culture and black youth should be acknowledged, and its importance is discussed further in the 2015 documentary ‘Fresh Dressed’.

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