"Black Is Beautiful": Fashion and Consciousness

"Black Is Beautiful": Fashion and Consciousness

"Black Is Beautiful": Fashion and Consciousness

Beginning in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Kwame Brathwaite helped to popularize an Afro-centric vision of female beauty featuring unstraightened hair and dark skin, then considered exotic in mainstream American media and popular culture. Inspired by the writings of Marcus Garvey, Brathwaite’s "natural" portraits of the Grandassa Models serve as a testament to the lasting power of fashion and photography as cultural and political tools.

Documentary photographer Kwame Brathwaite and his son Kwame S. Brathwaite join historian Tanisha Ford and designer Mimi Plange to reflect on the impact of Brathwaite Sr.’s pioneering “Black Is Beautiful” photographs.

On January 28, 1962, fashion, music, and politics converged in a groundbreaking showcase called Naturally ’62, held at Harlem’s Purple Manor. Subtitled The Original African Coiure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards, the presentation sought, according to historian Tanisha C. Ford, to “prove to the world that ‘Black is Beautiful’ by promoting natural hairstyles and soul fashions as tools of liberation.”

The event was initiated and organized by my father, photographer Kwame Brathwaite, his older brother, Elombe Brath, and the organization they co-founded with other like-minded artists in 1956: the African Jazz Art Society and Studios, or AJASS. Jazz greats Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach headlined Naturally ’62, which was initially planned as a one-time event. The  rst show proved so popular, however, that a second sold-out presentation was held that same night to accommodate the crowd.

Naturally ’62 marked the debut of AJASS’s Grandassa Models. The name nodded to Carlos A. Cooks, founder of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, who referred to Africa as “Grandassaland.” Transcending established cultural and fashion norms, models in the group were darkerskinned and committed to wearing their hair in natural styles and showcasing African-inspired fashion and jewelry. The show featured clothing that was colorful, textured, and versatile,  owing with the same grace and style as the models themselves. The women were chic, stylish, bold, and unapologetic. “By wearing African-inspired garments,” Ford has noted, the Grandassa Models “were communicating their support of a liberated Africa and symbolically expressing their hope for black freedom and social, political and cultural independence in the Americas.” Naturally ’62 was a pivotal moment in fashion—a cultural statement about embracing one’s heritage and self-pride. The message was clear: “Black is Beautiful.”

 

Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Photography, Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Self- Portrait), c. 1964; Kwame Brathwaite, Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a beaded hairpiece by designer Carolee Prince, c. 1967.

 

This program is inspired by the museum's exhibition, Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip, through April 2018. 

 

Grandassa model Pat Bardonelle during the Garvey Day Parade, August 17, 1968.
Courtesy of Kwame Brathwaite Photography, Kwame Brathwaite

 

About the Speakers:
Kwame Brathwaite has been considered the ever-present documentary photographer of the Black Arts & Culture movement. He started as a jazz photographer and helped to form the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS), which launched the “Black Is Beautiful” movement through concerts, fashion shows, events, and photographs. He also took pictures of iconic events, such as the Rumble in the Jungle and The Jackson Five’s trip to Africa in 1974.

Kwame S. Brathwaite, son of photographer Kwame Brathwaite, manages his father's photographic archive and engages in collaborative projects that reflect the varied themes of his father's work: activism, politics, fashion, and music.

Tanisha C. Ford is Associate Professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (Gender and American Culture) (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Ghanaian-born designer Mimi Plange launched her ready-to-wear label in 2010, using Africa as a limitless font of inspiration.  Plange’s designs have been worn by former First Lady Michelle Obama and Rihanna, among others. Her work has been featured in publications including The New York Times.

This event is part of Carnegie Hall’s The ’60s: The Years that Changed America festival.

The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City. It serves the people of New York and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. The Museum’s collection contains approximately 750,000 objects, including prints, photographs, decorative arts, costumes, paintings, sculpture, toys, and theatrical memorabilia.