Virginia Woolf pinned it to “on or about” December 1910: the date that human nature changed. “All human relationships have changed,” she writes. “And when human relationships change, at the same time there is a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature. With less hyperbole, we might suggest that it was in the late 1950s that black America was transformed – not just with the civil rights movement, but across the spectrum of creativity and creativity. the driving. Aspects of this revolution have been well documented: the birth of cool in jazz; writers Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright. But some of the more everyday parts have been under-examined. Like clothes.
Look at photos of black American men in the 1950s and 1960s and what stands out is a growing consistency and confidence in their appearance. Here is saxophonist John Coltrane in a soft-shouldered jacket and knit tie, while here is writer Amiri Baraka in a button-down shirt and shawl collar cardigan. The look is sleek, but casual – no heavily padded suits or repp striped ties here. As varsity jackets and penny loafers suggest, this is a style inspired by privileged white Ivy League college students. You might even say it was appropriate – then improved. The color palette is widening, the finishes are more daring: tie clips, collar pins, capped oxfords. Later this look will be known as Black Ivy.
This insurgency is documented and celebrated in a new book called Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style. In his introduction, Jason Jules describes the look as “a kind of battle dress, symbolic armor worn in the nonviolent pursuit of fundamental change. Making society treat them differently first meant that the general public saw them differently. Think tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in a button-down shirt playing Freedom Suite, or Billy Taylor in a tweed jacket who composes I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The objective was not only to join the elite, it was to redefine them.
However subtly done, the style was a challenge to authority. Dressing like a college student was not an assignment, but a crucial part of the struggles around the desegregation of the American education system. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the political atmosphere changed, as did the street style. Stokely Carmichael went from working alongside John Lewis in sports jackets and ties to leading the Black Panthers in dark glasses and a black leather jacket, holding a gun.
While the term “political gesture” is still meant to be an insult, we are rewriting what counts as a political gesture right now: just consider the arguments here and in the United States over the knee grip. Historians have long argued that slaves and indentured laborers have shown resistance by dragging their feet or feigning misunderstanding of barked orders. Something similar has to happen with fashion, which is too often referred to as either catwalk designs or the January sale. But it can also be about expressing one’s self-image and beliefs. Black Ivy was about young Black Americans changing the way they see themselves – starting with the mirror near the wardrobe.