Freedom Summer Style: The Looks of an Unforgettable Era

This piece of civil rights history was about much more than looks, but the fashions of the time bring its memory to life. 

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Atlantic City, Four Women, circa 1960s, by John W. Mosley, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” exhibit

Posing Beauty in African American Culture/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

In 1964, Freedom Summer was a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi, where blacks had historically been prohibited from the ballot. Even amid that intense racial and political climate, style served as a form of self-definition and expression as much as it has during any other time since. Fifty years later, take a look back at what celebrities, activists and everyday African Americans were wearing during this pivotal era of our history: 

1. The Conk

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Musician Little Richard poses for a portrait in Hollywood, Calif. 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Early in the 1960s, African-American men weren’t shy about sporting chemically relaxed hair known as the Conk. This hairstyle was named after congolene, a straightening agent made from lye, often applied at home and mixed with other ingredients such as eggs and potatoes. Some men, like Little Richard, swept their straightened hair into elaborately styled pompadours, while others kept it simple by wearing their processed hair slicked back.

2. Colored Linen Suits

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The Temptations

Album cover of My Girl: The Very Best of the Temptations

The Temptations were constantly matching from head to toe. Here they don green suits trimmed with white and crisp, white low-cut boots.

3. Feminine Flourish

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The Supremes: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong

Wikimedia Commons

Diana Ross and the Supremes—Motown’s premier girl group, who rivaled the Beatles during their prime—wore straight and highly stylized wigs. The trio embellished their femininity, performing graceful choreography and appearing onstage in high-fashion gowns and meticulous makeup. The group’s refined, classy image enabled them to appeal to a wide audience.

4. Skinny Ties and Seersucker Suits

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Malcolm X

wikimedia commons

The men of the civil rights movement were fashionably notorious for their skinny ties and seersucker suits. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many other influential figures were frequently photographed rocking this attire.

5. Revolutionary Wear

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Black Panther Party rally during the 1960s

YouTube Screenshot

All-black attire and completely opaque shades, a leather jacket and the option of rocking a beret or perfectly picked Afro was the outfit of choice for many revolutionaries. A “black power” button was an appropriate finishing touch.

6. The Bouffant

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Singer-actress Diahann Carroll

Wikimedia Commons

Actress Diahann Carroll popularized the bouffant hairstyle, which was created by back-combing hair to add volume and then laying smooth hair on top to create a neat, sophisticated look.

7. Halter Gowns and Keyhole Designs

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Josephine Baker on the cover of the July 1964 issue of Ebony magazine

Ebony magazine

This style isn’t a new trend, ladies. Josephine Baker flaunted her gorgeous gown with a stunning train for Ebony’s July 1964 issue. It wouldn’t have been true to the dancing legend’s style without the patterned cape, sparking gloves and eccentric updo. 

8. Beehives and Cat Eyes

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The Ronettes

Wikimedia Commons 

The Ronettes, the New York City-based girl group, were queens of the beehive long before Amy Winehouse revived the retro hairdo. The beehive, featuring long hair coiffed into a conical shape and swept backward, evolved from pageboy and bouffant hairstyles. The “cat eye” was a popular makeup technique of the period that added allure and a sense of drama.

9. Dashiki and Caftan

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then a Milwaukee Bucks NBA player known as Lew Alcindor, wearing a dashiki

Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Blacks turned to garments, prints and accessories that emphasized a connection to Africa. Red, black and green were worn in combination. The style fostered a sense of empowerment and pride that seemed elusive during the struggle for equal rights. 

10. Sequin Dresses

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Donyale Luna

Vogue Magazine

These dresses came in various colors and styles and became popular among many performers and models in the 1960s. One of the first African-American supermodels, Donyale Luna, rocked a sequin copper-colored dress in Vogue magazine. 

11. Flirty Onesie and Bikini

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The cover of the January 1960 issue of Ebony magazine

Ebony magazine

When women hit the beach for some fun in the sun, they wore tastefully cut swimsuits in bold prints and colors, as seen on this Ebony magazine cover from 1960. The more skin-baring bikini grew in popularity at this time. 

12. Patterned Wool Suits, Wide-Brim Hats and Hot Pants 

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Harlem Series, Couples, circa 1970s, by Anthony Barboza, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” exhibit.

Posing Beauty in African American Culture/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Men weren’t afraid to step out in flamboyant, wool pinstriped and checkered suits paired with a wide-brim hat for added swag. And the ladies opted for hot pants—the shorter the better. As you can see from the photo, pairing short-shorts with tights to extend wear is nothing new. 

Taryn Finley and Erin Robertson are summer interns at The Root.

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