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. 

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

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

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

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.