If you ask me to share my earliest memory of clothing, in spite of the bevy of beautiful dresses my mother delighted in buying for me as a child (which I equally delighted in wearing), the first thought that comes to mind is an outfit I wore to kindergarten one day in 1980. I clearly remember strutting into the classroom that morning wearing a brand new pink velour v-neck with tan corduroys and a fresh set of rust-colored brogues (I did say it was 1980), pausing to strike a sassy pose—with hand on then-nonexistent hip—before being instructed to take my usual spot in our morning story circle.
Because even at age 5, in that outfit, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t that chick.
Of course, as a fashion-obsessed person, my life is filled with memories like that one—as well as a handful of cherished pieces I can’t bear to part with, even if they’re no longer in style (or my size). But as historian, cultural critic and fellow clotheshorse Tanisha C. Ford explains in her newest book, Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, such is the inextricable link between memory and style.
A leather jacket. Bamboo earrings. A hoodie. For black women, these are items that have a profound impact; one that is as personal as it is cultural. Ford mines the meaning behind them all, chapter by chapter, as she takes on her most personal work to date.
“I never thought I’d write another book on fashion, for fear of being pigeonholed as ‘the fashion lady,’” Ford admitted to The Glow Up. Her hesitance is understandable, as previously, she’d authored 2015's Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul and co-authored this year’s lauded retrospective monograph of Black Arts Movement fashion photographer Kwame Brathwaite, Black Is Beautiful for Aperture. But when the opportunity arose for her to write for a broader audience, it was actually Ford’s academic roots that led her to a deeply intimate exploration of style, as she researched what that project might look like.
“That led me to look at a lot of books that had been written on fashion and style within the last decade or so, and I noticed that there was really nothing that centered black girls and black women, and our love of clothes, and what that looks like for us,” she noted. “So much of it was so white-centered.
“I had to write this for black women and girls and nonbinary femmes because we needed our stories to be told, and here I was with this opportunity to do so,” she added. “It’s all about the story, for me. How can I tell the stories of communities of women and girls who are often overlooked?”
Drawing on the immortal words in the late Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, Ford set out to “sing a black girl’s song”; to remind her of “her infinite beauty.” Dressed in Dreams may be billed as “a love letter to fashion,” but it’s equally a love letter to black women, girls and culture—and how we do it as no others can.
“For black people, so much of our material culture was never deposited in any kind of archive. So, there are so many of our stories around getting dressed, around our clothes and what they mean that never end up in someone’s archive, or even in someone’s museum,” Ford says. “So, I was trying to think about ‘How do I tell that story—about the emotional connection we feel to our clothing? This book gave me the chance to do that. ... I could instead talk with my mom and my aunties, and my cousins and friends about our clothes and what they mean to us. And what I realized was that all the stories that we hold in our memory about our clothes; about getting dressed; about that time you got teased when you wore that one particular shirt or when you had that hairstyle—or when Big Mama hands down her fur to you—all of those things become their own kind of fabric.
“And so, we can’t separate the clothing from the memory; from the lesson,” Ford continues. “That’s why it’s so painful for us when the fashion industry appropriates our style and then rips that personal narrative apart from the garment. It’s like a tearing or a wrenching that is painful for our communities because so much of who we are is tied to our clothing.”
Writing Dressed in Dreams also afforded Ford the opportunity to dispel one of the most commonly held misconceptions about African American style: that we are frivolous with our clothing (or our lives, for that matter). Understanding that for us, fashion is personal, political, and in many ways, a show of protest and prosperity (sometimes, simultaneously), Ford advocates for fashion as a form of black history, with all of its attendant complexities.
“When you’ve been oppressed for centuries, and then denied access to basic human rights; when you have been denied home and auto loans, then that fur coat, that becomes an investment piece. That fancy watch? That’s an investment piece,” she says. “Our clothes have been a way that we’ve been able to carve out a piece of freedom for ourselves; to carve out a smidgen of humanity for ourselves; joy, pleasure.
“So, our clothes are never just garments; they are material archives of our lives, and that archive tells a story of survival, it tells a story of black leisure, it tells a story of black joy amidst some of the most horrific incidents in American history, and that’s why I think that telling a black story about fashion and style is such an American story; it illuminates so much about America’s past,” she adds. “Every choice we make, it has political space to it...this is looking at the everyday activism, the everyday politics that black women engage in as we stand before our closet and make that decision about what we’re going to wear.”
My American story might include a pink velour top, and an irrationally coveted first pair of saddle shoes or Converse sneakers to pair with those bamboo earrings. For others, it might include knee-high boots or a Jheri curl—both of which also merit their own chapters in Dressed in Dreams. Weaving memory, history, sociopolitical analysis, and a profound love of both fashion and blackness, Ford encourages us to embrace our fashion choices as more than trends. They are our legacy, our creativity and resilience made manifest. They are our defiance and our joy.
“I want this book to be an escape for us,” she says. “I want this to be a book that offers a feeling of joy and pleasure; I want us to get a chance to laugh, to reminisce. … to bask in our own uniqueness and brilliance and beauty.
“This is that black girl’s song, and I want us to see it,” she adds. “I want us to hear that. I want us to be draped in that.”
The Glow Up tip: Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion is available now. Tanisha C. Ford will be appearing at the 2019 Essence Festival.