Thursday, April 5, 2012

Remember when Being Feminine and Girly was a Black Thing?

When exactly did Black women start embracing the "strong, hard, independent Black woman" instead of the "feminine, delicate, elegant Black woman"? I know that during slavery Black women could not afford the same clothing as White women and they had to do hard labor, so let's just focus on after slavery. During those times there were surely poor Black women and those who were "better off" in their communities. Again let's focus on the women who were "better off" and could actually afford to choose their clothing (even if it was of lesser quality than the clothing White women could afford). Many of these women may have actually sewn their own clothes but they would have had to purchase the fabric. These women dressed very similar to White women at the time. I don't know for sure, but they may have added their own unique flare to the styles, but they were very feminine, elegant, and beautiful. I do also notice that they attempted to style their hair like White women which is unfortunate, but they probably needed to in order to work and fit in at the time.

So there was a time when Black women and White women followed the same fashion trends and dressed in a similar manner! When did this stop? Was it in the 60s when Black women started wearing afros? During the 60s and the civil rights and feminist movements Black and White women wore pants more often and embraced the sloppy hippie look. Both looks could be feminine or masculine at times. Was it the 70s? I think the Black disco queens were quite feminine. I don't think it was most of the 80s either because there were many Black female celebrities (e.g., the Pointer Sisters) who dressed in a feminine manner that was quite similar to the style of White celebrities.

There have always been subcultures who had their unique styles but I'm talking about mainstream fashion that was worn by the masses and then promoted by fashion designers and brands. Often times a musician would have a style, fans would copy the style and attitude of the musician, and eventually the mainstream would embrace the music, style, and attitude (or an actress would star in a big movie and fans would copy her style seen in the movie and in public). I think that the point where Black women embraced hard, edgy, defiant, masculine styles and mannerisms was the 1990s (because they liked them, not because they had to)! Prior to the 90s there was not much of a difference between Black and White female fashions, at least one did not seem more masculine than the other.  The 90s saw hip hop culture become mainstream and "urban fashion" was born. Urban female fashion was hard, edgy, overly sexy, or a female version of MEN'S fashion (in fact, when I was a girl I just wore my brother's old clothes). The sexy part was similar to White women's fashion but the hard, masculine part was unique to urban fashion (well actually White women had punk fashion that was hard and masculine but all White women were never pressured to dress punk. White people had many other styles that they chose from so they did not limit themselves to one style). By the 90s many Black women had also accepted feminism and along with that many rejected anything that was traditionally feminine (e.g., learning how to cook, sew, knit, and act like a lady etc.).

Celebrities who embraced urban fashion included Mary J. Blige, TLC, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt & Pepa, Aalyiah, Brandy, Monica, SWV, Xscape, and many others. When you think of these women, when they were most popular they tended to wear over-sized clothing that often looked like men's clothes and in their videos they rarely smiled and often looked unhappy. These were the women that Black women everywhere emulated! Some celebrities like En Vogue dressed in a feminine manner but they also had a hard edge sometimes. Fortunately, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey appeared "nice" in their videos as did some other pop and R & B singers (both women were accused of acting "too White"). This was the time when hardness and attitude crept into the professional personas of Black musicians and it was rare to see a Black musician who appeared sweet, soft, or down to earth without a chip on her shoulder. This was also echoed on television shows where elegant women like Claire Huxtable were replaced with loud, obnoxious caricatures like Gina on the Martin show, and numerous characters on In Living Color and Saturday Night Live (remember Ellen Cleghorn and her character threatening to cut everyone?).

Some may argue that the world always thought that Black women were unfeminine compared to other women and the change in fashion would not have made a difference. I just don't believe that! I think that if Black women had continued to choose mainstream fashions (and attitudes) instead of urban fashion then we would look no different from White or Asian women and perhaps today we would be regarded in the same manner. Look at how people react to Michelle Obama. Some still hold racist views and claim that she is angry and militant but sensible people can see she is very feminine, a caring mother, and a devoted wife, and that she dresses the same way they do (or the way they aspire to dress). Many Black women CHOSE to appear different and rejected anything that was overly feminine by calling it "White" and embraced masculine, oversized clothing as being "Black". We also did the same thing by calling good manners, speaking softly, becoming educated, reading etc. "acting White" even though these things were once cherished in the Black community! Instead we chose to follow the uneducated, criminal rappers and their hard, defiant, hyper-masculine attitudes. We followed these men in an attempt to "keep it real" and show our loyalty when we would have been better off following the fashion aimed at women in general! Part of this may have been an angry rejection of anything associated with White culture but I don't think it has helped us and it has only marginalized us further. It didn't work so what's the point holding on to it (the same goes for Black men acting hard because it has backfired)? Black women today need to realize that Black women were not always hard! Even in the face of blatant racism during Jim Crowe many women still carried themselves with more dignity and appeared more feminine and gentle than women today! I really think it's time that we went back to the old ways and rejected urban fashion/attitudes/mannerisms in favor of feminine, mainstream women's fashion/attitudes/mannerisms. That's exactly what I am doing!

Fantastic links to Vintage Black Women (you must visit these links and be amazed by the way Black women were once portrayed!):
Vintage Black women on Flickr
Vintage Black glamour on Tumblr
Vintage Black2 on Tumblr
16 Stone Vintage (great blog WOW!)


  1. I GREATLY appreciate you linking to the "Vintage Black Women" gallery I created over at Flickr. This is the reason why I started, actually, a series of "Vintage Black Women" galleries on Flickr; to show the reality, glamour, and sophistication of women of African heritage throughout the years in contrast to the negative images/discussion about Black women that's unfair and too common.

    Thanks again and I love your blog and the positive message it's putting out!

  2. Hi there Victoria Grace :)

    Oh wow, I came across your blog by searching for vintage Black women on Google! I love the images. When I look at them I can only think that these women look so dignified, elegant, graceful, sophisticated, and respectable and I that I want to appear the same way. I think that is would be so helpful for Black women to see these vintage women so that they can remember that it was NORMAL for us to look like well-mannered, pretty, feminine ladies. It's as though everyone has forgotten this! We can go back to looking feminine and acting more feminine if we make an effort and we can change the way we are perceived. In this case forgetting the past was harmful to us. I love your blog too and those photos are priceless!

  3. Thank you so much for your comments and for visiting and sharing the Flickr "Vintage Black Women" galleries. I appreciate the positive feedback! The photographs in the galleries range; from those Flickr uploaders who've posted everything from studio portraits and Black actresses/performers to family images. I didn't see any other galleries on the Flickr site with this specific theme at the time, and I've had a lot of fun browsing through all of the beautiful imagery!

    I love vintage fashions and photography, and have always been interested in African-American history!

    I've been enjoying the posts here very much - they make a lot of sense!

  4. I found your blog through a friend who posted this article on Facebook. I agree with you, but I would also add that young black women are increasingly embracing ghetto gear. Ghetto gear includes hip hop clothes and their cheap knock-offs (ex: Baby Phat, Apple-Bottoms, Rocawear, etc). I reside in a college town that is very small, but one can pinpoint any Black female who is not from here by the her choice in ghetto gear outfits. I wish more young Black females would learn that their mode of dress is a huge indicator of their class status

  5. I think that feminine and girly was never a Black thing but think about why. BW have been ascribed to this notion that BW CANNOT be feminine or girly from slavery. When Whites put out the narrative that only WW were pure and virtuous = true women.

    Clothing gives one agency. To say that by looking at someone and what they are wearing is "a huge indicator of their class status" it's things like that which lead to incidents like Trayvon Martin. My professor, is a BM and wears Avirex=style leather jackets (oversized & whatnot), he is young too. He has a Ph.D from Brown University, but you "couldn't tell by looking at him". To subscribe to mentality that we as BW should take back the ideals of "true womanhood" (w/e that means is fine) but you cannot impose that on everyone due to WP's opinion of Black people.

  6. Hi E. Wilson :) Thanks for your visit! I agree, people have to realize that what they wear sends a message to other people about what type of music you like, how you feel about yourself (e.g., low self-esteem, depression etc.), and what you are doing with your life (e.g., student, professional etc.). This has always been the case and wishing it away will not work.

    Hi Cee,
    Well I think that based on this post I disagree. Black people did not come into existence during the Atlantic Slave Trade. They existed before that in Africa where women were feminine and they were treated like women. Black girls and women in Africa today look like women because of the way they dress and act, not like men even if they wear their hair short.

    I don't let notions of what White people thought during slavery interfere with my life today (I doubt that White people worry about it). We have to stop relating everything we do to slavery and White people and instead strive for helpful ideals regardless of race. To do otherwise is self-defeating, depressing, and a self-fulfilling prophesy (i.e., you expect that people won't treat you like a lady so you don't bother trying to be one).

    It sounds like it bothers you that people judge others by their clothing, but that's reality. People have always done this. People will readily admit that they dress a certain way to send a message, yet when others react negatively they say that's prejudiced. People have a choice to wear whatever they want and not think about the consequences or choose clothing they like that sends a message that is beneficial to them. Colleagues of your professor friend may pull him aside and tell him he does not look professional and that his colleagues don't take him seriously. He will have to decide if he is okay with that or if it's better to dress like a professor in order to advance his career. If you are a Ph.D. why wouldn't you want to look like one?

    I am not imposing ideas on anyone, they are free to choose whatever they want to wear and they can choose to act however they want. They just have to accept the consequences for their actions instead of always pointing the finger at everyone else.

    1. I think you make some thought-provoking points. I don't agree that BW were never girly because slavery. That argument creates a gap ignoring everything from Abolition straight on to the 70s. I think it may have been the androgyny of fashions and hairstyles of the 1970s. May have been a factor. I thnk another factor may have been the upsurgence of anti-establishment Black Nationalism (not just in the US), where women demanded and became the footsoldiers to the cause.

  7. Excellent post Elegance! Looking forward to reading more from you :)

    I posted a portion of your post on Tumblr and I'm not surprised at the "acting brand new" comments from some of the black women. They want to turn this into an argument about feminism and white supremacy.....*rolls eyes* Notice how any conversation that is attempted to improve the behavior or appearance of black people, in this case black women, ends in derailments from the indoctrinated among us.

    We should all be asking ourselves what benefits us and what doesn't benefit us in the long run and make the appropriate adjustments. How has the "strong, hard, independent Black woman" instead of the "feminine, delicate, elegant Black woman" benefited some black women the last few decades?? *crickets*

  8. Thanks BWLivingWell :) I like your blog too!

    I loved what you said, "We should all be asking ourselves what benefits us and what doesn't benefit us in the long run and make the appropriate adjustments. How has the "strong, hard, independent Black woman" instead of the "feminine, delicate, elegant Black woman" benefited some black women the last few decades??"

    This is the mentality that I have and that I write about on this blog. I do what works and try to stop things that don't. I don't degrade or humiliate myself though. I just learned being nice, not complaining all the time, being open to new things, and striving for better things has worked for me so I refuse to stop. Frowning, acting moody, isolating myself, and dressing like a slop got me NOWHERE and gave me NO BENEFITS that I actually needed.

    What White or Black people think crosses my mind but it doesn't stop me. I put what I need and what works ahead of those thoughts. It's really helpful when I really think about my fears of racism and rejection by Black people and how they hold me back. Once I recognize those things then I can push them aside and get on with my life! That's what I think successful people do when they defy the odds!

    See you again soon :)

  9. I have to respectfully disagree with 'Cee' on this statement, "I think that feminine and girly was never a Black thing but think about why. BW have been ascribed to this notion that BW CANNOT be feminine or girly from slavery."

    I've done a lot of reading of Black history, seen thousands of images of women of African heritage (both here and abroad) through the centuries, and have also seen the realities of the glamor/femininity my own Black female family members put forward.

    Feminine and girly behavior/style has always been nearly as much intertwined with the lives of Black women as it has with any other type of woman. It's definitely true that historically, for many women of color, their experiences have been more difficult, but femininity has always been an integral attribute amongst them.

    Things like sewing, makeup, hair care, beauty and style have always been cherished by Black women. One can only open up an old Black magazine like "Ebony" and see the pictures of women of the day and beauty ads geared towards the Black woman.

    There were for the more middle class African-American women, beauty & etiquette schools owned and ran by other Black women. These taught girls to be young ladies in all areas of life, i.e. manners, posture, language, deportment.

    My grandmother was always the height of femininity. She wouldn't leave the house without gloves, a hat, and a nice outfit.

    There were cotillions and debutante balls exclusively for young African-American women. I know this because I've read about these affairs and my own mother and aunt were a part of them. My mom was a sub-debutante in a cotillion in the 70's - there's a picture of her in my Flickr album, in a gown my grandmother made especially for the occasion.

    All of this history demonstrates that despite the unfair, unrealistic garbage racists spread about the image of Black people/Black women, countless Black women did indeed celebrate, promote, and treasure feminine ideals for themselves and their daughters. They were no different from any other lady.

  10. How does one look like a Ph.D?

  11. To Anonymous,

    I hope that you are not being facetious with that question. A Ph.D. would dress like the rest of his or her colleagues probably business casual or business attire, not as though they were going to the gym. Some wear t-shirts and jeans for lectures but others dress in more professional attire. For public lectures they dress more professionally. At work sites outside the university they follow dress codes the same as in any other profession which is usually business professional.

    I know this as these people are my colleagues. If the Ph.D. mentioned above wants to be treated with the respect he deserves he should dress like someone in a respected profession like his colleagues instead of like his students. He's probably trying to "keep it real" and fit in with men who don't consider his to be "one of them" anyway since he became a doctor anyway. Or he has not accepted his high status role yet.

  12. Hello saw your blog on clutch(a blog I'm starting to want to aviod) about blk women are sexy but not beautiful. I can't wait to dig into more of your posts.

    I just wanted to add some links from youtube where you can see many blk models from the 80's and 90's walking for high end brands looking very elegant and "very blk".


  13. Ok and and two more

    I hate how blk women are portrayed in the media now. Really I think most of us should just stay away from people weilding mikes and cameras.

  14. Thank you Chic Noir for your visit and the links :)

  15. I forgot to add that the cover with Oprah and Michelle is simply smashing and stunning.

  16. "Masculine" and "feminine" are social constructs; their meanings change depending on the culture.

    I see nothing wrong with women who want to dress "masculine" or who don't dress in the stereotypically feminine manner.

    I understand that "femininity" is nothing but a social construct but I enjoy dressing in skirts, dresses, etc. BUT I will not say that somehow better than another female-identified person who does not dress in this way.
    When I read this, I couldn't help but think that the message this article is sending is that if you're a female-identified person of color and you dress outside of what our culture deems as feminine, you're doing the community a disservice.

    I would advocate for people dressing in ways that they feel comfortable and empower them. For some people, it's skirts, dresses, etc. and for others it's pants, oxfords,suits, bow ties, etc.

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  27. Anonymous I'm going to refer you to this post

    and end this conversation. Any further comments from you on this post will be deleted.

  28. I deeply appreciate your contributions to the culture of Black American thinking. As a father and a man thank you...

  29. Omg I wish I could kiss this post. This is too true. I choose to be girly and feminine and there seems to be like 0 black women who dress the same. It seems as though black women ALWAYS reject femininity and then wonder why its hard to find a man. Lol look at yourself . I just wish more black girls like myself would accept being more feminine and embracing it not just for the wrong reasons.