VIrginia Woolf pinned it to “on or about” December 1910: the date when human nature changed. “All human relationships have changed” She wrote. “And when human relationships change, religion, behavior, politics, and literature change at the same time.” With a little exaggeration, we could assume that Black America changed in the late 1950s – and not just with the Civil rights movement, but across the spectrum of creativity and behavior. Aspects of this revolution are well documented: the Birth of coolness in jazz; the writers Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright. But some of the most mundane parts have been undervalued. Like clothes, for example.
Look at photos of black American men in the 1950s and 1960s, and what you notice is a coherence and a growing confidence in their looks. Here the saxophonist John Coltrane can be seen in a soft shoulder jacket and knitted tie, while here the writer Amiri Baraka can be seen in a button-down shirt and a cardigan with a shawl collar. The look is smart and yet casual – no thickly padded suits or repp striped ties here. As the college jackets and penny loafers suggest, it’s a style inspired by privileged white students at Ivy League colleges. You could even say it was appropriated – and then improved. The color palette is getting wider, the finishing touches are bolder: tie clips, collar pins, capped brogues. This look later becomes known as the Black ivy.
This uprising is featured in a new book entitled. documented and celebrated Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style. In his introduction, Jason Jules describes the look as “a kind of combat suit, a symbolic armor that is worn in the non-violent pursuit of fundamental change. Letting society treat them differently meant that the mainstream perceived them differently at first. ”Think of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins in a button-down shirt playing Freedom suite, or Billy Taylor composing in a tweed jacket I wish I knew what it would feel like to be free. The goal was not just to join the elite, but to redefine it.
However subtly done, the style was a challenge to authority. Dressing like a college student was not an affectation but a crucial part of the desegregation struggles in America’s educational system. After the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the political mood changed – and so did street style. Stokely Carmichael went from working with John Lewis in sports jackets and ties to the leader of the Black Panthers in dark glasses and a black leather jacket, holding a rifle.
Miles Davis performs around 1959. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
While the term “gesture politics” is always intended as an insult, we’re rewriting what counts as a political gesture: Just think of the squat controversy here and in the US. Historians have long argued that enslaved people and forced laborers resisted by dragging their feet or pretending that they did not understand the orders barked. Something similar has to happen with fashion, which is too often discussed as catwalk creations or January sales. But it can also be about expressing one’s self-image and beliefs. Black Ivy was about young black Americans who are changing the way they see themselves – starting with the mirror next to the cloakroom.