How Iconic Black Singers Expressed Themselves By Fashion

Nieddu wanted to dress the actor Andra Day in a way that conveyed Holiday’s glamor, though the persecution she faced for her heroin addiction took its toll. Even a “princess moment” like Day’s unforgettable rendition of Lover Man is conveyed by a look that has to be “masked” behind the stage, says Nieddu. Sometimes temptation is just a false front, but sometimes that’s what the dispossessed can give to themselves when society thinks they deserve nothing. Performance critic Madison Moore told me, “Sometimes the best looks are improvised.”

How “angular black femininity” continues to inspire

Style is a renewable resource for black women, as Kitt affirmed in an aphorism: “The only thing I can sell and still own is my talent.” In her daughter Kitt Shapiro’s memoir, Eartha & Kitt (Pegasus, May 2021 ), we get a picture of someone who has made a sharp distinction between their public attraction and their private life, especially as a mother. This need for a regular retreat from the glamor of the public was felt with particular strength by black women who could not take the respect of white women for granted. Fashion tells this story too, especially in films that try to recreate the vulnerable private moments of our cult characters.

Eartha Kitt with her daughter Kitt Shapiro, February 1965.

Bettmann / Getty Images

In the plethora of stories that make it to the silver screen – and in new books, including Dr. Daphne brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2021) and Maureen Mahon Black Diamond Queens (Duke University Press, 2020) – We can now meet many of these black women in all their collectively vibrant diversity, no longer always against a white background, but more seen and heard in the affirming circle of black communities to which they continue to belong as role models to find a way out.

Tavia Nyong’o writes, teaches and curates Black Performance and is most recently the author of Afro-Fabulations: The Strange Drama of Black Life (New York University Press, 2018). He is working on a series of essays on the dark art of rejection in recent art and criticism