All white, top hat, Sunday best, black beret, denim – these have been tools of protest and catalysts for change throughout history. Now we’re unpacking the relationship between what we wear and what we believe. Featuring Angela Tate, Richard Thompson Ford, Elizabeth Way and Miko Underwood.
Syllabus for this episode
- What does anti-Blackness and anti-transness have in common? The groundbreaking scholarship in the book, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, reminds us that true justice must be fought at the intersection of race and gender.
- What did Black people wear when they were ready to make a political statement? Guest Angela Tate gives us an idea in her essay, “Fashioning the Protest.”
- Before there was Venus and Serena, there was Althea Gibson. Back in the 1950s, the tennis star made an impact when she decided to wear the same athletic uniform often worn by the White, tennis club elite. Guest Angela Tate introduces us to Althea Gibson’s Tennis Whites as a pivotal moment in fashion history.
- Historian Tanisha C. Ford’s award-winning scholarship in Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul shows us how Black women in the 1960s through the 1980s used beauty culture and their style of dress as a tool for liberation around the world.
- A material that has touched every one of our lives and holds a turbulent labor history, we provide a short profile of “Cotton,” locating its various origins, and how Black creatives are reckoning with it.
- The book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, is a bookshelf essential, as it provides a thorough survey of modern, global capitalism’s most necessary clothing material.
- Learn more about guest Miko Underwood’s journey through fashion and justice through her essay, “Red, White and Indigo: The Hidden Commodity of the Slave Trade” (published on Juneteenth) where we also include a link to her fashion film, Red, White & Indigo: The Untold Story of American Denim.
Transcript of this episode
Kimberly: Hi everyone, just a quick note before we start, this episode contains references to police violence, so take care while listening, and thanks for being with us.
On a warm afternoon in June of 2020, thousands of people marched through Brooklyn, New York, creating a sea of white garments as part of the Brooklyn Liberation Rally.
“On the 18th straight day of protest, we saw something that we hadn’t seen since protests began, talking about the fight for Black Trans lives. I mean it was just incredible to see.
Kimberly: They were marching to honor the lives, and protest the killings, of Black trans people. Layleen Polanco. Tony McDade. Dominique Rem’mie Fells. Riah Milton.
An estimated 15,000 people converged at the foot of the Brooklyn Museum in white T-shirts, sun dresses, tanks, crops, overalls, and button-downs, to say their names and demand an end to violence against Black trans folks. One of the speakers was co-organizer Raquel Willis, a writer and activist.
ARCHIVAL: I BELIEVE IN BLACK TRANS POWER
Raquel: “I believe in my power”
Crowd: “I believe in my power”
Raquel:“I believe in your power”
Crowd: “I believe in your power”
Raquel: “I believe in our power”
Crowd: “I believe in our power”
Raquel: “I believe in Black Trans power”
Crowd: “I believe in Black Trans power”
Kimberly: The all-white was a message, and an homage.
When the organizers were planning the march, they made an intentional decision to connect their demonstration to the long struggle for civil rights in America.
More than 100 years before, in 1917, the NAACP organized a Silent Parade down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Approximately 10,000 people marched, without saying a word, to protest violence against Black People. To call attention to the most vulnerable among them, swaths of the women and children wore all white.
That was one of the first mass demonstrations by Black Americans and when the Brooklyn Liberation Rally began in 2020, it continued the legacy of Black Americans using clothing as a tool for protest.
Hi, I’m your host, Kimberly Jenkins, and you’re listening to The Invisible Seam, where we open up the archive of American fashion and celebrate its Black contributions.
This is episode 3: Statement Piece.
In this episode, we’re talking about what we wear when we take to the streets to demand change and we’re going back in time to understand what our Black elders were fighting for. We’ll talk about how their style left an imprint on what we wear to make statements today, and we’ll meet a designer who had a revelation that gave her a whole new purpose for working in fashion.
Kimberly: I want to start with an iconic story from the civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, a Black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
Angela Tate: And when you think about Rosa Parks, they say, oh, she was a tired, old woman who was tired of being told to get up and move to the colored section of the bus. But she was actually a seamstress as well as being an activist and an NAACP.
Kimberly: That’s Angela Tate, curator of women’s history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I first discovered Angela’s research through her Instagram account, @theglamourousacademic. She posts these awesome compilations of archival photography, quotes, and reading material — she’s this incredible encyclopedia of knowledge about clothing, presentation, and how Black people wield both of those things in the fight for social justice. And though fashion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Rosa Parks, it was a defining part of her life.
Angela: The role that her position as a seamstress, it took her into the homes of Black women and white women in the south. It allowed her to see what domestic duties Black women were performing in these white households and how they intersected with being oppressed, being marginalized, being sometimes sexually abused and sexually assaulted. And that was being hidden and covered up. And the fact that she did say “I’m not going to get up from the seat,” was not just a moment of saying it’s about me, it’s about the broader community of Back women in the south, particularly in Montgomery and Birmingham, who were being exploited, who were being downplayed, who were being marginalized And so when you think about Rosa Parks in that photo of her sitting on that bus, in that paisley dress, there’s more to it than that. She was not just showing that she was respectable and a respectable Black woman, but she was also showing “I’m a part of the economic, roots in this nation. I’m a worker, I’m a laborer, and I have also contributed to society.”
And so that means that fashion has always been there. Fashion has always played a role and then Black women have always used their garments and how they adorn themselves to kind of present themselves in a particular way to say, Rosa Parks was presenting herself in a particular way to say, “I’m respectable. You’re going to respect me.”
Kimberly: At the heart of these civil rights protests, how you presented yourself mattered. People who knew that they would be seen on the streets – and perhaps even photographed or on television – were strategic about the clothes they wore and even how they styled their hair. Respect, citizenship and belonging were arguments that could be made through your appearance. But this wasn’t about trying to appear white. We dressed for a snapshot in history. We dressed for the humanity that we deserved.
Angela: From like the 1920s to the 1940s African-Americans would get dressed in their finest and stroll up and down Seventh Avenue, on Sundays. And I remember reading reports and, um, articles in newspapers, white newspapers from the time and how they were, they were so confused and they also saw it as how dare they dress in these fine clothes when they are maids from Monday through Saturday, where did they get this? Why are they wearing furs and top hats? But again, that was a form of protest. I might be cleaning your toilets on Tuesday night, but on Sunday, I’m going to get dressed up and walk with my husband down the street, or I’ll walk with my girlfriends and the clothes that we were managed to repurpose from castoffs, from the lady who employs us.
Kimberly: From Harlem to the deep South, Black Americans dressed for resistance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They dressed to counter stereotypes or to show their labor or political affiliation.
Richard Thompson Ford: And so you get to the 1950s.
Kim: Here’s Richard Thompson Ford, he’s a professor of Law at Stanford University, and his most recent book, Dress Codes, looks at how the law and fashion intersect.
Richard Thompson Ford: And you have civil rights protestors who are wearing their Sunday Best but not to go to church and not only on Sunday, but instead in order to challenge the social structure of their society. They sit in at a lunch counter that’s segregated, they march for freedom and for civil rights.
ARCHIVAL: Protest coverage from 1960s
Lunch Counter Sit-In Clip
“Integration in the southern United States in 1960. They brought pressure with a device called the lunch counter sit-in. They used it mainly in 5 and 10s and department stores where they could buy clothes and other items but could not sit at the lunch counter.”
Richard: And this is a real provocation, I think from today’s perspective, it’s tempting to see this as an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the power structure, like they’re wearing a suit and tie in order to suck up to the power structure. But that’s not what was going on at all at this period of time, quite the opposite. Wearing that clothing was a demand for dignified treatment. It was a demand for the kind of treatment that that clothing symbolized and it was understood by everyone involved as a challenge to white supremacy.
Kimberly: In the 1950s, it was important for many Black people to wear the same fine clothing that they wore in church … to protest.
Dressing up to protest made a statement. But it also intersected with another idea within Black communities that would later be described as “respectability politics.” Here’s curator and historian Elizabeth Way.
Elizabeth: This, this idea of respectability politics was coined by Evelyn Higginbotham in the 1990s in 1993, but this was an idea that had existed in Black communities forever, as long as they had been dealing with white communities. And it was a real way to kind of create an armor and to kind of appear faultless in front of white people. It was really important because there were so many negative stereotypes of Black people as troublemakers, as criminals, as kind of a riotous mob. And it was very important to them that they fought all of those stereotypes as much as possible. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and sixties was televised. Those images really mattered. And so people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, these were people who were the utmost in respectability and dress had a huge role to play in that. That was how they conveyed that through those images. Because, you know, there are pictures of them being circulated much more than they were interviews of them, hearing them speak. There are very real reasons why people ascribed to respectability and there are really reasons why people rejected it.
Kimberly: As younger and more radical movements took hold within the Black community, they also influenced the style of the protests. One organization behind this change was SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group was founded in 1960. Their mission? To target systemic racism using nonviolent organizing tactics.
ARCHIVAL: Freedom Summer
These are college students from every corner of the nation, they volunteered for active service to help the Black people of Mississippi learn their rights and get their names on a voters list.
And so a new generation, for instance the young men and women of SNCC rejected Sunday best activism, they thought it would be better to dress in a way that showed solidarity with the working class people they were trying to organize. So they would wear overalls or they wear work wear, they’re going into factories, they’re going into these fields to organize sharecroppers. They thought that was more appropriate. And that was really a reaction against the dress codes of their parents, of an older generation. They had a new idea about what was empowering. So you have this whole conversation going on that’s both a conversation or maybe a confrontation with white America, but also a conversation within the Black community and within people who are equally committed to social justice but have different ideas about what that entails and how to get there. There are fights over strategy and also fights over some of the values that are reflected in what people are wearing.
Kimberly: Then we get to the 1960s and there’s a dramatic shift in culture and politics. Youth culture began shaping our ideas about how we identify ourselves. And it was during this time that we saw two very different definitions of progress clash with one another. What you wore was now an advertisement for your political agenda. And SNCC was wearing the uniform of the working class: overalls and denim jeans.
Everyone involved believed and understood that this clothing, these clothing choices, these dress codes mattered for social justice. It wasn’t a matter of indifference. So it wasn’t the fact, it wasn’t as if the people in SNCC said, “Eh, who cares about what you wear? We’re just going to wear whatever when we roll out of bed.” No, they said, “We are not wearing that because it’s important that we send a different message.” Same with the Black Panthers, they had Minister of Culture, they cared about what clothing would signify, but they had a different idea about the message that they wanted to send.
Kimberly: The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California. It was a political party established to build Black power and protect the community. For them, nonviolent protest was not enough. They organized community service programs, providing things like food, healthcare and clothing. They were revolutionary, and wanted what they saw as true liberation for Black people in America.
The leaders of both organizations knew that how they showed up in public was both a political statement, and an invitation to join the movement. For us these days, jeans might not feel like a political garment but back in the 1950s, most people wearing jeans were farmers or factory workers. So when SNCC members wore jeans, they were intentionally aligning themselves with the working class.
And for the women in SNCC, wearing jeans made the additional statement of resisting gender-based hierarchy, and called attention to the violence Black women faced.
While SNCC built off of labor movements, the Black Panthers sculpted a completely new identity based on their own program.
The Black Panthers leaned into natural hairdos and monochromatic, black leather ensembles which they topped off with a black beret. The beret has wide-ranging connotations — from artistry, to nobility, to militancy. The full Black Panther look was an amalgamation unlike anything we had ever seen before, and it remains potent to this day.
Back in 2000, I was a freshman at Hampton University, an HBCU, in Virginia. A year before I started college, a 23-year old Black man, Amadou Diallo, was shot and killed by police officers in the Bronx who said they mistook his wallet for a gun. He was fired at 41 times. When my classmates and I heard that the officers were acquitted, we took to the campus grounds. I tore a strip of fabric from a red t-shirt and made an armband. I wrote Diallo’s name on it in Sharpie. I still have that armband in a storage chest to remind me of what that day meant to me.
That day was my very first protest. And today, college students still protest against the never ending struggle in clothes that carry the influence of our elders and the need for comfort, mobility, and protection. We visited a campus to talk with current students about the protests of 2020.
Student 4: We had to wear all black along with wearing face shield to cover our face because police were shooting people with, actually somebody that I was near got shot in the face, with a plastic bullet, with a rubber bullet in the eye.
Student 2: I was at like the George Floyd protests in DC, so yeah I went to like almost every day of that when people were in the streets protesting in front of the White House. I would say that my clothing style during that time probably adapted to be as identifiable, maybe wearing all black and covering my skin, so like if there’s tear gas or something it won’t get on me.
Student 1: Yes I did attend many protests last year, we actually were acted on violently so we had to wear sunglasses, face masks, long sleeve t-shirts, long pants, just because like if you got hit with tear gas or anything that would hit your skin, like, that’ll hurt you like so when I went I did have to wear protective gear.
Kimberly: OK, we’ve been talking about protest and fashion — how what you wear can indicate what you stand for. But now, I want to take you on a bit of a journey, diving into the history of one of the textiles that came up earlier in this episode: denim. The story that so often gets told about denim is one of cowboys and rebels, not of students trying to show solidarity with blue collar workers in the 1960s. And denim’s connection to Black culture doesn’t start with civil rights. It starts with the color blue. It starts in West African civilizations where the deep, rich blue color of indigo has been used in clothing for centuries.
And getting that beautiful color from the indigo plant, so it could dye clothing was a long, laborious process. When West Africans were forcefully kidnapped, enslaved and taken to the western world, they brought the knowledge of indigo with them. So. In order to pay homage to the legacy of denim, we have to go back to that story, and there’s one person I want you to meet who has made it her personal mission to uncover and share this history.
Miko: My name is Miko Underwood. I am the founder and designer of Oak and Acorn only for the rebels. Oak and Acorn only for the rebels is the first sustainable denim brand in Harlem, New York. We tell the story from the perspective of denim didn’t really begin with Lee, Levi’s, or Wrangler, but actually began on the plantations in the American south. We talk about the untold contributions of enslaved Africans and Black Indigenous Americans contributions to American manufacturing, beginning with denim.
Kimberly: I met Miko a few years ago through a mutual industry friend – since many of us Black women in fashion tend to know each other. Miko has been an industry insider for almost 20 years. She’s witnessed the waves of diversity in fashion, and then the waves of no diversity in fashion, and when I met her, she was on a journey to reconcile her involvement in an industry that’s known for being exploitative and culturally harmful. Miko’s own denim story begins back in the early 2000s. She started off her career designing and styling for musicians like T Boz and Ludacris, and as she built a reputation, brands like Baby Phat hired her to design for their labels.
I became very passionate about how we were producing denim for the companies that I was working for. And I would often advocate for can we try these fabrics instead that felt more sustainable? Or can we try this process instead? And I wanted to, operate from the space of, you know, even for these brands, like we need to find a way to be more sustainable because I had seen firsthand the impacts of how we were making the amount of waste, the amount of chemicals, all of that in the products that we’re producing.
Kimberly: Miko grew frustrated with the industry. So, she stepped away from fashion, and helped her sister start a nonprofit called We Got Us Now. It’s an organization for children whose parents have been incarcerated. The work was personal. Their father had been incarcerated for most of their lives. So Miko immersed herself in the work of helping others who had similar experiences.
Miko: You know, I really felt like, you know, I wanted to do something that was meaningful because I guess at that point I felt like, you know what I was doing in denim, it wasn’t meaningful, it didn’t didn’t resonate with me. Simultaneously, I was still being haunted by denim.
I was still being haunted by the information about denim, hemp, and so I felt like there was information that was just kind of like landing on my laptop.
Kimberly: She drew connections between all of it: incarceration and enslavement, cotton, indigo and denim, labor and protest. And Miko had questions, questions about the history of denim itself. Questions like: what was the first pair of jeans like? And, what role did the slave trade play in the production of indigo?
Miko: And all those questions that I began to ask as I, you know, work backwards from the jean back to its origins, it began to inform me of a bigger story around indigo, cotton and jean making that I had never been privy to.
Kimberly: And so she started reading and Googling everything about indigo and cotton….In the United States “cotton” is pretty much synonymous with slavery, but indigo has slipped out of national consciousness as a key crop. These days, the vast majority of denim is dyed with synthetic chemicals to recreate the color of indigo, But originally, that color came from the indigo plant and that same plant was used to dye the American flag. Indigo was no less integral to the slave trade than cotton. In fact, at some points, indigo was so valuable that it was used as a currency, meaning slave traders would literally buy enslaved Africans with indigo cloth. Miko was shocked to learn this history and felt that it had been hidden throughout time, and so she kept researching.
Miko: I found that, you know, there were vats of indigo that were transported from India and Africa, um, bloody vats as they described him, um, that were transported to, uh, initiate plantations around the globe. So, you know, the, the, the plantations were as they were channeling the people, the plantations were, um, in the Caribbean and South and Central America. Um, and before they got to America, there were plantations that were on the outer regions. And so I was like, this is really weird. I didn’t even think about there being indigo plantations in the Caribbean. And so my mother’s side of the family, we’re um, Panamanian and Jamaican. And so I started to see that there were indigo plantations and, you know, certain parts of Jamaica, and there were indigo plantations in south and central America. And then on my dad’s side we’re Black American, native American. My grandmother is a Cherokee Indian born in South Carolina in the Cherokee mountains. And then I learned about South Carolina being one of the most prosperous indigo states in the United States.
Kimberly: Miko discovered that her own genealogy was entwined with that of denim, and that the original manufacturing of this fabric began on the American plantation and was dependent on the atrocities of the trans Atlantic slave trade.
Miko: It was eye opening to find out this information and, and for someone who had been sharing about denim and telling denim stories for, at this point, over almost almost two decades and never hearing this history, it felt crazy to me. So I was like, okay, I need to share this. And how can, how, what was the best way for me to share it was to make that inclusive into the brand story and really understanding how denim has been a social cultural, political icon throughout American history has been the uniform for every protest and from, you know, the workers protest, um, um, that were on the shipyards and the labor protests, the, you know, the people’s protest after the civil rights movement, the free peoples protest, um, again going all the way back to the, you know, the American farmer, it has just been the uniform of protest. And, um, so it was very political in that way, but it, it is also such a global commodity and it is something that resonates and connects to so many people.
Kimberly: Miko loves denim despite and because of its complex history of violence, resistance, and protest. Her brand brings an important contribution to the world of fashion because it centers the Black community and integrates our full story – paying homage to the people and processes on whose backs denim became what it is today. And for her, it was critical to prioritize sustainability from the bottom up.
For me, sustainability means not just the fabric and how we show up in protecting and trying to support, um, better actions in our environment, but also how we show up in our community and also how we’re educating and informing how we become cultural, culturally accountable and culturally responsible. And so I felt it was my duty to share this information with our community, so that, you know, at the least we can be better. We can be more inclusive, um, and have a more inclusive conversation around the contributions of our ancestors.
And I really wanted to just continue to be an evermore inclusive brand. I started with the history of what it means to be as a Black Indigenous person, um, because that’s my perspective, but the contributions aren’t solely from Black Indigenous people, you know, the contributions come from, you know, the Latin community, the Asian community, Chinese, Korean that have influenced and continue to influence the culture of denim. Um, and you know, so I want to continue the story and continue to pay homage and I wanted to become a great Oak and, you know, there will be many tendrils that will come from it.. So, um, uh, I have big plans, God willing I’m on this planet long enough to at least set the infrastructure so that I can pass the baton to the next generation and really just, you know, set some things and really leave a real legacy for people to continue.
Kimberly: Denim represents so many of the contradictions at the heart of American fashion and Black culture: Slavery and the fight for freedom. Fast fashion and sustainable design, exclusivity and inclusivity. I’ve been following Miko for years, and since the uprisings of 2020 and the increased focus on “buying Black,” Miko’s brand Oak and Acorn Only for the Rebels is now being sold at major retailers. I love that she’s finally getting her flowers and bringing attention to the full history of indigo and denim.
Miko’s approach to denim celebrates its contradictions, and puts jeans in their rightful place in the American canon. Her attention to detail and intentional rebelliousness reflects those Black activists who brought denim into the mainstream back in the 1960s.
And it’s not just denim. To me, Miko’s work represents the importance of fashion as a symbol of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Of how we want to be seen when we demonstrate. And, of the rich history that we adopt when we step out the door to dream up a better world. Wearing denim, like participating in a protest, leaves impressions, and tears through experience. It’s a garment that molds to our bodies and softens with wear. And then, we put it on again.
In our next episode, we’re going back to school, specifically to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We’ll be looking at how campus fashion has shaped the image of Black Americans on a world stage, from W.E.B DuBois, to the 1980s sitcom A Different World and HBCU campuses today.
Du Bois Archival: It’s fair to say that for the next 25 years there wasn’t a book published on the negro problem that didn’t have to depend on what we were doing at Atlanta University
Archival: ‘A Different World’ theme
Jasmine: You know, Ceci had, uh, the challenge of dressing the characters to be who they were. You know, I, I feel like when I put on my costume for Whitley, it made me more her.
Speaker 1: We’re very diverse when it comes to fashion, if you walk around you see everyone being themselves when it comes to fashion and making themselves known just by putting on some clothes.
The Invisible Seam is an original podcast created in partnership with The Fashion and Race Database, Tommy Hilfiger’s People’s Place Program and Pineapple Street Studios.
I founded the Fashion and Race Database in 2017 to center and amplify the voices of people who’ve been racialized and marginalized in fashion. Our work, like this podcast, focuses on illuminating under-examined histories and addressing racism throughout the fashion system.
I’m grateful to the Tommy Hilfiger People’s Place Program for their support of this project. The People’s Place Program exists to advance and support underrepresented communities in fashion and beyond. They’ve made this show possible. My co-visionaries are Randy Cousin, SVP Product Concepts and People’s Place Program, and Dominique Bacote, Manager, Earned Media Communications and People’s Place Program.
And from Pineapple Street Studios, our Executive Producers for The Invisible Seam are Je-Anne Berry, Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Max Linsky. Himie Freeman is our Production Coordinator and Yinka Rickford-Anguin is our Associate Producer.
The Invisible Seam is produced by Stephen Key, Sophia Steinert-Evoy, and me, Kimberly Jenkins. Our editor is Aaron Edwards.
Our Head of Sound & Engineering is Raj Makhija. We are engineered to perfection, or very close to it, by Davy Sumner. Original music by OakTown Soul and additional tunes from Epidemic Sound.
Teri Agins, Sha’Mira Covington, Kimberly Drew, Nick Nelson and Miko Underwood reviewed the episodes as part of our advisory committee. Thanks for sharing your expertise, perspectives and giving thoughtful notes.
Legal services for Pineapple Street Studios by Bianca Grimshaw at Granderson Des Rochers and Katy Alimohammadi at Donaldson Calif Perez.
Fact checking by Will Tavlin.
Our show art was designed by Curt Courtney and Lauren Viera at Cadence 13.
Other Materials Were Used From The Following Entities and Organizations: NBC, Raquel Willis, F.I.L.M. Archives, and Folkway Records.
Special thanks to Sharon Bardales, Emerald O’Brien, Mara Davis and Ken Maiden.
Thanks for listening!