(Translation: Women of the Pearl of the Carribean)
As my Afro-Caribbean mother takes me on a journey through her photo album, she explains that she had to remain true to herself: “I learned that I can continue to honor my Caribbean roots by blending my two cultures.” Style brought her the kind of self-confidence that allowed her to persevere as an immigrant in a new way of life in America.
In Haitian Creole, “nou la” means “we are present—and we are looking good.” While it translates to mental fortitude, the expression also refers to Haitians’ sense of fashion. Because documentation about traditional Haitian-American clothing is not readily available, I felt honored to discover pictures of my mother, Dr. Juniace Senechales Etienne, a migrant worker turned college professor. My mother’s photos tell us a story: that of an immigrant who used fashion to assimilate into America. As a student in Miami in the late 1980s, my mother witnessed the “othering” of those who, like her, came from Haiti. There was violence–: her Haitian peers often got assaulted just for being Haitians. My mother dressed defiantly, adopting “glamorous, well-dressed power suiting,” and “dressing for success” while preserving her Caribbean roots.
The Power of Tenacity
Taken in the late 1980s in Naples, Florida, this group picture reveals the unbreakable bond that exists within a Haitian family. On the far right, my mother is in a linen suit set: a white, buttoned down dress shirt with colorful prints and padded shoulders, a turquoise pencil skirt, and color-blocked, almond-shaped pumps. Next to her, her cousin Angie wears a white, long-sleeved linen suit with white lace inset details, and baby blue almond-shaped pumps. Third, is her sister Esperanta, in a royal blue dress with volumetric, ruffled sleeves and white, pointy pumps with rhinestone. Last, is my mother’s sister in-law, Jasmine, in a white chiffon skirt suit set with leg-of-mutton sleeves and white pointy pumps. My mother recalls that day with joy and excitement: “We were on our way to a wedding. We felt beautiful and glamorous.” My mother believes that fashion blocks away one’s pain: “No one needs to know that your food pantry’s empty.” Yet she knew the risks of expressing her taste for fashion. As a high school student in Miami, she was often teased for wearing “too many colors.” While colorful dresses are part of Haitian customs, in America my mother learned quickly that daring color schemes—along with chiffon and lace dresses—drew unwanted attention.
The Power of Hope
Despite the poverty, Haiti is a country of colors, joy, and beauty. My mother’s eyes light up with pride when she finds a photo taken in 1989 of her twin friends, Sara and Paule. Sara is in a red evening chiffon dress; it is layered with dramatic volumetric ruffles. She wears vibrant red pointy pumps. Paule chose a romantic dress with white and black polka dots, along with black pointy pumps; her Victorian-inspired choker accentuates her elegance. My mother explains that her own sense of style was influenced by that of her twin friends, both wedding planners in Port du Prince, who took pleasure in dressing up in their finest garments. They dressed in joyful colors and favored golden chain belts and bold red lipstick that matched their sparkly personality. From them, Mother also learned the meaning of home. The twins lived in a poor Haitian neighborhood; they shared a small home with only two rooms and an outhouse. Yet their home was spotless and tastefully decorated because “poverty doesn’t equal uncleanliness.” They hoped one day to leave Haiti to reunite with their brother in New York.
The Power of Belonging
When my mother describes this picture, taken in 1990 in Naples, she refers to Haiti as “la perle des Antilles” (The pearl of the Caribbean). Pregnant with my sister and me, she’s dressed in a custom beaded white chiffon dress made by her best friend Nancy, a Haitian fashion designer; she wears a pearl necklace and dazzling chandelier earrings. My mother adored this versatile—semi-formal, semi-casual—dress. She was delighted to put her pregnancy on display, but also felt a sense of belonging: she’d become the first Black woman to own a beauty parlor in Naples, Florida. She was part of the community.
My mother refers to my twin sister Jessica as a “poupée” (doll). In this photo taken in 1992 in Naples, Florida, Jessica sits on top of a keyboard, in a cream chiffon dress with puffed and ruffled layered sleeves and lace trimmings. White ribbon bow ties complement the dress. My mother explains that it’s a common Haitian custom: little girls wear baby doll-inspired dress.
1. Cole, Daniel James., and Nancy Deihl. “Power Dressing Postmodernism.” Essay. In The History of Modern Fashion: from 1850, 343–56. London: Laurence King, 2015.