Books

'Dressed in Dreams' Uncovers the Black Women Who Invented Modern Streetwear

"The book is for all of the everyday Black girls who made magic out of a dollar store T-shirt."

by Taylor Hosking
25 June 2019, 8:45am

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

There are a thousand ways to explain the importance of baggy jeans in Black culture. You could start with the hip-hop icons who helped popularise the streetwear trend in the media, and continue with the mainstream fashion industry who tried to capitalise off of the look. But for historian and journalist Tanisha C. Ford, the only way to start is with the legacy of Carl Jones, who saw Black kids wearing oversized hand-me-down jeans because they couldn't afford their own sizes and chose to flip the stigma by giving the style a name and producing it in loud bright colours when he launched Cross Colours in 1989.

In her upcoming book, Dressed In Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, Ford tells her own coming of age story from Fort Wayne, Indiana to life in New York City by tracing the history of ten fashion trends—like bamboo earrings, leather jackets, and Jheri curls— that each tell a broader story about Black women's connections to each other.

The book, which hits shelves on June 25 and has been generating a lot of early buzz, feels especially relevant to this era, as Black consumers grapple with a fashion industry that continually offends them while Black fashion designers like Rihanna and Jerry Lorenzo attempt to redefine the narrative around high fashion.

VICE caught up with Ford to hear more about how the book came together in the first place, and what she learned about Black culture in the process of writing it.

VICE: When did you decide to write this book and how did it come to fruition?
Tanisha C. Ford: When I was giving book talks for my 2015 book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of Soul, there were a lot of audience members who wanted to share these moving stories about wearing their Afros, and I started to wonder what I should do with all these different stories that I was holding. Then I met with the woman who would become my editor for Dressed in Dreams, Elisabeth Dyssegaard, and even though I didn't really want to write another book on fashion – I see myself more as a social movement historian – she told me I could write it for a general audience and that it could be something really personal. That got me thinking about all those stories I heard when I was traveling the country, and that I could connect broader audiences with the politics of dress in a completely different way than I did in Liberated Threads.

How did you start to choose the fashion items you wanted to focus on?
One of my first moves was to reconnect with my own past by going through family photos, looking at which outfits sparked the most emotional response and called up interesting stories in my life. Then from there I started to do a broader survey of Black fashion magazines like Vibe or Essence and industry magazines like Women's Wear Daily to see what the fashion conversation was in the late 80s and early 90s. I started to see there were different hairstyles and garments that really spoke to important cultural and political turns, and that I could tell that big picture American narrative while also rooting it and grounding it in my personal coming of age story. For example, the chapter on tennis shoes [like the Nike Cortez] is about hip-hop music and fashion, but it's also about crime in Black communities, the rise of crack cocaine, and state sanctioned anti-drug campaigns, because those shoes became a symbol for the rise of gangster rap and fear of hyper-criminal teen "superpredators."

Is it part of the mission of the book to demonstrate what we can learn by decentering the fashion industry when we discuss trends?
Definitely. I call this book a love letter because so often, when we talk about Black fashion, we enter the conversation through talking about appropriation and we're trying to tell the fashion industry they robbed us of our fashion history. But my strategy instead was to write a love letter that starts with what those clothes meant in our communities, and how we innovated a particular style and why it mattered so much to us. The book is for all of the everyday Black girls in my neighbourhood who made magic out of a dollar store T-shirt by cutting it up in cool ways, or using a hot glue gun and rhinestones and glitter, or getting an airbrush to make it a special something. Maybe they only had a dollar and some change to make that magic, but they did. If more Black and brown and queer designers of colour are able to create a narrative around garments that tell our stories, then it puts us less in a defensive position where we have to explain how and why we've been robbed.

What have you learned about the way those trends typically spread before they get to the fashion industry?
I think a prime example is door-knocker earrings. These were things that Black girls around the country saw in a random flea market or corner store and thought were fly. Then when hip-hop became a thing and people like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shanté, and Queen Latifah started to wear those things that didn't have a lot of cultural significance to begin with, they become hugely culturally significant. Then somebody like Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field decides to dress Carrie Bradshaw in them, and that stakes a designer claim on those everyday goods. We get to hear why Patricia Field did that and why Carrie loves wearing them, but I thought it was important to center Salt-N-Pepa as the global tastemakers, and to big-up the everyday Black girls who inspired them as global tastemakers.

There were always countless Black girls who would take something they saw in the mainstream and tweak it to outdo the next person and the next person would change it to out-do them. "If you have one pair of bamboo earrings I'm going to wear two." And now LL Cool J is singing about girls wearing two pairs of bamboo earrings [on his 1990 song "Around the Way Girl"], so every Black girl in the country is trying to do it. But it came from that cultural call and response within Black and brown communities. That kind of spirit. I wanted us to see it's always been that way.

1561064485285-Queen
Al Pereira / Getty Images

Now that we're in a social media age where people have so many diverging sources for fashion inspiration, do you think we still have big moments like you're describing where the Mary J. Bliges and Salt-N-Pepas of the world can spark massive, urgent phenomenons?
I think social media allows us to see that even when it appears a certain icon is creating or popularising a style, that icon is a part of a community, and it's really them wearing a style that's popular in their community. We can see that process much clearer now than I could when I was growing up in the Midwest watching Yo! MTV Raps. Back then, rappers were still living in the housing projects they grew up, in so they were very much immersed in that local culture but when we saw them it looked like they invented something. You couldn't tell me that Salt-N-Pepa didn't invent bamboo earrings back then, but there were whole communities of women walking around with them in the Bronx.

Social media is beautiful because it allows us to really hold the fashion industry accountable when they're being racist or appropriating and see that it's not really Gucci or Fendi or any of these major labels giving us our style, because we can see the real tastemakers on Instagram. That's what I love about what Rihanna is doing with her fashion labels – because she's saying, "I want to give a voice to those fashion tastemakers who exist on social media or in a random neighbourhood who would never otherwise have a way to be connected to this larger fashion industry machine. I want to give them credit for their innovation of style."

The book highlighted how items like short shorts were your generation's way of pushing back on older Black people and society at large confining their sexuality. Even though that was more pronounced in the hip-hop generation, were older generations fighting the same battle in their youth?
There's this dangerous word that's often used in Black communities: fast. This idea that a Black girl is too developed physically, that maybe she has breasts and hips and big thighs at "too young" of an age. But Black girls in my generation and earlier have historically challenged that double standard through their clothes. Miniskirts and short shorts became a symbol of that for my generation, but it also links us with my mother's generation, their desire to wear things that were short and tight, which became a symbol of the sexual revolution and challenging notions of respectability.

You also weaved in multiple nods to subcultures within the Black community that were innovating fashion with little credit, like the ballroom and LGBTQ communities. Why was it important for you to integrate that?
The way I experienced it, along with countless other Black folks, is that our trans and queer sisters were right there with us experiencing the culture in similar ways. LGBTQ people of color from the ballroom scene were dancing in famous R&B and hip-hop videos, bringing their dance moves from the ballroom and wearing things that were a direct reflection of that scene. They may have given it a different flair and inflection, but there is no separation between those histories.

If you could add one more chapter, what item do you think you'd look at?
One chapter that didn't make the book this time around was about how baggy jeans got associated with uptown Black youth and skinny jeans were associated with downtown white punk rockers and skaters. But really, both have roots in Black urban spaces. I would tell that story about skinny jeans without centering white European bodies or punk rocker bodies, because it shows how the fashion industry usurped that narrative, flattening Blackness and queer Blackness, by making that style of jean synonymous with a white style culture.

Follow Taylor Hosking on Twitter and Instagram.