On Sept 7, 1968 a group of 400 protesters from across the nation gathered outside the Atlantic City Convention Center. Set to air that evening was the Miss America Pageant hosted by the ever-so-wholesome, Bert Parks. It was the annual affirmation of American beauty standards, cementing Caucasian status quo.
Just outside the doors, contestants were being persuaded to question the morals of society. Throwing bras, high heels, makeup and wigs into trash cans with signs like “Miss America is Alive and Well —in Harlem”, a few blocks away a Miss Black America was crowned in jest.
It was a decade of change; everyone knew it. And the tide of beauty standards, modesty and uniformity was rapidly transforming under the leadership of many Black women.
“[There is] a new awareness from Black people that their own natural, physical appearance is beautiful,” Black Panther Party member Kathleen Neal Cleaver said in an on-camera interview from the ’60s. “Black people are aware now. They’re proud of it,” Kathleen Neal Cleaver said in an on-camera interview from the ’60s.
Fast forward to 2016. It’s been almost a month since Beyoncé dropped the single and video to “Formation”, loaded with political statements—most notably the rejection of White beauty standards. While her lyrics are powerful, the image of Black women in militant berets and turtlenecks resonated with everyone who tuned in for the performer’s Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show.
The performance shocked some, offended others and made many feel threatened. But more importantly, it showed how simply wearing attire akin to the Black Panther Party’s unofficial uniform drudged up a forgotten fear in the eyes of White America.
Fashion and beauty go hand in hand. And while they often get a flighty rap, their context in history and culture is unparalleled to many other things.
Assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and authorDr. Tanisha C. Ford talks all how both fashion and beauty played a monumental role in the women’s liberation in her book “Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul”. We sat down with her to talk about fashion’s role in developing the perception of women in the Black Panther Party.
“Women in the Panthers were wearing the styles that were in vogue during that time period: Afros, large hoop earrings, multiple rings, bangles and other ‘ethnic’ jewelry, miniskirts, and turtlenecks,” she told HelloBeautiful in an exclusive interview.
“The power was in the way that they turned these everyday items into a paramilitary uniform of sorts. The clothing became a form of embodied radical activism.”
At the time, many of the men and women in the Black Panther Party were just teenagers who probably had no idea that their adolescent rejection of mainstream paradigms would alter the American conscious forever. By replacing straight haired wigs for natural Afros, they were visually altering viewpoints with the direct message that said, ‘I love myself the way I was born.’
While there was no formally dictated uniform for BPP women, many followed suit behind the men wearing black turtlenecks, dark sunglasses and African-made jewelry to personify the Ten Point Program of action. And once these women strapped on guns, they become just as predatory to the American public as their men.
“The mainstream media responded in two ways to the Panthers’ radical style,” Ford explains. “On one hand, the press overemphasized the image of black women and men with guns, painting the Panthers as vigilantes instead of as tactical activists with a whole range of social programs, from free breakfast programs and health care services to community patrol and protection. On the other hand, the media painted them as stylish, glamorous revolutionaries, positioning blackness as a cool, hip costume that anyone could ‘put on,’ with the right accouterments.”
Adding, “But the Panthers were very savvy in how they engaged media, and they managed to strategically engage the press in order to advance the movement. For a younger generation of African-Americans in particular, the Panthers were role models, people who made them feel proud of being black. And today, we see young activists taking up many of the symbols of revolution that the Panthers employed such as the Black Power clenched fist, wearing t-shirts with revolutionary leaders of the 1970s emblazoned on them, wearing their hair natural, and so forth.”
It could be argued that the resurgence of Black women wearing their hair natural and embracing Afrocentric attire in the past few years was foreseen. Many mark 2009 as the year when the transition happened, non-coincidentally a year after America elected its first Black president. The election coupled with systematic racism, unjust murders by hired authorities, disproportionate funding for education and community —and a whole host of other issues— bubbled over to what we’ve seen this year.
It’s a been a gradual movement. And despite the general public not embracing it, those feelings of fear catalyzed by Black women dressing with pride, is absolutely necessary for progress.
“These women were not only rejecting notions of respectability through their hairstyles and attire, they were also rejecting the idea that women should be passive and nonviolent,” Ford adds about women of the movement. “For the Panthers, women, too, were revolutionaries.”