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How Black Culture Made Preppy Style Subversive and Cool

How Black Culture Made Preppy Style Subversive and Cool

A new book explores how Black America revolutionized fashion during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

“But you’ve got to have style in whatever you do — writing, music, painting, fashion, boxing, anything,” wrote jazz legend Miles Davis in his autobiography. In its most essential state, style is the authentic expression of self. In a world where fads, trends, and fashions come and go, style distinguishes the individual from the pack, transforming mere talent into a thing of genius.

Over the past 150 years, Black America has revolutionized every form of art, inflecting popular culture with equal parts soul and panache. More than mere finery, fashion has long played an integral part of survival and liberty. Before emancipation in the 1960s, it was used to signify freedom; afterwards it became a means to transform reality. With limited employment opportunities, Black people often worked as laborers and domestic workers, required to wear uniforms that erased their individuality. It was only on Sundays when they dressed for church that they could express themselves.

Reel Art Press
Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The desire for self-expression has informed the life and legacy of luminaries like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Arthur Ashe. Not only towering geniuses of talent and power, these men were style icons in their own right, subverting the elitist preppy style of the Ivy League and creating a new kind of cool. In the new book Black Ivy: The Birth of Cool (Reel Art Press), authors Jason Jules and Graham Marsh chart the transformation of the American classic look — the Oxford cloth button-down shirt, the hand-stitched loafer, the soft shoulder three-button jacket and the perennial repp tie — as Black jazz musicians, artists, writers, and leaders remade it in their vision during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Cool Like That

© Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
Reel Art Press

“This is an untold story about style. A revolt in style,” writes author Jason Jules. “It’s a story about a generation of people challenging the status quo, demanding racial equality and civil rights. It’s the story of one of the most volatile and incendiary periods in American history, but it’s also a story about dignity and the fight for self-determination. For the first time, we explore the major role this style of clothing played during this period of upheaval and social change, and what these clothes said about the men who wore them.”

Black Ivy looks at Black American menswear through the lens of photographers including Eve Arnold, Dennis Stock, Danny Lyon, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Burt Glinn, Arnold Newman, Kwame Brathwaite, Neil Leifer, Bruce Davidson, and Richard Avedon, to name just a few of the groundbreaking artists featured in the book. Organized into chapters focusing on literature, the arts, music, film, school, politics, protest, sports, and advertising, the book explores the role photography played in shaping the image of Black cool during the golden age of magazines.

Don Hunstein / Columbia Records
© Art Kane

“The old adage, it’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it, is never truer than in the case of Black Ivy style,” Jules writes. By appropriating, remixing, and reimagining fashions designed for the ruling class, Black American culture transformed stodgy status symbols into revolutionary garments.

“‘We had to be seen because we had to be heard,” says Tommie Smith, gold medal Olympian who famously stood alongside fellow athlete John Carlos with their black leather-gloved fists raised during the medal ceremony for the 200-meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Half a century later, the simple gesture still packs a punch, underscoring the inherent power that lies at the intersection of politics, style, and photography.

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Black Ivy: The Birth of Cool is published by Reel Art Press, $49.95.

Ed Widdis/AP/Shutterstock

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