V.Irginia Woolf pinned it “on or around” December 1910: the date when human nature changed. “All human relationships have changed,” he wrote. “And when human relationships change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.” With less hyperbole, we might suggest that it was in the late 1950s that black America transformed, not just with the civil rights movement, but across the entire spectrum of creativity and conduct. Aspects of this revolution have been well documented: the birth of cool in jazz; the writers Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright. But some of the more everyday parts have been underestimated. Like the clothes.
Look at photos of black American men in the 1950s and 1960s and what stands out is a consistency and growing confidence in their appearance. Here is saxophonist John Coltrane in a soft-shouldered jacket and knit tie, while here is writer Amiri Baraka in a button-down shirt and shawl-neck cardigan. The look is elegant, yet relaxed – no heavily padded suits or striped reps ties here. As the college jackets and penny loafers suggest, it’s a style inspired by privileged white Ivy League college students. You could also say that it was appropriate and then improved. The color palette widens, the finishing touches are bolder: tie clips, collar pins, hooded brogues. Later, this look will become known as Black Ivy.
This uprising is documented and celebrated in a new book titled Black Ivy: A Revolt in Style. In his introduction, Jason Jules describes the look as “a kind of battle dress, a symbolic armor worn in the nonviolent quest for fundamental change. Getting society to treat them differently first meant making the mainstream see them differently ”. Think tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins with a buttoned shirt playing Freedom Suite or Billy Taylor with a tweed jacket that makes up I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The goal was not simply to become part of the elite, but to redefine it.
Though finely crafted, the style was a challenge to authority. Dressing like a college student wasn’t a fiction, but a crucial part of the struggles for the desegregation of the American education system. After the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the political atmosphere has changed, and so has the street style. Stokely Carmichael went from working alongside John Lewis in sports jackets and ties to driving the Black Panthers in dark glasses and a black leather jacket, holding a rifle.
While the term “gesture politics” is always meant as an insult, right now we are rewriting what counts as a political gesture: just think of the discussions both here and in the United States over the knee grab. Historians have long argued that enslaved people and contract workers have shown resistance by shuffling their feet or pretending not to understand the barked orders. Something similar has to happen with fashion, which is too often discussed as runway creations or what’s on the January sales. However, it can also be about expressing one’s self-image and beliefs. Black Ivy was about young black Americans changing the way they saw themselves, starting with the mirror next to the closet.