Fashion Culture | A Study of Eight, the Untold American Story

A Study of Eight is a curated editorial project advancing the study of African Americans’ contribution to fashion history.

Eight American stories cover people and events of cultural and historical significance occurring between 1880 and 1980 against the backdrop of the post Reconstruction era to beyond the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).  These stories represent the voices of Black Americans who, many at the time, were denied employment, denied credit for their work, or overlooked for their contribution to fashion history, and more importantly, to American history.  Racial segregation, a legal mandate known as the Jim Crow era (post Civil War to 1968) labeled Black people as inferior.  The marginalization of Black communities through economic, political, and social means was unshakable.  But oppression did not stop progression.  Against all odds, Black people used the power of fashion to transform their identity and culture to be included, respected, and recognized for their talent, beauty, and brains.

The publishing of A Study of Eight is during Black History Month, a tribute to American history.  Black history, a part of the American story, should be acknowledged and studied 365 days of the year.  In the belief that fashion is a legitimate subject of study, EDGE’s education and Fashion Culture series presents A Study of Eight, acknowledging the significant contribution Black fashion makers and Black influencers are to fashion’s history.

Although A Study of Eight had been written, I was touched by an extraordinary event.  Amanda Gorman, the first to be named National Youth Poet Laureate, recited her captivating poem, “The Hill We Climb”, at the inauguration of United States President Joe Biden on January 20.  There’s a verse that identified with my desire and responsibility to bring A Study of Eight to readers, to reveal a part of history that helps us understand our past in order to enrich our future:

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
It’s the past we step into
And how we repair it.

Born into the CRM, the research involving this work was one of discovery and pride.  I uncovered a part of history that was unknown, daunting, and of disgust.  It was an amazing journey of being “in character” bearing witness to the story, as I read, researched, and wrote about it.  When I needed a break, it was hard for me to let go of that time period, that person, that event. Everything around me was viewed through a lens of those times, of which I and my family lived through.  I found myself wanting more with more questions. Historians are as good as their thorough unbiased research.  Much of this history is not well documented, but fortunately the oral history brought life and a sense of integrity because they were witnesses, they were participants.  I’d say that we all can “step into” the past and make good on its significant impact on our culture.  Gorman concludes her unforgettable poem with this:

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

A Study of Eight is not the entire story of these times.  It is just a starter to a vast array of American history of ignored events and hidden people, that today are considered change agents, having a positive effect on the fashion industry, yet it is a light that can be “brave enough to see” and “brave enough to be”.

A Study of Eight chronological content:

The Cotton Factory – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique Transformed the World’s View of Black in America

Elizabeth, Fannie, Anne, and Zelda – Fashion’s First Black Designers

Who Made the Hats for Scarlet O’Hara?  Meet Mildred Blount

Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly – Fashion’s First Black Supermodels

The Empowering Effect of Ebony Fashion Fair

Battle of Versailles: ‘This Was the Real America, An America They Haven’t Seen’

Willi Smith: The Creative Intersection of An American Genius

 

Cover image: African American woman, half-length portrait, wearing hat, facing front; W.E.B. Du Bois’ Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique Transformed the World’s View of Black in America; courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

 

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor