'Stylin' -- noir and colorful, then till now

March 15, 1998|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

"Stylin'," by Shane White and Graham White. Cornell University Press. 304 pages. $ 30.

"Style Noir," by Constance C. R. White. Perigee/Berkley 230 pages. $15.

Cultural historians must be part archaeologists, part voyeurs. They can rummage through your ancestors' closets and emerge with a handful of meaning.

Perhaps, when you wrapped your hair with an orange scarf this morning, you were expressing defiance at an oppressive dominant culture that refuses to acknowledge your intellectual prowess. Or maybe it was raining and you needed to protect your new "do."

In this slim but fascinating volume of essays, scholars Shane White and Graham White try to divine the roots and meanings of African-American body adornment.

"Stylin'" begins with the coarse cloth assigned to slaves. It follows the migration of blacks to northern industrial cities, a world of segregated nightlife and, for some, a shot at the middle class, where increasingly, clothes made the man.

The history lesson ends with the Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s. The baggy zoot suit was popularized in Los Angeles and northern cities by young black and Mexican-American men. They paid dearly - in wounds inflicted by white mobs - for "flaunting their indifference to the war effort by wearing clothing that outrageously broke the newly introduced rationing regulations."

For the authors, African-American style is the sum of the messages conspicuously conveyed by the items worn, and the way they are worn.

To them, clothes express a historic struggle for personal freedom, a challenge to all who would dictate your behavior or control your body.

They identify two recurring themes in African-American style: a tendency to use varied materials and pattern and contrasting, often bright, colors "in a manner that jangled white sensibilities"; and a knack for appropriating styles, giving them new symbolism beyond their original meaning.

But these seemingly key points are too scantily developed. While they note the survival of some African textile and hairstyling traditions, the authors recognize their omission. They blame it in part on the dearth of available historical data.

But they also spend most of the book focusing on the American side of the hyphen. "Stylin'" is really about the role of fashion in the tug-of-war of assimilation vs. nonconformity.

In her new black fashion handbook, "Style Noir," New York Times style writer Constance C. R. White picks up the story where "Stylin'" leaves off, bringing us up to the present.

She also laments the lack of serious research into African-American style. The historians could learn something from her photo choices: these juxtapose African women in native dress and models wearing adaptations created by American designers.

Maybe they'll read each other's work.

Jean Thompson writes about education for The Sun. She has worked as a journalist for 14 years. A collector of African-American memorabilia and genealogical papers, she also has written about black history.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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