The Dress Codes of Respectability

Well-dressed Black activists were not trying to impress White people

People at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. Photo: Warren K. Leffler via the Library of Congress

A 2020 South Carolina march against police violence had a dress code. The organizers asked that demonstrators “come in dress attire, please”. Later, they boasted that the thousands-strong crowd had been “fully adorned in their Sunday best.” Not everyone was impressed. Many thought the dress code was a distraction from the life-and-death issues of police violence and racial injustice. Or worse, an example of “respectability politics” — a pointless and pathetic attempt to impress bourgeois White people. One commentator remarked, “This business-casual nonsense is just begging to be accepted by a system that was never built for us. It will take more than a necktie to get the noose from our necks.”

But as I discovered when working on my book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, a savvy use of attire has been a part of the struggle for racial equality for generations. Sunday-best civil rights activism began in the era of Jim Crow segregation. Thousands of well-dressed Black people marched in the historic 1963 march on Washington, D.C. Civil rights demonstrators faced fire hoses and attack dogs wearing suits and ties. They desegregated lunch counters and buses in pencil skirts, nylons, and pumps.

They didn’t think a necktie would ward off a racist lynch mob. And they weren’t meek supplicants who dressed to impress the White power structure. They were fierce and defiant activists who spoke truth to power. And their attire was part of their message. As the historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham puts it, “Think of the civil rights marchers … in their Sunday clothes, but they’re defying the laws, aren’t they? … When you see all these white thugs coming and they’re throwing coffee on them and cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.”

For civil rights activists, being well dressed wasn’t a status symbol; it was a sign of self-respect. “Do you think Fannie Lou Hamer had fancy clothes?” Higginbotham challenges. “They believed in the respectability of their lives.”

Refined attire was a symbolic challenge to White supremacy. For centuries, Whites had insisted that Black people dress in rough clothing that symbolized their lowly status in society. Both law and custom treated the well-dressed Black person as a threat to the social order. For example, in 1740, South Carolina passed the Negro Act, which made it illegal for blacks to dress “above the condition of slaves.” A Charleston, South Carolina, grand jury complained that “Negro women in particular do not restrain themselves in their Cloathing as the Law requires but dress in apparel quite gay and beyond their condition.” Even after Emancipation, racist Whites complained that well-dressed Black people were uppity and arrogant. Racist mobs in southern cities attacked Black soldiers returning from World War I for wearing their dress uniforms. Cartoons mocked Black people who dressed in fashionable clothing, comparing them to apes in fancy dress. In this context, the Sunday-best attire of civil rights activists was not a subservient plea for acceptance. It was a bold demand for respect.

A Black woman being carried to police patrol wagon during a demonstration in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Dick DeMarsico/World Telegram & Sun via the Library of Congress

Sunday-best activism had its limitations. A younger generation replaced it with a new dress code, just as deliberate and self-conscious. For example, the activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wore overalls and workwear in solidarity with the sharecroppers and factory workers they wanted to organize. And the Black Power movement saw a new Afrocentric aesthetic as indispensable to racial justice. Eldridge Cleaver, who became a leader in the Black Panther party, argued that the “Caucasian standard of beauty has been … one of the cornerstones of the doctrine of White Supremacy. … We keep thinking the only thing that is beautiful is a white chick with long blonde hair….[but] we’re black and we’re beautiful. And we’re not going to imitate the white man anymore.” They wore natural hairstyles, black turtlenecks, and sleek leather coats. This striking combination of bohemian and para-military fashion conveyed a militant and countercultural affinity.

Angela Davis (between 1965 and 1980). Photo: Library of Congress

Sunday-best activism appropriated the status symbols of the bourgeoisie to demand equality for poor and working-class Black people. The Black Power movement rejected the aesthetics of the white mainstream to demand a cultural transformation. Both involved a deliberate use of fashion to promote social change. The two types of activists often disagreed about tactics. But they agreed that fashion — attire and grooming — was an important part of the struggle for justice.

Professor. Lawyer. Dilettante mixologist. Amateur sartorialist. Watch geek. Author of Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history.

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