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Clothing and Textiles Research Journal African-American Aesthetic of Dress: Current Manifestations

Gwendolyn S. O'Neal Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 1998 16: 167 DOI: 10.1177/0887302X9801600403 The online version of this article can be found at:

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International Textile and Apparel Association

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African-American Aesthetic of Dress: Current Manifestations

Gwendolyn S.

Abstract This paper presents support for an African-American aesthetic of dress that has its roots in West African culture. The objectives were to determine (a) how an African-American aesthetic of dress is currently manifested and (b) the values and attitudes relative to that aesthetic. An afrocentric methodology that employs an interpretative paradigm was used in the study. This methodology assumes a culturally centered analysis of discourse in which human actions, emotions, and attitudes are interpreted and understood within the context of the culture of the speaker and listener. Protocol resulting from in-depth interviews with 45 female and male informants was interpreted in order to obtain an understanding of an African-American aesthetic of dress. The aesthetic consists of four
elements: The affinity for "high affect" colors; "style" or individual expression; improvisations and exotic features; and the tendency to dress up. These elements are supported by metaphysical beliefs congruent with the African ethos of unity and oneness.

ONeal, G. S. (1998). African-American aesthetic of dress: Current manifestations. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 16(4), 167-175. Key Words: aesthetic, African-American dress, culture, ethnicity.

Apparel retailers have recently begun to target the African-American consumer by offering clothing and accessory items that do not fit the traditional European-American notion of aesthetic taste, suggesting that aesthetic preferences in dress of African-Americans differ sufficiently to warrant special merchandise assortments. Offering special merchandise assortments implies that African Americans have a different aesthetic of dress than the dominant culture. Only a very limited amount of research was found regarding preferences in dress of African Americans, and none was found on the dress of African Americans from the perspective of aesthetic appreciation. When preferences have been researched, little agreement is found (e.g., Kaiser 1990; Liebman, 1987; Reeder & Drake, 1980; Williams, Arbaugh & Rucker, 1980). Prior to 1994 there had been no attempt to develop the notion of an African-American aesthetic of dress. Scholarly writings on the aesthetic of African Americans in areas such as the verbal and visual arts, story telling, singing, dance, and music such as jazz and blues have existed for decades

American aesthetic of dress given that aesthetic judgments and values in America are centered in European philosophy, values, and ideas with standards of beauty that can never be attained by African Americans. &dquo;Thus, African Americans are socialized to perceive beauty in ways that may conflict with basic natural inclinations&dquo; (ONeal, 1994, p. 213). Although enslaved Africans were not allowed to retain their own cultural artifacts, the conditions of slavery did not eradicate their aesthetic memory. Therefore, I developed a theoretical argument for an African-American aesthetic of dress that has its roots in African culture and noted, This aesthetic of dress is shaped by the particularities of the unique &dquo;cultural&dquo; experiences of being of African decent and survival as a disenfranchised people in a Eurocentric culture for centuries... [and] has its foundation in several cultural and philosophical premises shared by peoples of West Africa and the Congo. (ONeal, 1994, p. 212)

(Blassingame, 1979; Gayle, 1971; Herskovits, 1966; Neal, 1971; Semmes, 1992). Although no coherent theory of
African-American or Black aesthetic seems to exist, evidence of the influence of African Americans on popular culture is well documented. I have argued for the need to articulate an AfricanAround 1993, Spiegel Catalog and Ebony magazine began targeting African-American women in a specialty catalog called E-Style. J. C. Penney also publishes a similar catalog called Influences and carries the Diahann Carrol signature line in 159 stores as it has begun adapting the merchandise assortment in its stores to the demographics of the community where the store is located. More recently, Sears has begun to target African Americans with its Mosaic line by Alvin Bell and Anthony Mark Hankins. However, all minorities do not seem to be targeted. See WWD and DNR, Thursday, July 18, 1996.

Authors Address: Department of Consumer and Textile Sciences, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1295, e-mail oneal.1@

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This aesthetic, however, is neither African nor American, but a hybrid consisting of elements of each. The purpose of this research was to determine if those &dquo;aberrations&dquo; in dress (e.g., combining equal amounts of intense colors), historically used to stereotype African Americans, constitute an aesthetic of dress that has its roots in West African culture. To achieve this purpose it was important that the voice of African Americans shape the outcome. The assumption is that articulating an African-American aesthetic of dress will serve an emancipation function for African Americans by releasing them from negative stereotypes surrounding preferences in dress. The specific objectives were to determine from an emic perspective (a) how an African-American aesthetic of dress is manifested and (b) the values and attitudes relative to that aesthetic of dress.


Although strips of fabric found in quilts are not commonly used today in apparel, their similitude is seen in the use of colors and patterns to form stripes in many variations (ONeal, 1994). Thus, the question in this research was will such elements be articulated by African Americans when describing their own aesthetic of dress?

Asante (1987), the primary exponent of Afrocentric contends that,


Theoretical Foundation Theoretical writings and definitions suggest that what is beautiful to the eye, the ear, and the touch; what is valuable, desirable, and sensuous; or what is physically satisfying, gratifying, or pleasing to the individual or the community is an aesthetic (Beardsley, 1958; Fiore, Moreno, & Kimle, 1996; Hume, 1965; Merriam, 1973). Dress is considered a gestalt that includes the body and all three dimensional supplements added to it (Eicher & Roach-Higgins, 1992). Therefore, an African-American aesthetic of dress includes notions of not only the product (e.g., clothing objects), but also the composite of artifacts that encompass dress and appearance. In the discipline of textiles and clothing, dress is seen as a carrier of a philosophical orientation in the sense that it is a symbolic system of nonverbal communication that aids human interaction (Eicher, 1995). Dress is understood within the context of culture. Records of slavery indicate that enslaved Africans were not allowed to bring with them their clothing or other important symbols of African culture

An analysis of African-American culture that is not based on Afrocentric premises is bound to lead to incorrect conclusions. In a similar manner, the interpretation of historical data from a strictly Eurocentric perspective can lead to serious intercultural conflict, based on wrong premises. (p. 10)
an Afrocentric methodology was used in the study. This methodology considers the fact that all analysis is culturally centered and assumes the successful presenta-


(Blassingame, 1979; Genovese, 1972; Starke, 1990; Warner

& Parker, 1990). Despite this fact, some African Americans choices of adornment have not conformed to the norms of &dquo;good taste&dquo; in the dominant culture and have been ridiculed historically, as being the result of an uncivilized people

(Kemble, 1961; King, 1875; Leigh, 1883; Peterkin, 1933).

Such notions have formed the basis for negative stereotypes. Yet researchers (Gayle, 1971; Herskovits, 1966; Semmes, 1992) have shown for decades that inconsistencies in the verbal and visual arts, music, and dance result from the retention of African cultural orientations. Such is possibly the case for African-American dress. With respect to the aesthetic of quiltmaking (Chase, 1978; Ferris, 1983; Lamb, 1975; Sieber, 1972; Vlach, 1978; Wahlman & Scully, 1983), the African-American quiltmaking model might serve as a guide for viewing an African-American aesthetic of dress. In the quiltmaking model, visual balance created between precision and random variation (i.e., improvisations or offbeat pattern), strong intensity or &dquo;high affect&dquo; (loud) colors, and large scale designs and multiple rhythms appear to be elements adaptable to an African-American aesthetic of

tion of at least one of three themes: (a) human relations, (b) human relationship to the supernatural, and (c) humans relationship to their own being. These themes are often presented in the context of resistance to oppression, liberation from stereotypes, and action in anticipation of reaction (Asante, 1987). In addition, the discourse is assumed to conform to certain &dquo;elementary materials of the corpus&dquo; of the African-American culture and will have certain adjustment features to various audiences (p. 169). Asante also proposes an emic approach to interpreting the discourse: the perspective taken is that of the insider [of the culture] who is &dquo;capable of speaking to the discourse in the language of the culture &dquo; (p. 172). There is the need for an internal understanding, but not the need for universality of view as found in positivist social sciences. This methodology employs a poststructuralist interpretative paradigm. The primary goal is understanding behavior, not predicting it. Understanding (i.e., verstehen) is viewed as a process in which what is interpreted influences future interpretation and what was interpreted enters into current interpretation. Verstehen seeks to grasp the shared meanings within a culture, focusing on the primacy of concrete lived experience, the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, and an understanding of the cultural and historical bases of the discourse. The researcher is not an objective, authoritative, politically neutral observer (Bruner, 1993). Instead, an empathic engagement is maintained that allows participation in the event as well as an opportunity to assess it. The scientist is a member of the social reality and does not hold a privileged vantage point, but has the advantage of researching ones own culture where a high degree of verstehen already exists (Asante, 1987; Collins, 1990; Denzin, 1994; Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Hutson & Ozanne, 1988; Krieger,

1991; Richardson, 1992; Thomas, 1993). Participants. Considering Asantes (1987) assumptions



I deemed it

important for

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give voice to their own aesthetic. Fifteen African-American women between the ages 35-60 who have integrated &dquo;cultural&dquo; attire2 into their wardrobe served as initial participants in the study. To be included initially, one had to have been observed wearing such attire at various times in the work place, church, and/or during social and cultural functions other than special AfricanAmerican celebrations during Black History month. These persons were chosen because of my belief that the incorporation of cultural attire into their wardrobe suggests a level of cultural sensitivity beyond that of the average African American, as well as the potential to articulate ones own aesthetic values using the language of the culture. After the initial interviews were analyzed, 30 additional AfricanAmerican male and female teenagers, college students, and young adults were interviewed.
African Americans to Data Collection. As an African American, I chose to conduct an in-depth interview with each of the fifteen women for the first phase of the study. Having maintained intimate connections and roots in the African-American community, I surmised that through open and candid discussion I could elicit thoughtful and honest opinions on the subject of dress. In addition, I could converse in the language of the culture with some degree of certainty of being understood. Using semi-structured questions, I probed for their reasons for incorporating &dquo;cultural&dquo; attire into their wardrobes, as well as whether or not there is an African-American aesthetic of dress and how it is currently manifested. I was curious about whether these &dquo;sisters&dquo; would articulate the reality I perceived.3 In this phase of the interview I continuously shaped and reshaped questions to elicit the informants ideas, feelings and attitudes about the dress of African Americans without putting my words and thoughts into their mouths. The interviews were audio taped and lasted approximately one hour. In phase II, teenagers, college students, and young adults were solicited for participation through a process of referral. This process included asking a teenage girl I know to find friends (both male and female) to talk about their dress. I interviewed the teenagers in my home. In addition, two African-American college seniors enrolled in an undergraduate research methods class were asked to find college male and female students and young adults to talk about their clothing. I trained the two seniors to conduct the interviews. College students were interviewed in various locations on the campus, whereas the young adults were interviewed in their own homes. Those participating in phase II were asked only about an African-American aesthetic and its manifestations. These tape recorded interviews lasted approximately 40 minutes and were transcribed by graduate research associates. Interpretation. Using a hermeneutic approach (Lincoln & Denzin, 1994; Geertz, 1973; Honey, 1987), data were interpreted within the context of the interview narrative. Each transcript was read multiple times and decisions were made about theoretical representations, conceptual labels, and related concepts. Notes were made on the transcripts as sense was made of the narratives. In all cases more than one example of aesthetic elements was present. Quotes included in the manuscript were selected primarily for clarity of expression (from an emic point of view). In addition, I chose to include the voice of a cross-section of informants

(i.e., young, old, male, female). Interpretations and meanings were clarified as I wrote
and as I further interacted with the text, and relived and reinscribed my own experiences in bringing newly discovered understanding to myself and the reader. Thus, as I read and re-read the narratives, pieces began to fit and melt together, narrowing the scope and decreasing the size of the &dquo;puzzle.&dquo;5


Analysis and interpretation of the transcribed protocol6

suggest that African Americans have aesthetic orientations
that differ from those of the dominant culture. These orientations encompass various values and attitudes. Women who had incorporated cultural dress into their wardrobe articulated the aesthetic as having various artistic elements that

Cultural 2 attire is defined as traditional styled garments

imported from

various African countries, made of fabrics constructed and finished in those countries, or replicas of such garments.

Questions 3 concerning the motivation and incorporation of cultural attire in their wardrobes were not deemed to be central to this study; therefore, interpretation of responses to these questions are not included in this paper. The questions were used primarily to initiate the conversation of dress that ultimately led to questions concerning an AfricanAmerican aesthetic of dress.

Thomas 4 (1993) stated that barriers to understanding exist for "outsiders" of the culture because preexisting cultural meanings hinder their

ability to adequately interpret "common sense knowledge" (p. 14). As an insider, I had the advantage of an empathic engagement with the participants I interviewed. My attempt, however, was to. not allow myself to dominate the work. To avoid such, I chose not to be the only collector of the data but to train others to ask questions and probe for answers. Also, I have attempted to allow the informants to speak by using "thick descriptions," (i.e., arriving at an interpretation of the aesthetic by descriptions cast in terms of constructions the informants used to define it) (Geertz, 1973). The questions of importance, however, are

(a) is this


faithful to the context and the individuals it is

supposed to represent, and (b) does the text have the right to assert that it is a report to the larger world that addresses not only my interest but the interests of those studied (Lincoln & Denzin, 1994:578)? I believe
that I can answer "Yes" to each of the questions but realize that while presenting the voice of the Other in the text, one is always presenting

version of the self.

See Denzin (1994) and Carver (1989) for discussion of the interrelation between the experience, interpreting, and writing. After completing an initial draft, the paper was presented to two African-American audiences and the positive feedback obtained suggested legitimacy of the text. To note the legitimacy of this text does not suggest an essential aesthetic that is timeless and context free. The authority of a text can always be challenged (See Anderson, 1983; Hudson & Ozanne, 1988; Lincoln & Denzin, 1994; and Peter & Olson ,1983). It does suggests that persons who reacted to the text believed it to represent the context and interest of the informants.

Protocol 6 by definition is

an original draft or record from which a document is prepared. In this case, it refers to the original transcripts of the in-depth interviews. Although I agree with Honey (1987) that interview data meet the criteria for discourse, this term was chosen instead of text or discourse to avoid debate.

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supported by metaphysical beliefs. These elements were also noted by other participants. Generally, preferences and use of colors and patterns in apparel and forms of adornment, as well as how these forms are used, were interpreted as the discussion of artistic elements. Informants connectionof dress to the nature of being, reality, or the spiritual realm was interpreted as metaphysical beliefs. In addition, aesthetic orientations encompass various values and attitudes. This section of the paper is divided into three parts: aesthetic elements, metaphysical beliefs, and attitudes and values. &dquo;Thick&dquo; descriptions (Geertz, 1973) are used to describe and illustrate significant points.

something unique, something different, something

A student stated, weve always had our own ... style. We may wear the same name brands ... as everybody else but, we style them differently.... yeah, mainly we style them different depending upon the
... ...


individual. A young adult male stated,


I mean,

a man can

put on

suit, ... and wear

Artistic Elements Informants agreed emphatically that an African-American aesthetic of dress exists and is manifested a number of observable ways-the most recognizable being the choice of styles, colors, and patterns worn in attire. Comments on the manifest nature of the aesthetic of dress were categorized into four elements: the affinity for &dquo;high affect&dquo; or &dquo;loud&dquo; colors, &dquo;style&dquo; or individual expression, improvisations and exotic features, and the tendency to dress up. The affinityfor &dquo;loud&dquo; or high affect colors. Most informants noted the use of bold or &dquo;high affect&dquo; colors in the African American community, although all did not indicate a preference for these colors. High affect colors are those with high intensities. Included in this element are also patterns with colors of high intensities or colors commonly referred to as bold, vibrant, or loud. In articulating how an AfricanAmerican aesthetic of dress is manifested, one person stated, purple, red, gold, bright vibrant colors. I like the fact that we are people of many colors. A college student stated, .. African Americans are more colorful, vibrant, trendy, expressive. They will take risks. Another student stated, Bold colors and bold ideas, as far as what they wear, its just a different style. An older participant stated, loud colors ... these are the colors that used to be called clashing colors ... Still another said, It is bold, it is subtle. Sophisticated. It makes a
... ... ... ...

it just like a European, but you have to add that African. Yeah, its like singing, you know. We all can sing, but when you hear an African [American] person, you know, he or she is sing:::::ing !7 s When a brother is wearing a suit, hes Gods

Am I not right?... When a brother knows he is looking good, you know, its almost like art in the way he walks, and how he talks Its not what you wear, its how you wear it. Still another person stated, Clothing is just not something that covers you but it is something that expresses you... up aesthetic of expression is what I think is to be identified as African American. Another stated, its something about the way a Black woman puts a hat on her head ... Its not so much what you do, but its the attitude and the spirit with which you do it ... Take for example Flo Jo, when she ran in the Olympics. Now nobody knew what was up with those fingernails ... she brought style to the Olympics with her nails. And she designed those outfits.... Im just saying it is an attitude. We dont just bring the hats.... and the suits. We bring the attitude with it. Improvisations and exotic features. This element is expressed in several ways: in garments made of fabrics with off-beat patterns and multiple rhythms, in unusual combinations in garments, colors, and accessories, and in unusual or exotic features. Combined with style, this element attracts attention and demands a response similar to the &dquo;call and response&dquo; in the African-American church, or the nommo.8 One person stated,
... ...

gift to the earth!





In addition to bold colors, various informants indicated wearing bold jewelry or several pieces of jewelry, usually gold. The element of &dquo;style&dquo; or individual expression. The second most commonly stated element of the aesthetic was that of &dquo;style.&dquo; Majors and Billson (1992) define style as &dquo;a persons way of acting, creating, and redefining his [or her] self in relation to others&dquo; (p. 71). Style, from the perspective of the informants, also includes the integration of the wholeclothes, accessories, how they are worn, and the attitude of the wearer. In expressing this element, a person said, Its not only just putting the object on, but bringing that style to it. You know, it is not just putting it on but the complete thing ... You have to have passion to dress the way we do.

A 7 system of transcription has been developed to provide researchers and readers with information to aid in understanding not only what but how the person is speaking. The use of a series of colons indicates


(See Psathas, 1995).

Another stated, Its a matter of style ... you bring a thing of beauty to it. Not just African associations, but culture170

Nommo 8 refers to the creative power and dynamic quality of vocal expression found both in Africa and African-American communities. In African mythology, nommo is a divine essence from which created beings derive and whose symbol is speech (Griaule, 1997). According to Asante (1987), the successful use of nommo occurs when the "force of the moment is sensual, giving, sharing, generative, productive and ultimately creative and full of power" (p. 92). Nommo embodies the productive energy that is key to the power of the spoken word. It is through nommo that energy within the person is activated. Energy is also found in the midst of persons or by interacting with persons, but these interactions are always accompanied by words. It is always in the give and take of nommo that energy is found. (See for example Asante,

1987; Griaule, 1997; Harrison, 1972; and Woodson, 1925).

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I think its rich combinations, ... not just bold colors... it can be very subtle colors, combinations that are atypical for this part of the world except perhaps, in the African-American community. Another said, I remember when I was doing art as an undergraduate and in high school when we learned about patterning, you always learned that you put a circle here, and a space; and you put a circle here, and a space; and there was that consistency of the pattern because that was what was acceptable. Now these random patterns ... they have a rhythm, but it is a kind of rhythm of its own. Not a consistent rhythm that was taught in the past. Now these ideas of random patterns have been within the African context for aeons, aeons, aeons. A recent high school graduate stated, Seems like African Americans like this flashy look. Even with their hair styles, they match their clothes. The clothing is like something that no one else has, or theyll change it up with accessories. Another person said, There is a preference for certain kinds of patterns [and] for certain kinds of jewelry, for certain kinds of hair. A lot of these things ... in the store are marked as exotic .... A college student stated, Its the way we can take things from different designers and have a whole different appearancea whole different look. Like Tommy Hilfiger, ... Im sure he didnt design his clothes for African Americans.... But, I mean, the way we can, you know, put clothes together and make it work.... The tendency to dress &dquo;up. &dquo; This element refers to the tradition found in the African-American community to make distinction between categories of apparel and to give special consideration to dress. Dress is used to signify that which is set apart, reverenced, or respected, and that which is not to be made common. This reverence or respect might be for self, others, and for both secular and sacred occasions. Therefore, many African Americans give special attention to dress for many occasions for which European Americans wear casual attire. In speaking of this tradition a person stated, I think dressing is something you do! I mean, you dont just take it lightly. Its something you plan, even if you are just going out with your girlfriend or just going to the barbecue downtown ... I dont know if this is different than European Americans, but I know we dress for church, and we dress for a lot of situations where they dont dress. Another person indicated, African Americans, particularly the middle age and older group, have always been more &dquo;formal&dquo; in their dress than the majority of the people.... You go to church and, I mean, Ms. Missy is not in church without a hat on and without gloves and traditional dress ... I can remember as a child the main thing you had to remember is that you had Sunday goto-meeting clothes, play clothes, and school clothes, and that is out of our tradition.... I mean its just a part of tradition for you to get dressed up.
... ... ...

Another person stated, Our people tend to dress up.... They put on their best. When we were growing up, you always had your Sunday best. Still another said, I know we dress for church, and we dress for a lot of situations where they dont dress. We dress up to go to the mall. And not just in those blue jeans and things.

Metaphysical Beliefs In discussing the dress of African Americans, persons sometimes merged the idea of dress and ones being, suggesting that the two are inseparable. This notion of unity and oneness is seen in two forms:(a) the lack of distinction between the spiritual and the material and (b) the unity of the community.9 In the African world, all things are related.
One person stated, Its a very spiritual thing. Its who you are. Another person stated, I think it is not only ones dress because dress is a part of ones being. It goes back to this spirituality we were talking about so it is in clothes, but it is also in the way one wears the clothes. It is also in the way one talks. Its tied up in my own spirituality. Its tied to my ancestors. It is sort of my own way of connecting. Another person asserted, No matter what I have on, usually I try to have something on that is African inspired. The main reason I do it is because I like the aesthetic ... and because it keeps me centered, just my mind in the right place and helps keep me equipped. Relative to unity in the community one person stated, You know that if you come out of the community, if you dressed good and you looked good, thats a normalizer, because nobody can tell then, whether you are poor or whether you are uneducated ... Also, it was a means of control. Dont stick out like a sore thumb and bring attention to yourself and, as a consequence, get hurt. So it was a protective thing. Values and Attitudes As informants articulated elements of African-American dress, attitudes and values relative to a cultural aesthetic were apparent. Such values and attitudes related to the validation of the ethnic self and to the valuing of cultural form. Validation of the ethnic self. Informants expressed feelings about the current ability to buy clothing suggestive of an African-American ethnicity. A person stated, &dquo;Thank J. C. Penney for me. I can now buy clothes that expresses

Community 9

is used here to indicate

people bound by



philosophical system of guiding beliefs.

These beliefs dictate the values and customs which determine the social behaviors expressed in common (i.e., the culture). In this sense, African Americans are considered members of the same community regardless of where they reside

(See Nobles, 1991).

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me.&dquo; Thus, the ability to express the ethnic self is valued. The ethnic self, however, is dichotomous-both African and American-as seen in the following excerpt: And when I see bright colors and when I wear my teeny weeny afro ... its because its a part of what I think represents more of who I am: a combination of an African woman and a woman who was bom in America. Although some view targeting the African-American consumer as recognition and validation of African-American aesthetic judgments and definitions of beauty, others have reservations. One person said, I like the fact that they recognize that our bodies are different than European bodies.... I am one who use to starve myself to try to be European. I am concerned though. I dont want the Spiegels of the world and the J.C. Penneys of the world to wind up &dquo;pimping&dquo; the community so that I dont go down to the little shop and buy my clothes.... J.C. Penney and Spiegel found me only recently and that little shop that I go to in the community saved me long before Penney knew my money was green. Valuing cultural form. Some informants view elements of dress common to African Americans as cultural form. Thus, to commercialize aesthetic elements as fashion or fad is seen as exploitation. In reference to merchandise targeted to African Americans one person stated, It was not about style. It was not about art. It was just a choice of fabric. You can go into any store and get that. There was nothing arty or unique about it. Another indicated, They dont really care about our culture.... Its all about money. The bad thing about it is that it really hurts the independent dealer who has been carrying the thing [i.e., African and African inspired clothing] for years. Still another stated, The man is always going to exploit whatever he can. They have taken advantage of it and they have t gained. Whether it is positive or negative, I dont know ... There is a part of me which says this is what has always been happening and at some point we need to turn the tables around, ... At the other end of the spectrum, its like Im glad to see them acknowledging us, but at the same time its exploitation.... There are large Hispanic and Oriental populations. They are constantly growing. Yet and still, the dress of those particular cultures are not exploited to that extent. You will not go into Marshall Fields and find a section on Oriental dress or a section on Hispanic dress. There seems to be a choice within the economics within the States to exploit things that belong to African Americans. The commercialization of cultural aesthetic elements has yet another effect: negating or devaluing cultural symbols and relegating a cultures philosophical orientation to that of a fad. In a capitalistic economy, a fad is a short-lived fashion; it is generally seen as a momentary craze in which money is made quickly, and it is quickly dismissed. Some

informants perceived African Americans acceptance of African aesthetic elements in dress and wearing cultural attire as simply fad. An informant stated, I think its a fad right now for a lot of people. I think its an &dquo;in&dquo; thing in our communities.... Even J. C. Penneys has a line, and Mahogany cards for Hallmark, and Maybelline, and Revlon have lines for us. We have always existed, but now they have African lines. So right now were in vogue.

Another said, it is kind of interesting and strange in a way. I have heard sisters say, for example, I have to have an African outfit and when you ask them &dquo;why,&dquo; basically the answer is, &dquo;Because its in.&dquo; It is the thing to do Interwoven into the discussion of validation and exploitation is loyalty toward the African-American entrepreneur who historically responded to the aesthetic needs of the community. This attitude suggests that while the African-American aesthetic elements are currently fashionable, their presence has historical roots in the community. While fads are momentary, the historical roots provide assurance that aesthetic elements will remain long after the cessation of commercial interest. The result of validation of the aesthetic, however, might ultimately mean that more African Americans will concur with the informant who indicated, Its an expression of who I am. I feel that I am expressing a part of my own culture, and the fact that it is different from someone else doesnt bother me at all.
... ....

With the exception of the element &dquo;dressing up,&dquo; African-American women and men articulated elements of an African-American aesthetic of dress with the same essential characteristics as those found in the aesthetic of quiltmaking. Most informants noted high affect colors, as well as style and exotic features, as essential to an African-American aesthetic. The elements expressed were viewed as those most commonly seen in the African-American community, although they did not necessarily represent the specific preferences of the individual. Thus, for these informants, there is no essentialist view of African-American dress. One informant expressed this idea in the following manner: The spectrum of African America is going to explore every possible aesthetic because we are every possible aesthetic. Just look at us, we are

everything possible.
This research suggests the presence of an aesthetic &dquo;code&dquo; encompassing various values. The African ethos of unity and oneness was evident. Those who had incorporated cultural dress into their wardrobe were particularly expressive about the lack of distinction between dress and the self. For them dress became a critical link between the self and the spirit realm as well as the self and the community. Comments guiding this interpretation provide an impor-

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Nobles (1991) called the &dquo;collective consciousness&dquo; or common ethos of West African countries. The two guiding principles of this ethos are unity and oneness with nature. To West Africans the individual exists only as a part of the collective community. Therefore, the view of the self is &dquo;I am because we are, and because we are, therefore, I am.&dquo; In addition, everything is functionally connected. They believe in a single whole. There is no distinction between the spiritual and the physical or between mind, body, and soul as purported by European philosophers (e.g., Descartes). It is this collective conscioustant link to what

reshaped by


wearer to

express nonverbal messages of

resistance, conflict, accommodation, rebellion, or even cultural identity. Style allows the wearer to don the garb of the dominant culture while refusing to accept that cultures definition of him- or herself. Within the context of the dominant culture, the use of high affect colors is seen by the informants as risk-taking and different. The notion of risk-taking is probably related to the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans wearing &dquo;loud&dquo; colors. In reference to the use of loud colors, informants mentioned terms such as bold, risk-taking, being expressive, and unique. Such descriptors suggest opposition to the norm or status quo (i.e., resistance). Emphasis is placed upon uniqueness, self expression, and being and doing things differently. However, one cannot be so different as to run counter to the communitys notion of appropriate expression. According to Asante (1987), in the African world view there is a commitment to harmony that is at the source of all behavior and depends upon the integration of the spiritual and the material through activating a persons energy. To express self, to be unique, and to &dquo;bring a thing of beauty to it&dquo; is to seek both individual and collective harmony. Harmony is found only in the midst of encountering other persons, and encountering is always accompanied by some form of communication, creating the give and take of nommo-a collective experience. Although discussed separately, all of the elementshigh affect colors, style, improvisations and exotic features, and dressing up-lead to encounters that create the give and take of nommo. One knows that harmony has been achieved when the individual receives consistent or collective positive responses to appearance. Hence, the essence of being well-dressed is to activate the orality of nommo. Ambivalence expressed by participants regarding targeting the African-American consumer and the commercialization of what is seen as a cultural form suggest the need for African americans to validate an African-American aesthetic of dress. The Eurocentric definition of beauty that governs the life of Americans is clearly defined, and the definition is one which always places African Americans as the &dquo;Other.&dquo; Gayle (1971) suggests that African Americans have been trapped by the definition of beauty of the dominant culture, not realizing that the definition was proscribed rather than God-given, &dquo;and so circumscribed by tradition and culture&dquo; (p. 46). The aesthetic of dress articulated in this research is shaped by the particularities of being of African descent and surviving as a disenfranchised people in a Eurocentric culture for centuries. Because tangible manifestations of African aesthetic could not be brought to North American plantations by enslaved Africans, it is likely that conceptual portions of their original heritage were transformed and reinterpreted from memory (Blassingame, 1979). This transformation within a European-American context during the process of acculturation, enculturation, and adaptation would necessarily have contained a plurality in artistic criteria. Thus, the aesthetic that emerged is neither African nor American. Gayle (1971) states, &dquo;... unique experiences produce unique cultural artifacts, Unique art derived from unique cultural experiences mandates unique critical tools for evaluation&dquo; (xxiv). Therefore, one should not look

that probably

explains dressing up.


serves as a

concrete manifestation of the link of the individual to the

collective community. The aesthetic of dress is dynamic. Asante (1987) and Semmes (1992) contend that beauty is dynamic in the Afrocentric sense. This dynamism is seen in the consensus concerning the importance of &dquo;style&dquo; or personal expression. Informants generally agreed that even when wearing the same style of clothing as European Americans, African Americans wear them differently. Unlike members of the dominant culture who value a kind of stoic sophistication, African Americans tend to be bodily people who, through rhythmic motion, inject energy and expression into their deportment. Style, for the informants, includes passion, uniqueness, attitude, expression, and the creation and recreation of the self. Thus, &dquo;its art in the way he walks, and talks.&dquo; According to Thompson (1983), African art of the highest order is functional. This aesthetic of dress is also functional. As one person stated, &dquo;Dress in the African-American community serves as a normalizer. But you are not to be too different, ... stick out like a sore thumb.&dquo; Dress is also used to express political and philosophical orientations: It helps me to let the majority know that I am proud of who I am and where I come from.... I think it is important for African Americans to make that statement because where we have come from... has been so shrouded in darkness and negativeness that it is time for us to step out and say: &dquo;In spite of the terms that have been used to describe who we may have been or where I may have come from, I am still proud of me and proud of my heritage.&dquo; The element of style is also functional. According to Majors and Billson (1992), style includes attitudes, assumptions, and feelings about self and others as they are expressed in language, dress, and nonverbal behavior. Folb (1980) stated that the word &dquo;style&dquo; in vernacular usage means to show off what youve got. According to KirshenblattGimblett (1983), much expressive behavior such as style serves as an arena for dramatizing conflicting values. When people cannot control the image making machinery, &dquo;... they can control the expressive shaping of their immediate and everyday lives. For them, style can be a form of refusal&dquo; (p. 221). In this aesthetic, African Americans appear to use style as resistance or refusal. That is, although objects of dress are designed and manufactured by the dominant culture, African Americans may use these objects to dramatize cultural differences in the manner in which they wear them and in the attitude that supports their expressiveness. Thus, the object is not complete as purchased but is


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any further than the African-American community for a definition of aesthetic values and a justification of identity (Asante, 1987; Collins, 1990; Zirimu, 1971). The task today is for African Americans to set rules by which an aesthetic of dress is to be evaluated.

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