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Fabricating black modernity: Fashion and African American womanhood during the first great migration

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The early twentieth century was a time of great influx in America. Shifting demographics in the 1910s and 1920s, most notably the migration of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the urban centres of the North, opened economic and leisure possibilities that provided new spaces to define black modernity and its role in shaping American identity. Debates over black women’s bodies, clothing, hair, and general appearance stood at the centre of public attention and political discourse over gender and race equality, forming a realm where African Americans could challenge white racist stereotypes regarding black femininity and beauty, as well as a means through which they could claim new freedoms and achieve economic mobility. Middle-class reformers, young black migrants, as well as new role models such as female performers and blues singers, all used dress and appearance to redefine notions of beauty, respectability and freedom on their own terms. For these women, fashions became intertwined with questions of racial progress and inclusion in American society, offering a way to lay claims for equal citizenship that moved beyond individual expressions and preferences. This article highlights the place of fashion as a critical political realm for African Americans, who were often barred from access to formal routes of power in the era of Jim Crow. Shifting the perspective beyond official forms of civil rights activism, it argues that fashion enabled black women to carve new positions of power from which they could actively participate in gender and racial politics, demanding their equal place in American society.

Keywords: African Americans; New Negro; fashion; femininity; modernity; racial equality; respectability

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Case Western Reserve University, United States

Publication date: October 1, 2019

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  • The International Journal of Fashion Studies is a scientific peer-reviewed journal that fosters the worldwide diffusion of Fashion Studies. Fashion Studies is an interdisciplinary field of research that has been producing an extensive repertoire of theories, analyses and enquiries.
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