Domestic Affairs Guest Post — Draped Down: What Makes Black Fashion Black?

Monique Long organized Draped Down as the culminating project of her 2013-14 Curatorial Fellowship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The exhibition will be on view through June 29, 2014

Draped Down: What Makes Black Fashion Black?

Draped Down, currently on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem, is an exploration of the intersection between fashion and art. The exhibition is primarily comprised of art from the museum’s permanent collection and includes fourteen artists from three continents whose work spans almost a century (1925 through 2013). The painting, sculpture and photography included in the exhibition are organized to inspire viewers to read the art as non-traditional fashion portraiture.

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This image courtesy of Monique Long

With Harlem at the center of modern black culture, I propose black dress is defined by landmark cultural and political movements in which African-Americans sought to craft their identity vis-à-viscitizenship. The first of these recognized movements is the so-called New Negro which occurred during the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of a black middle class at the turn of the twentieth century.

The New Negro was first defined in the eponymous anthology first published in 1925, although the phenomenon itself can be traced back to the end of World War I. In editor Alain Locke’s manifesto, also titled “The New Negro,” he declares Harlem the birthplace to a kind of black ‘Zionism’ or the ethos of a new identity for American blacks.

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This image courtesy of Monique Long

Renaissance figure Zora Neale Hurston was a source of inspiration in mounting the exhibition. The prolific Hurston was a fixture in the cohort of artists and intellectuals whom she wittily called the Niggerati. Her oeuvre consists of her documentation of the era through her work as an anthropologist, writer, and folklorist.

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In my research for the project, I found a short story she wrote that was published in a literary magazine, American Mercury, in 1942 called A Story in Harlem Slang. Attached to the story was a glossary for the terms featured in the text, a perfect balance of both her literary work and anthropological studies. In the glossary, there were several quaint terms listed to mean well-dressed but “draped down” still seemed fresh, contemporary. Hurston defined it thus:

draped down: to be dressed in the height of Harlem fashion. also: togged down.

Ultimately, I chose “draped down” as the title of the exhibition in order to contextualize Harlem’s inherent relationship to black fashion and I suggest that the neighborhood’s influence has diffused throughout the diaspora.

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Right: Hale Woodruff, Portrait of Theresa, 1945

Museum Purchase and a Gift of E. Thomas Williams and Audlyn Higgins Williams  97.9.25
Left: Jules Allen, 10 prints (2 females, one with hat), n.d.
Gift of the artist  TD06.1.10

During installation, other historical connections emerged that I had not been consciously aware of when reviewing the checklist, but became apparent when I began to organize the exhibition in the gallery with the actual artwork before me. For example, I pair Hale Woodruff’s Portrait of Theresa (1945) with Jules Allen’s photograph from a series of 10 prints, (2 females, one with hat, ca. 1978) together(seen above) because I liked the poetic quality of both women facing each other, both in three-quarter profile and one in silhouette, across time. I also saw the opportunity to bring a fashion historical element to Draped Down. Hale’s Theresa, painted in 1945, is contemporaneous with material restrictions placed on women’s clothes in the United States to conserve resources for the war effort.  Regulation L-85 or commonly known as “austerity fashions” transformed and even defined American style as women from Hollywood to Hoboken embraced the limits as their patriotic duty. The subject embodies austerity with the modest look of her dress and the way Woodruff exalts womanhood asTheresa is, in effect, enshrined in a mysterious, womb-like background, a Madonna trope reinterpreted.

In Allen’s photographic series, he captures women in Harlem juxtaposed with the advertisements they are confronted with everyday. In the background and out of focus of 2 females, one with hat, is a poster with a stockinged leg. Nylon: the magical innovation that was invented during the 1930s but supplanted the use of silk for hosiery when L-85 took effect a decade later. Here was the essence of my idea of fashion and nationalism; African-American history through clothes.

In Hurston’s definition of the expression “draped down” she also provides the synonym “togged down.” Togged, I learned later, is an informal expression dating back to the eighteenth century meaning to get dressed for a special occasion. The origin of the word “tog” is derived from the word toga. What is interesting is that the derivative of a word for the garment worn exclusively by Romans to establish citizenship found its way into black vernacular and it deserves further investigation. The works in Draped Down give a visual interpretation of how faceted the relationship is between citizenship and clothes and how that relationship is negotiated throughout the diaspora.

Have any of you been to see Draped Down? If so, what were your impressions? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.


Photos (unless otherwise noted):  Adam Reich. Courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

Final paragraph excerpted from an essay written by Monique for the Studio Magazine’s forthcoming Summer/Fall 2014 issue.

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1 Comment

  • Giannie May 29, 2014 06.54 am

    Amazing and very inspiring. The selections is top notch


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