It should be no secret that the influence of the Black community is prevalent in all walks of life; from music to cinema, food to graphic design, and everything in between. Not only does the West work carefully to erase the history of Black communities, in terms of their exploitation by countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, but also to disregard the unparalleled talents that brought us so much of what we universally utilise today. Younger generations are now more focused on Black support and allyship than ever, and this includes educating ourselves as to how our current fashion and pop culture trends stem from Black culture.
Specifically, today’s fashion and beauty landscape has been unequivocally pioneered by the Black community – and this is not a new occurrence. Not only were Black women responsible for so many of the incredible inventions we use today, such as Madam C. J. Walker, who invented modern hair conditioner, and Lyda D. Newman, who created the hairbrush, but their cultural style impact has spanned decades, if not centuries. One significant example is The Harlem Renaissance, which was a cultural movement in New York City that spanned the 1920s and included new cultural and artistic expressions created by the African-American population. The movement dramatically impacted what came to be ‘fashionable’, with the iconic ‘Zoot Suit’ being one of the most notable trends that is still prevalent in modern menswear. This era and its reliance on artistic expression is also credited as building a foundation for the later Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
A more modern example can be seen in trainer and sneaker culture, which is particularly notable today with the increasing popularity of street wear brands, such as Adidas and Supreme. The trainer was first invented in the 19th century, and the understanding of its function beyond practicality was altered by Black basketball players and hip-hop musicians in the 70s, where they developed into a trend piece that has since been heavily appropriated by white people worldwide. Sneaker historian Bobbito García notes in Out of the Box that “the progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly kids of colour”, the majority of which receive little to no recognition for their influence from brands such as Nike, who sell over 780 million pairs of trainers a year.
The concept of ‘street wear’ itself originated in the Black community, with tracksuits being a particularly popular form of outfit to wear with sneakers. Similarly, African-American designer Stephen Burrows is the creator of the increasingly popular ‘lettuce hem’ that first gained appreciation during the disco scene of the 1970s, and has since made its way into the windows of most high-street shops. These trends have now been adopted by high-end and fast fashion brands alike, who profit off the influence of Black communities that pave the way for what becomes ‘trendy’, leaving most consumers unaware of who pioneered the styles that they adopt.
Other such trends that were started by Black communities include: acrylic nails, hair extensions, sports jerseys, snapbacks, braided hair and hoop earrings, to name just a few. These are all styles that have become particularly common in the Western world, and heavily appropriated. Therefore, it must be understood that historical education surrounding the influence of the Black community within the fashion industry is extremely necessary. Whilst style and trends are often viewed as a trivial and meaningless art, what we now define as ‘fashion’ is rooted in the simultaneous political struggle and incredible cultural creativity that only the Black community can be credited for.