The Unsung Heroes of Fashion
A style celebration of Marvin Gaye, Lola Falana, Nina Simone and Josephine Baker
My fashion heroes are unsung and unapologetically black, like me.
Despite being so colorful, so different, they’re frequently copied but hardly cited. When was the last time someone referenced Marvin Gaye as a style inspiration in a major publication? What about Lola Falana? Josephine Baker prior to Prada Spring 11? Before Derek Lam’s Spring 16 runway, what about Nina Simone?
But I have two hands to type and lots to say; they’re my heroes, after all. Why shouldn’t I give it a go?
Marvin Gaye’s version of Americana — with a heavy Africana influence — challenged the sartorial norms of his time. He wore denim on denim before it was cool. On the February 1979 cover of Jet Magazine (formerly an African-American weekly print magazine, now digital), Gaye paired his signature skullcap with a bow tie, tuxedo jacket and yellow button-down shirt. I put my ear to the tattered issue and heard his attire say, “Yes I will dress up for your event, but I’ll do it on my own terms.”
The fearless songstress Nina Simone’s style was equally uncompromising. Consider this white knit-caged ensemble:
It didn’t fit in with the classic element of her piano. A gown would have been more “appropriate.” And that was the point. She had the courage to stand out.
Then there’s Josephine Baker, whose brand of glamour was exotic, eccentric and chic. She was extravagant, loved feathers, costume jewelry and dramatic fur coats. She used clothing to show that black people can be sophisticated long before Miuccia Prada referenced her for Spring 2011.
Next time you covet a jumpsuit, of course, consider giving credit to Lola Falana as the inspiration — not just Charlie’s Angels. The dancer, actress and singer was sartorially daring, combining the bright colors of her father’s native Cuba with popular and 1960s and 1970s silhouettes.
You see, black style is and has always been about self-expression and artistry; it’s about being seen through shapes and heard through color schemes. It’s about retaliation, about pushing the boundaries and throwing caution to the wind.
Black style is everything.
My unsung heroes proudly declared their blackness. They inspire me to be myself despite social expectations to conform. Because of them, my clothing choices are deliberate. Loud. Eccentric. I use fashion to celebrate what it means to be a black woman. I, too, want the world to see that black people are successful, intelligent, eclectic, powerful and full of style. I refuse to use my clothes as a mask to hide.
That people imitate the style choices of these unsung heroes is a small honor. What actually makes them heroes is that they dressed as their authentic, unapologetic selves without asking for recognition in the name of fashion.
But still, they deserve it.
This Black History Month, let’s recognize the men and women who set new standards while breaking code. Let’s thank Marvin Gaye for his denim pairings, Nina Simone for her fearless individuality, Lola Falana for her light and Josephine Baker for bringing dresses to life.
To the unsung fashion heroes: let’s sing.
Kurie Fitzgerald works in PR but daydreams about fashion. You can follow her on Twitter @KurieFitz.