Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I, too, wore door-knocker earrings and lived in way-too-baggy jeans. The pages of Vogue weren’t my introduction to designer labels, Hip-hop was.
And although today I’m loath to admit it, I longed for the wash-and-go-hair that a Jheri curl would have afforded, but thankfully my mom, in all her hindsight-is-20/20 hair wisdom, wouldn’t let me get one.
But author Tanisha C. Ford got one. And although she claims that Wave Nouveau, the bougie version of the Jheri Curl, was not the same, I know better. She recounts this delightful style story, and 10 more fashion-centered tales, in her 245-page memoir: Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
Ford, who has has built a solid reputation in collegiate circles as an expert on black fashion and culture, will be in town on Tuesday for a reading and book signing at Marc Lamont Hill’s Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Germantown.
Dressed in Dreams, released in June, is on its second printing — with dainty illustrations by local illustrator Veronica Miller Jamison — and has become quite the talker, much like Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth’s memoir, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), and Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated and True.
Along with BET’s Black Girls Rock special this past Sunday and HBO’s The Black Lady’s Sketch Show, it’s another mainstream acknowledgment that our stories are more nuanced than the tragic stereotypes of black womanhood.
“When I first started writing the book, I wanted to talk about how fashion developed around important political movements in the black community,” Ford said. “But as I started writing, I began inserting my own stories and I began to think, how does my own story connect to these broader political movements? This is a story that I just wanted to tell.”
I recently caught up with the author. This is an edited and condensed transcript.
How did you land on fashion as a vehicle through which to write a memoir?
Part of why I like to use clothing as a way to look at larger issues is because we get dressed every day. People who are a part of marginalized communities were denied access to so many freedoms and liberties that many took for granted. Slaves couldn’t pick out their own clothes. That is why that Sunday parade of wearing what you want to wear is so important … We are using clothing to reclaim a sense of our humanity, the fullness of our humanity, the fullness of our being. We’ve learned to communicate so much with very little. That’s why we are so creative and innovative.
Early in the book you make a powerful statement: “Just because something wasn’t marketed to us didn’t mean that we didn’t want it.” That to me seems to be the driving force behind how we — black women — were able to always put our own twist on fashion. Would you agree?
Desire and access are so central to this book. Designer labels were producing goods that did not have black bodies in mind. We were not their target clientele. But we wanted to have nice things, too …. Those successful heritage brands, like Ralph Lauren, gave us a peek into a world that we wanted access to. So we bought them. We adapted them. People like Dapper Dan [the designer who knocked off labels like Gucci and Fendi for hip-hop stars, was blackballed, and is now enjoying a resurgence] single-handedly changed what those brands looked like. He’s responsible for how these brands look and are received today.
You write with such love about items like leather jackets, door-knocker earrings, high-knee boots. Do you still own the ones you talk about in the book?
I write about my mother in the book. And that was my loving way of saying, 'This woman has so much stuff. Why does she have so much stuff?’ So I have become something of a minimalist. Over time I have given things away. But there are so many things I wish I still owned.
Were there any items that didn’t make the final draft of the book?
Yes, there were, like, three chapters that were in various forms of the draft. One was the miniskirt, one was skinny jeans, and the other was headphones.
There are those who say cultural appropriation doesn’t matter — that America is a melting pot that shares culture. But there is something about seeing cornrows and baby hair on mainstream runways without any acknowledgement of their history that is annoying. Why does it still matter?
The reason why I call the book a love letter is because I’m trying to introduce a new model about how we talk about these issues, specifically appropriation. When we see someone like a Kardashian claiming a style as their own, we go on social media and write think pieces about how we are being robbed. But I decided a better way for me to handle it is to tell my story.
And my story explains why I — we — have such a deep connection to our clothes. We attach our life’s memories to our clothes. All the lessons we’ve been taught like, ‘Don’t leave the house ashy.’ or what we wore roller skating. When the white world takes those garments, strips them of our memories and puts a white body in it to create a whole new narrative around it and profits off those same looks that you got clowned at in school or unjustly policed for wearing, hell, yeah, it hurts.
Uncle Bobbie’s is at 5445 Germantown Ave. The reading starts at 7 p.m., and it is free.