If you examine any mainstream fashion trend closely enough, nine times out of ten you will find at least three prominent Black women who did it first.
They probably didn’t get any credit for it though. I open up Twitter every day and I’m bombarded with ahistorical fashion takes that erase the impact of Black creatives. And when you try to alert people to the Black girls who were at the inception of a ‘moment,’ many online critics tend to foam at the mouth, with a million reasons to discredit the Black contribution to fashion.
The ignorance wouldn’t irritate me as much if these critics didn’t act like it was a preposterous concept that someone Black might have influenced their precious non-black favourite.
I see so many Black women online trying to educate others about Black history, but often there’s immediate push back. Writer Ivie Ani made a great point about singer Billie Eilish’s look being influenced by ’90s Hip-Hop and particularly artists like Big Pun and Da Brat. People on Twitter lost their sh** completely, even though the comparison was objectively fair.
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Lady Gaga and Róisín Murphy have both been quoted about how much Grace Jones influenced them. Britney Spears’ largest influence by far is Janet Jackson, despite mainstream media leaping to compare her to Madonna instead. Speaking of Lady M, I never hear anyone conceding that Madonna started wearing Gaultier and using dancers from the New York Ballroom scene because she saw Jody Watley do the same thing in her 1989 video for ‘Friends,’ a year before Madonna released her now infamous video for ‘Vogue.’
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The persistent dominance of ‘Y2K’ fashion (a trend from about 1995 onwards for turn-of-the-millennium inspired clothing, characterised by bold, ornamental design, with tech and music related hardware), and any trend from the early 2000s, has made it increasingly annoying for me to rehash them with people online. I lived through those eras; I was obsessive about fashion during that time. Obsessive like I’ve literally seen every music video, read every magazine and watched all the major shows countless times.
It makes me chuckle that the looks we now gravitate towards, were almost always on the ‘worst dressed’ lists when they were first debuted a decade or two ago. Women like Lil’ Kim, Mariah Carey and Foxy Brown were constantly being dragged in the press and by the public for wearing things that are now just the standard get-up for any upcoming female rapper or R&B diva. Back then, it was a time in which Weinstein’s young, bright, and usually white favourites ruled the best-dressed list, and yet, none of those red carpet looks from any of those award-winning actresses get the same amount of Instagram engagement as a photo of Lil’ Kim during her prime.
The Y2K trends that are popular now are the ones that were pioneered by Black artists. The first thing that pops into my head when I think of futuristic Y2K aesthetics is Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 music video for their song ‘Scream.’ That video presented a bonafide cultural shift and it inspired other big-budget, space-aged videos and fashions that only increased in popularity the closer we got to the year 2000.
You see that influence in Hype Williams-directed music videos by Diddy, Busta Rhymes, and TLC. We have June Ambrose to thank for the countless pop stars (hello *NSYNC, hey Five) wearing oversized shiny pants and neon-coloured snow goggles, just like the ones Diddy and Mase had on in the ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ video. Missy Elliott was always living in the future, she used the medium of music videos to create such a layered and interesting way to see the new millennium.
TLC took what Janet and Michael did even further into the future, with their visuals for their 1999 album Fanmail, for which MC Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was the mastermind. Lisa was also behind a lot of the otherworldly fashions of her girl group Blaque (Blaque Ivory in the UK) and the visual language she created with TLC lived on in them and then became popular with South Korean girl groups like S.E.S and Baby Vox.
With the pandemic as occasion, I’ve been in the house re-watching old shows, or discovering them for the first time via Netflix, and I’ve seen so many people on social media shocked to learn about all the amazing fashion moments that were coming out of Black sitcoms like Moesha and The Parkers during the ’90s and early 2000s. The stars of these series were wearing all the coveted designer items that viewers now buy for ten times the original retail price online. I guess everyone assumed Sex and the City was the only show with a wardrobe budget.
I remember when Sex and the City was first airing and their forever fabulous costume designer Patricia Field had Carrie in what they then called ‘ghetto gold’ nameplate necklaces. Fashion magazines were falling over themselves to praise Pat for ushering in this edgy new trend, which is hilarious to me because where I’m from that’s just rite of passage. Patricia Field herself was raised in Queens, so it’s unsurprising that she was pulling inspiration from black and brown New Yorkers. The effect though, was that these older white actresses, with zero connection to the culture, were then walking around looking like gentrified versions of Mary J. Blige and Lil’ Kim. And it happened countless times. I recently saw Shelby Christie tweet about Patricia styling SJP in a replica of a custom Eugene Alexander floral-detail dress that Whitney Houston wore in 1987, which she also sold on her website. Some of the blogs picked that story up in 2008, but it was before Whitney passed and, sadly, when it was still acceptable to write off her legacy and impact.
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The risk-taking Black icons of the past, whose impact on fashion was either ignored by the mainstream media or lambasted on now obsolete tabloid worst dressed lists, are finally being taken seriously. Even still there are some who would rather give credit to the non-Black artists who mimicked the way we Black people interpreted fashion, as a way to rebel and set themselves apart from the Disney kids and the young Hollywood ingenues in their Lanvin flats and huge Balenciaga city bags. So shout out to all those archive accounts on Instagram for educating people. Now, when I wear my favourite pieces from John Galliano’s Lauyrn Hill-inspired Dior Spring 2000 collection, more and more will understand that I’m referencing Ms. Hill’s ‘The Miseducation,’ rather than some white influencer who lives in Calabasas.
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