“Denim Revolutionaries:” The Women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Politics of Dress

Recently, our “Cotton to Kevlar” class was treated with a visit from Tanisha Ford, an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research explores “fashion, performance, and women’s rights activism” (http://www.tanishacford.com/). Professor Ford  teaches a popular course on “Feminism(s) and Fashion,” and is at work on a book titled Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment, which “uncovers how and why black women use beauty culture and fashion as a form of resistance and cultural-political expression”—so naturally we were eager to involve her in our course from the get-go.

Civil Rights March on Washington DC (August 28, 1963); photo: Warren K. Leffler. This photo shows marchers in their “Sunday best:” note the fabrics, accessories, and hairstyles.

In her visit to the class, she focused on the clothing and the politics of denim—and especially the bib overall—in the Civil Rights movement. To prepare for her visit, she asked students to 1) Peruse a photo album of images from the civil rights movement, paying particular attention to the role denim does and/or does not play in the visual archive of the movement; and 2) Come to class with a short piece of writing (about 500 words) that reflects upon your relationship with denim–from your encounter to the present. Be ready to share in class.

When we gathered for her presentation, she began by asking people to talk about their experiences with denim. She told us about a memorable moment in her own sartorial past when, once she had her first “real” job, she splurged on expensive jeans from Citizens of Humanity; it “felt like passage into adulthood,” she explained (and happily, the jeans “lived up to the hype.”) Students talked about their reaction to skinny jeans (both pro and con: one said, “I could sleep in a pair of jeggings!”), to participating in trends indirectly via thrift shop alterations. One of the men in the course reported avoiding jeans, which he finds too confining given roomier alternatives.

Professor Ford then walked us through a set of images that helped us grasp the importance of denim when it appeared among Civil Rights activists. We analyzed photos from the era, observing how “church” clothes – the skirts, shoes, pearls and pocketbooks visible in the image above – that had long served as symbols of middle-class black respectability (given that the Civil Rights movement grew out of black churches, this also makes perfect sense) now gave way to denim. And not just any denim, but especially the bib overall.

Charles Moore – Alabama Fire Department Aims High-Pressure Water Hoses at Civil Rights Demonstrators, Birmingham Protests, May 1963

I was mesmerized, in particular, to hear Professor Ford talk about the motivations behind this shift. Activists, radicalized by their experiences across the south, adopted overalls as a gesture of solidarity with the working men and women they encountered along the way. Also—and this struck me most powerfully—lightweight cottons and heeled shoes were simply impractical in the face of waterhoses and attack dogs, and dresses and skirts no asset given the fear of sexual assault.

Activists Dorie and Joyce Ladner in bib overalls. Click here for an oral history of their work in the movement.

Over time, as Professor Ford helped us see, activists “adapted to the realities of life in the movement,” and it’s a change that can be observed in their clothing. Pleated skirts and beauty-parlor hairstyles gave way to overalls and jeans, and in time, afros and dashikis. In the end, it was a superb example of how fashion and clothing history can illuminate topics well beyond the sartorial.

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