Interview: Tanisha C. Ford on Black Women, Style, and Politics in the 1960s and ’70s

Author Tanisha C. Ford talks with Gina Mahalek about her new book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.


Gina Mahalek: Very briefly, what is Liberated Threads about?

Tanisha C. Ford: Liberated Threads is about how everyday women turned getting dressed into a powerful political act that transformed the cultural and political landscape of the 1960s and ’70s around the world. Often, when we study the social movements of the mid-twentieth century, we focus on policy issues, the fight to integrate public spaces, and big events, such as marches and protests. But, in Liberated Threads, I argue that we need to focus on everyday acts such as getting dressed in order to understand how everyday people engaged in movement politics. Most people were not involved in formal political organizing. They were not members of Black Freedom movement organizations. But, they were engaged in the fashion culture of the time. I wanted to explore the various ways that fashion and style connected people to the global movement for black freedom.

GM: What does the title allude to?

TCF: The title is a play off of a colloquial term for hip clothing used within the black community. People in the 1970s would call their fine wear “threads” as a way to signify that they believed they were dressed sharp and that their clothes reflected their impeccable taste and upward mobility. By pairing the words “liberated” and “threads” I am acknowledging that there was a political language around dressing stylishly and that clothing was a key aspect of both personal and community freedom. Black people around the globe were invested in how they dressed because they understood that the clothes they wore communicated a powerful message. And they took great pleasure in dressing stylishly. The word “threads” also refers to the material culture aspect of the book. During the peak of the Black Freedom movement, the fashion industry put a premium on African-inspired prints. I’m interested in exploring how community-level political engagement affected global fashion trends. Lastly, I used Liberated Threads as a language for the African diaspora. I am invested in thinking through how people of African descent created these real and imagined ties based on their deployment of terms like “black” and “soul” that were coded through the clothes they wore.

GM: Your book begins in South Africa and is international in scope. Why is this important?

TCF: Soul was an international culture. It was the product of the intermixing of people of African descent from around the globe. I wanted to foreground its global dimensions by beginning the book in a non-U.S. context. South African singer Miriam Makeba’s career was in many ways emblematic of the international cultural ebbs and flows I discuss in the book. By centering on her, I could take the reader on this journey across the Atlantic to diverse, cosmopolitan cities. Places such as Johannesburg, London, and New York City have long, interesting histories of social movements and resistance. In many ways, these cities owe their popularity as global fashion capitals to the black folks who inspired the local fashions, though they are not often recognized for their style innovations. I wanted to explore how local movements and youth cultures influenced haute couture and ready-to-wear designers. But it was also important for me to examine these locales alongside cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Bamako, Mali, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, to give a fuller picture of translocal and transnational fashion dynamics.

GM: How did soul become synonymous with black Americans? And what’s wrong with that picture?

TCF: One of my goals with Liberated Threads was to explain why black cultural forms become global phenomena. I wanted to challenge the idea that all styles, music, and political symbols we associate with the soul era originated in the United States and were circulated around the world. While this U.S.- centered story is popular, it is terribly overly simplistic. Yes, black American culture is highly influential, but there was much more cultural exchange than we have previously recognized. I use the imagery of a “soul circuit” to describe how black Americans and continental Africans borrowed from one another. International travel, print media, political broadsides, and technological innovations helped this growing soul culture gain more visibility, which in turn created a language around soul that was reflected in the advertisements, music, and films of the day. Because much of this content was produced in the United States, soul became synonymous with Black Americans, and the African and Caribbean influences became less apparent. Liberated Threads begins in South Africa to make these global cultural crosscurrents more visible.

ford_liberatedGM: What is your favorite story from the book?

TCF: There are so many great stories in this book—it’s hard to choose a favorite. I will say, there is a particular story that taught me something new. Late in the writing process, I stumbled across an interview with a woman who was a student activist in South Africa. She shared how she and her peers would dress in hot pants and stiletto heels when they participated in protests and marches. Her revelation was interesting because in the United States there has been an overemphasis on how civil rights protesters wore their “Sunday best” to marches. Many young South African women wore hot pants to transgress notions of respectability. They used the stilettos as weapons to protect themselves against police assaults. I’d never come across a story like it before. It was fascinating. I could imagine a cadre of black women adorned in pointy-heeled shoes that doubled as stylish footwear and as lethal weapons. I became intrigued with unpacking the politics of style around their sartorial choices.

GM: Your book is rich in interviews. Tell us about the women you spoke with and how you found them.

TCF: This book was a dream come true in that I had a chance to interview two dozen incredible black women, from activists who were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party to South African fashion designers and models. I zigzagged around the globe, meeting with these women in various coffee shops, bookstores, and shopping malls in cities such as London and Johannesburg. Liberated Threads would not be nearly as rich if they had not entrusted me with their stories. I tried to honor them by handling their words with care and love because, far too often, black women’s narratives are ignored or rendered marginal to civil rights and Black Power histories.

GM: You grew up in a household with a black feminist mother who designed her own clothes. Was she the inspiration for this book?

TCF: My mother has influenced me in profound ways. There were always sewing patterns and printed fabrics, old photo albums, and African-inspired artwork on the walls at our house. Those items were so much a part of my everyday life that I didn’t even realize how much they had informed my cultural and political identity. Once I started working on this book, my mother’s stories about going to college in “Ku Klux Klan country,” her love for Angela Davis, and the popularity of Afros and dashikis came flooding back. My mother, with her African-inspired garments, bell bottoms, and natural hair, was the embodiment of “soul style.” In many ways, by telling this history of the global soul generation, I was recovering a piece of family history, putting my mother’s life in a broader context. I interviewed her for the book and even used many of her old pictures of garments she designed, such as the zebra print maxidress with a matching head wrap, in the book. We have grown even closer through the research and writing process. And I’ve learned a lot about what inspires me as a historian.

GM: You mentioned that we are living through a time of social unrest. There have been many comparisons between the civil rights movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What is your take on these debates?

TCF: It is natural that people will make comparisons between the civil rights generation and the #BlackLivesMatter generation. And there’s definitely a conversation to be had. The biggest thing I want people to walk away from Liberated Threads with is a more nuanced understanding of what the civil rights era was like. The narrative that gets recycled in the mainstream media each February or each major civil rights anniversary overemphasizes big event history. It makes civil rights leaders demigods who were a united political front with clearly articulated objectives. Based on the images circulated online, we would think that everyone was walking around preaching respectability and wearing suits and dresses. This depiction of the civil rights movement makes it appear as if there is a larger gulf between the two generations. I want to present a more balanced depiction of the 1960s so activists today can have a more accurate history of their activist foremothers and forefathers. By focusing on the everyday practice of getting dressed, I present the folks who lived through this movement as three-dimensional figures. And by shifting the narrative to the everyday, I can move outside of the arena of formal organizing to show that there was a diverse group of people who served as the backbone of the civil rights movement.

GM: Does the legacy of the “soul style” live on?

TCF: Of course! I’ve always pushed back against a declension model that suggests we were once living in the soul age, and now it’s over. I chose to take the book into the present day so I could discuss what soul style looks like today. Singers such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Janelle Monae, and Solange are challenging the musical and aesthetic boundaries of soul in ways similar to Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba’s interventions in the 1960s. We also see women remixing soul style in cool ways. Celebrities from first lady Michelle Obama to Beyoncé and Rihanna are rocking African prints by top designers. New blogs, digital magazines, and online boutiques—often run by black women—are offering styling tips for everyday women who want to wear soul-inspired fashions. This resurgence in soul style is not entirely shocking. As in the 1960s and ’70s, we are living in a time of political upheaval and protest. In perilous times, adornment and other forms of embodied activism become all the more important.

GM: There is a growing interest in black fashion studies. What do you think is the future of this emerging field of study?

TCF: We are starting to see the first real wave of scholarship on black fashion and style. Much of this work deals with identity politics, national struggles for power and liberation, migration, and so forth. I would like to see the next wave of scholarship grapple with geopolitical issues related to import/export tariffs, labor exploitation, and sustainability. These topics are becoming particularly important as countries such as the United States and China are clamoring to invest in the expanding African fashion market. The presence of transnational fashion corporations, which have moved their operations to various countries on the continent, is changing the very infrastructure of African cities. We do not know what the long-term effects will be, but economists are already predicting that Africa will become the next Asia in terms of the production of goods. I am interested to see how future scholarship on black fashion will analyze these crucial economic issues. I hope Liberated Threads will be a useful model.

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Tanisha C. Ford is assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul is now available. Connect with Ford on her website Haute Couture Intellectualism or follow her on Twitter @SoulistaPhD.