The making of a woman–a Black woman at that–is a challenge. There are several odds that may deter our growth, mostly all of them social constructs (gender, race, class: man-made stratus), nebulous and arbitrary forms of difference that are enforced without any merit or grounding. Differences that suggest we cannot do or say or be (or wear) whatever we so choose: that biologically, pathologically we are benign to self-edification.
Somehow, we withstand the odds, because quite frankly as much as I do not want someone, something to totalize my being, I certainly do not want them totalizing my look. No, no that is so much apart of my own identity, and most certainly an autobiography authored at the tip of my own proverbial pen.
But it has to be, does it not? My style a form of expression, an outlet for all the roads that have led me to my present state (of dress). Author Zora Neal Hurston once declared, “I am not tragically colored,” and in that same breath I am working towards not being tragically of color. Growing up Black, middle-class, and in America was not the stuff of loss or sorrow, but it held a certain kind of pain/confusion/isolation I try to exorcise daily.
To be honest, I have walked a particularly snarled path with “Blackness”. I don’t always get it; it doesn’t always get me. I’ve battled with its myopic view for almost three decades now, even pursuing and gaining a degree in the subject, and have come to surmise that, a/ there is no authentic form of it, b/ it’s ineffable, and c/ I am always painfully aware of its presence. Or rather, I am painfully aware of someone impressing upon me an “authentic”, “tangible” idea of Black identity that does not exist.
That sensation I have felt for years, probably ever since I was a little girl growing up in the Dallas, Texas suburbs with my doctor father, professor mother, protective two older brothers, and playful dog. We sharing a life full of books, political debates (I, woefully Democrat at a young age), travel, births, deaths, and a Spanish last name (its origins, vague). All of it felt right, but I learned quickly this is the stuff people love to shroud in skepticism. This was all pre-Obama, you see. I was made to feel suspect almost immediately by my Black and White classmates and friends, alike. I was forced to explain my weird Valley Girl cadence, the nature of my dress, the books I read (oh my beloved books!), the tufts of my hair.
You mustn’t believe I was severely lonely or bullied, because I had other little Black girl friends who felt the same way. But I was fearful of being me, explicitly so, and I don’t want to suggest that these confidantes of mine felt the same way, because I am not here to tell their truth. However, I maintained that fear throughout my teens, and it would flare up sporadically in college and onward, although college was a supremely amazing time for me. I was at a school made up of misfits, so we all made sense to one another (Brown University, Class of 2005).
But no matter, I often felt an internal tug editing my thoughts, opinions, likes, and displeasures, scared that someone may find out that I was not “tragically of color”. I remember being sent into a fit over not being able to play Spades (we played a lot of Checkers and Chess in my household, instead), this odd sense of shame rising up in me because I was certain this nebulous, arbitrary factor sized up my racial identity. I felt stares from the other card players bearing down on me, and conclusions being determined in their minds: I was a fraud.
It wasn’t until I went back for my Masters in “Blackness” (read: African-American Studies), that I could accurately create the language to speak to all of this. Interestingly, it was also a time that I was experimenting considerably with my look, shoring my locks to give way to a Rihanna-inspired pixie cut and altogether edgier wardrobe. I was wearing A.P.C. the first day of school, and Helmut Lang on my last. With the help of my mentor, the late Professor Manning Marable, I invented my own etymology and pedagogy to accurately engage racial “authenticity”, speaking to the “license” we all wield when discussing identity politics. He, the most notable Black Marxist in the country, the premier scholar on Malcolm X, affirmed my work and writing, and subsequently I have felt no editor or naysayer could ever tell me different.
I collected my departmental thesis award in a fitted vintage floral sheath and Loeffler Randall sandals. By this time, I was growing intellectually and stylistically by leaps and bounds, nearing the idea of the woman I hoped to be.
And who is that woman (X), you may ask? Well, as I approach 29 I see her definitely as someone creative, independent, doing something worthy with her talents, a mother of two, a wife of just the one, funny, less naive but trusting, well-traveled and most likely living outside the States, chic but grounded, purveyor of an eccentric but beautiful home, teaching her kids to never be scared of being themselves, all while being very, very well dressed. //
Scroll through the remaining images of FEMME NOIR X, below, a shoot split up into 3 looks of a woman paying homage to, but also reimagining, Black style.
LOOK 1: Vintage moto jacket + Turtleneck by Zara + Vintage leather skirt + Pumps by Charlotte Olympia + Sunglasses by Karen Walker
LOOK 3: Coat by 3.1 Phillip Lim + Jumpsuit by Zara + Tee by Zara + Boots by Rick Owens + Bag by Gryson
All pictures courtesy of Layonbone’s, Cleon Grey
This project is a special joint collaboration with Layonbone’s, “Tout Nor Tous”. Learn more about its inspiration here.