Timed for the new academic year, a few weeks ago Racialicious published “Haute Couture in the ‘Ivory Tower,’” a sharp essay by Tanisha C. Ford about academic chic, whose bodies are imagined to inhabit the so-called ivory tower, and the racial and gender implications of their adornment. In response to a recent New York Times Magazine fashion spread, Ford argues that the specific sartorial and other fashions on display alongside the absence of bodies of color reinforced the image of the intellectual as elite and, well, ivory. Ford observes,
The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.
Totally psyched about her essay and the amazing outfit she wore in the author photograph (those are my colors, too!), I wanted to interview Tanisha C. Ford for Threadbared. I actually met Ford in 2009 at the annual Graduate Symposium on Women’s and Gender History at the University of Illinois, where she presented an awesome paper on soul culture and gender politics in the 1963 March on Washington. Ford has since received her PhD in History from Indiana University, and spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan before starting as an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently writing a book called Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. You can follow her on Twitter at SoulistaPhd.
How did you first conceive the research questions that would fuel the shape of this project, and how these questions have evolved since that first nascent encounter with your research questions? I’m interested in this process for you!
It was my love of the music, culture, fashion, and politics of the 1960s and ‘70s that initially brought me to this project. I was particularly fascinated with soul singers like Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba. I admired how they performed their politics not only through their music but through their hair, dress, and stage costumes. To me, their natural hairstyles, caftans, head wraps, ornate African-inspired jewelry, and printed dresses were more than mere clothing to cover their bodies. They used such fashionable items to express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politics. My interest in these dynamic women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? I discovered that there were several books and articles on black women’s hair politics, but there was far less written on fashion and body politics, especially concerning black women. With the help of some savvy archivists and women who were willing to let me interview them, I began piecing together fragments of a vibrant and complex history of fashion and its connection to histories of oppression and human rights struggles. My research led me to destinations a far flung as Jackson, Mississippi; London; and Johannesburg. What began as a dissertation project on celebrities and pop culture has—six years later—become a book monograph in progress that focuses on grassroots cultural-political engagement and the ways in which Africana women activists have utilized fashion and beauty culture as both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.
What are some of your favorite examples from your book about Africana women’s uses of fashion and beauty culture as a political and imaginative landscape, and how you read their labors?
I’m having so much fun writing this book, uncovering such fascinating histories. One of my favorite examples is from a chapter on the denim-wearing women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I first saw photographs of SNCC women such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner wearing denim at the March on Washington, I was stunned. Women in denim overalls seemed antithetical to everything I had learned about the civil rights movement since I was a kid. I started digging into the SNCC papers, rereading memoirs written by SNCC activists, and tracking down SNCC members for interviews. I had to know why they wore denim and why I’d only learned about the women who wore dresses, cardigans, pearls, and heels! I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons. And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists. I have used my SNCC research to revise the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black power movement era as well as histories of radical fashion in the late twentieth century. An article derived from this chapter,“SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern History.
How do you understand the politics of respectability that are brought to bear upon women of color in the academy, and as well strategies that women of color deploy to negotiate the institutional demand that we adhere (more than others, often) to a particular “professionalism,” and its racial and gender dimensions?
My theories about the fashion and body politics of the 1960s and ‘70s have also provided a useful framework for analyzing contemporary fashion culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring the politics of dress and adornment in my own profession—the academy. Interviews with professors of color reveal that there are similarities between the strategies of adornment SNCC women employed and those used by my colleagues. Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of “professional” attire on their own terms, incorporating suits in bright colors, stiletto heels, ornate jewelry, eclectic prints, and enviable eye makeup into their “power wardrobe.” They use faculty photos, the social/digital mediasphere, and their classrooms as sites where they can deconstruct the staid image of the white male professor with glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. The award-winning women scholars I interviewed debunk the long-held belief that “serious” academics don’t care about “trivial” things like fashion and style. I’ve written a series of pieces on this topic including “Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower,” “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics,” and the forthcoming “A Fashionista Asks: What To Wear On The First Day Of School.” I’m hoping to turn these pieces into a longer journal-length article.
I remember strategizing so hard for my first day as an Assistant Professor years ago; I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit. Today, for my first day of teaching I wore a short-sleeved (sleeves rolled up), white t-shirt featuring a cartoon carrying books in her arms and on her head and reading “Reading is Cool,” with a yellow pencil skirt and a metal belt with two hearts at the clasp. (My sartorial style is New Wave doyenne.) Last question then — what are you wearing on the first day of school in your new position as an Assistant Professor?
What a fun question! I’m not sure yet…but the process of figuring it out has been both fun and helpful. I just moved to a new city, so searching for cool places to shop helps me learn my way around town. I’ve been finding some great pieces that speak to my fun and flirty fashion sense. I love wearing bright colors and eclectic patterns, statement shoes, and mixing “girly” prints with menswear looks. My number one fashion rule is: there are no rules! Pretty much anything can be worn together if styled properly. For example, I recently purchased a pink blouse with cream hearts on it. I’d likely pair this shirt with a navy and cream striped Zara blazer I own. As a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, I get to mix my personal style with my professional activities in cool ways. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Feminisms and Fashion,” this will give me the space to have fun with my attire while using scholarship on fashion and body politics to engage with my students on salient women’s rights issues. In preparation for my big first day, I’ve been having mini fashions shows in front of my mirror. These one-woman shows allow me to fall in love with my existing wardrobe all over again, inspiring me to look at my clothes in fresh, new ways. Whatever ensemble I wear on the first day of class will be fierce and fly!