Wednesday, September 29, 2010

If Harlem looks back he can dress forward…

It’s the 1950s and the location is Harlem NY where the combination of the Great Migration and white flight has left the population almost entirely black. The Black population in Harlem was at its peak during the 1950s. The numbers game is big business for various bosses. It was estimated that by the 1950s billions of dollars were circulating in “black policy banks” which housed the illegal lottery system. At that time, Madame Stephanie St Clair (aka Queenie) was one of the most powerful numbers bosses. Heroin had just hit the scene and the popularity of injecting the drug would rise throughout the decade before leveling off by the end of the 60s. If you were one of the many tenants living in poor housing conditions, you would of participated in the rent strikes, demanding buildings be brought up to proper housing codes including providing heat during the winter and protection against the rodents. 1950s Harlem was also a core location for the Civil Rights Movement. Home to Nation of Islam’s Temple Number Seven, which was run by the illustrious Malcolm X starting in 1952.  

Seeming like the center of the fashion universe during the 1950’s, Harlem residence took great proud in their daily attire. Men regularly wore suits with fedoras. Women adored themselves in well-pressed swing dresses, full circle skirts, and pencil skirts coupled with blouses. Even though times were hard for most, there was a sharpness and confidence in almost every outfit. Women wore heels practically all the time. Even casual wear was a simple dress. One couldn’t help but admire the exuberance of it all, sensing the strength and determination in each individual. No wonder this was the stage of the Civil Rights Movement. Today designers have drawn inspiration from the fashion trends of the 1950s including Louis Vuittons fall 2010 collection which features full skirts and wasp waist dresses.

Today in Harlem, for the first time in decades, blacks are not the predominant ethnic group due to a white recrudescence to the area. Gentrification is in full effect in Harlem. 125th street is now home to major commercial chains like H&M and Target. The debate about the public school system is a hot topic. Harlem is a pioneer for charter schools in Manhattan with 18 of the city’s 25 schools located there.  In the spirit of Prohibition, many residences of Harlem are reacting to the recession by selling illegal alcohol outside of their apartments; the most popular drink being “nutcrackers.” Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre founded in 1913 has solidified its iconic symbol by adding a walk of fame to 125th street.  Another symbol of Harlem’s past and present, is congressman Charles Rangal who has represented the district since 1970 after defeating historical figure, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.   Currently engulfed in a political scandal, if Rangal wins this November’s election, he will make history by being the first congressman to serve 21 straight terms; not everything in Harlem has changed.

Now jump 60 years later to present day Harlem and one word represents Harlem’s current fashion style: casual. In general people are a lot more laid back in their dress in comparison to 1950s. Jeans are a signature item on both men and women. Comfort, understandably, is a priority for women who in most cases commute on foot; heels are not the daily norm.  Thankfully, the hip-hop’s gangsta style of oversized baggy clothes from the early 90s has finally subsided to somewhat fitted pants and shirts. Adding some ethnic roots a small minority of residences of the district follow current fashion trends wearing animal and African prints.

Unfortunately, fashion styles in 2000’s Harlem are not as elegant or debonair as the 1950s. Trends from the 50s continue to influence current fashions and will more than likely reappear in Harlem 2070 because the styles were classical. Women dressed feminine and men in tailored masculinity. Though, in the defense of current male fashion trends, men have a lot more options and the ability to be creatively colorful. In the 1950s, men wore mainly black, gray or blue pants suits; there were not very many variations. Today a man can wear a lavender t-shirt with khaki shorts and be even jauntier.

My remedy for the stylistically uninspired individuals of Harlem would be to take time and pride in your daily attire. Even if you are casually dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, proportions and size are imperative; look to your great grandparents for inspiration. Harlem was and still is the epicenter of African American culture and style and the current residence of Harlem should strive to embrace this fact as the trendsetters of the 1950’ did, with elegance, class and pride.

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