Constance White’s gorgeous new book ‘How to Slay’ looks at how black women shaped global style.
There’s a lot of history behind #BlackGirlMagic.
The hashtag celebrating the beauty and intelligence of black women was popularized in 2013, but a new book illustrates how women (and some men), from Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker through Rihanna and Beyoncé, have become arbiters of how we dress. In “How to Slay,” a coffee table tome out this week, author Constance White makes the case, one velvet coat-clad Afrochic revolutionary at a time, that black style is now basically global fashion culture.
Black style isn’t new ground for White, who wrote a how-to fashion guide for black women two decades ago and served as a top editor at Elle and later editor-in-chief at Essence magazine. “I’ve had an interest in seeing how cultures, and particularly black culture, was impacting fashion,” White, now a consultant, tells Moneyish. “I could see that impact growing with what designers were doing and what was happening in the community organically.”
The explosion of interest in black style was driven in part by hip-hop culture, which was born in the Bronx before becoming the de facto dress code for the under-40 set. “No matter where they are, someone’s wearing sneakers at work,” White says. “A big reason that’s become acceptable is because of the influence of hip hop and the impact it’s had on lifestyle.”
“How to Slay” is divided into chapters about the divas, couples and skin-bearing beauties that shape the universal style vocabulary, with commentary followed by pages of photos featuring prominent black people. One profile that stands out is Michelle Obama, since the attorney and former First Lady is one of the few non-entertainers featured. “She took such a huge interest in fashion and in some ways that was very brave since professional women, who aren’t singers or actors, are not encouraged to embrace style,” says White.
Obama’s eagerness to highlight designers like Jason Wu and Tracy Reese has also been a boon for fashion. “She really helped spur the American fashion industry and brought a lot of attention to emerging names,” White says. “It used to be you’re Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel or nothing. But that’s changed and in a minor but important way, Michelle Obama can take some credit.”
White’s book comes at a time when some fashion designers are under scrutiny for allegedly appropriating from black culture. No less than Gucci came under fire after its Resort ’18 collection was noted by sharp-eyed online observers to bear more than a passing resemblance to an ‘80s piece by Harlem designer Dapper Dan. At the same time, fashion has always drawn inspiration from different sources: indeed, the two brands have since collaborated.
While White notes that there’s a thin line between copying something and being inspired by it, she thinks a bigger problem is when designers take without attribution. “When someone is inspired by Yves Saint Laurent or a painting by Jackson Pollock, the designer more often than not says what is is,” she says. But when “people borrow from African American culture, no acknowledgement is given. What drives a lot of these conversations and the upset is that you take elements of my culture, but can’t accept me as an equal citizen.”
When White took on the executive fashion editor gig at Elle, she was one of very few women of color to hold such a senior title at a major American magazine. One reason behind her success, she says, was her mastery of the subject matter. “I was very steeped in and became an expert, that’s always very helpful and one big thing that worked in my factor,” she says.
At the same time, sponsorship by senior executives at the title and its then-publisher Hachette Filipacchi, helped. Most of them were white, but they weren’t afraid to mentor a woman of color, a challenge that still persists today. “You want to have that mentor and sponsor, people in your corner,” she says. “But [management] have to make it their jobs to know talent as well. They can’t just hire who their best friend refers. Then, you get an echo chamber.”
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