Black Feminism and Lesbian Fashion (The Material is Political)

One of the principles of second-wave feminism was the concept that “the personal is political.” This meant that the lives of oppressed people are as political and as attention-worthy as governmental politics. The material conditions of people’s lives are vital to analyse if we are to understand our various positions in the world, the things that keep us in those positions and how we break free of them. 

The Combahee River Collective was a Black Feminist group (comprised largely by lesbians) who were active from 1974 to 1980. In 1977 they wrote the Combahee River Collective Statement, which has been recognised as a benchmark of Black Feminist activism. In the statement, they wrote the following:

A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political. […] We have spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters has ever been looked at before. No one before has ever examined the multilayered texture of Black women’s lives.1

When everything is political and when the “multilayered texture of Black women’s lives” is prioritised, clothing is political, too. When the materiality of Black lesbian lives are reasons for oppression and/or methods with which to fight against it, the clothes worn by the Black lesbian body should also be analysed. In this blog post I do not want to limit the discussion of Black feminism to the realm of fashion and clothing. Instead, I want to bring the argument and experiences of Black (lesbian) feminism to the discussion of lesbian dress. I am a white lesbian woman, and I do not pretend to be an authority on Black feminism. As a lesbian fashion historian, however, I believe that lesbian fashion history must not be whitewashed and that Black lesbian voices deserve to be amplified. This is one attempt to make space, and to listen. 

Fig. 1: Some of the founders of Kitchen Table Press, Barbara Smith, Audre Lourde, Cherrie Moraga and Hattie Gossett, c. 1980. 

If the personal is political, then the body is a radical thing. As I have often asserted, clothing allows a way for the body to speak when the voice is silenced – as it all too often is when it comes to Black, lesbian women. Some of the key figures in Black feminist activism felt this way about the written word rather than clothing, but I think that the above image shows the crossover between these two things. Kitchen Table Press was a publishing house founded in 1980 by a selection of women of colour, with the goal of publishing writing by women of colour. Some of the founders are pictured above: Barbara Smith (who was also a founder of Combahee), Audre Lourde, Cherrie Moraga and Hattie Gossett. In the photograph, they all wear t-shirts with “KITCHEN TABLE PRESS” printed on them. 

Their clothed bodies, like the pamplets and books that they spent the next twelve years publishing, insisted on creating space for Black lesbian women by using material items. These material items are more than just objects; a book can transform into an idea, a re-told story, a new way of thinking, while clothing is never just a garment but an extension of the wearer’s self, their public “skin”. They are both things that, when worn or created by Black lesbians, demand that Black lesbians be seen and their experiences recognised. In the Combahee River Collective Statement, there is an idea that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.”2 How, then, can those radical politics be spread? Writing and publishing was definitely one way, and the work that Kitchen Table Press did is remarkable. Visibility of identity is another method, however, and one that could be done through clothing. 

Fig. 2: Beverly and Barbara Smith at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, 1979. Photograph by Tia Cross, accessed via makinggayhistory.com 

The above photograph is of Beverly and Barbara Smith (sisters and co-founders of the Combahee River Collective) at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. When interviewed for Making Gay History, Barbara talked about this image:

I’m the one on the right, with my hair braided. And I was thinking as I pulled that picture out. I mean it took hours to get my hair braided, I only did it, like, a couple of times. Because I am so not into the muss and fuss of it all. And I was thinking, like, just seeing the fact that I had my hair braided shows how special I thought this march was.3

Clearly, the way that Barbara looked when she attended this march was important to her. She knew the significance of it, and she knew that she would be seen. She knew that she would be a representative of the Black lesbian community. As well as her hair, this is evident by her clothing. Most obvious is her rainbow body warmer which, with rainbow stripes emblazoned across the chest, establishes her lesbian identity as central. The rainbow pride flag had only been designed the year before, in 1978, and yet I think that its meaning in Barbara’s outfit is still clear – especially as it is paired with badges, one of which is a rainbow and one seemingly celebrating the March on Washington itself. Beverly is also wearing badges; the only one that I can make out in this photograph is the double venus symbol, which is a signifer of lesbian identity. The sisters used their bodies to create black lesbian space on this day. They did this by taking up physical space, by shouting and marching, but also by using their clothing to constantly assert a Black lesbian presence. 

It is interesting that Barbara saw the importance of the march as a reason to get her hair specially braided. Black feminism in the 1970s appears to have had a different stance on fashion/clothing than white-centric, middle class feminism at the time. White feminism during this period was often concerned with anti-fashion as a way to escape from standards of beauty that have been and are imposed on women by capitalism and the patriarchy – a complex issue that I won’t delve into here. Many Black feminists may have agreed with this perspective, but even when reading interviews by members of the Combahee River Collective there is an evident difference. A higher number of Black women come from working class backgrounds than white women due to various forms of systematic racism. As high fashion would not have been the norm for working class Black women, anti-fashion, consequently, would have held less appeal. Barbara Smith, in her Making Gay History interview, said that “being raised by Black women as I was, you never try to go out looking like you just rolled out of bed.” She added that “It was particularly important, I thought, for me to look well because the [lesbian] stereotype of course is that no male would want you.”4 

Fig. 3: The Combahee River Collective’s first Black feminist retreat, July 1977. South Hadley, Massachusetts. Second from the left is Barbara Smith. Photo courtesy of Margo Okazawa-Rey.

When looking at photographs of Black feminists in the 1970s, their clothing is sometimes less ‘radical’ than a viewer may expect feminist clothing to be. For a Black, lesbian woman, however, to be dressed smartly was to defy a racist, homophobic world’s expectations. I think that the photograph above, taken at the first of the Combahee River Collective’s Black feminist retreats, is an example of this. The material conditions of these women’s lives are political because their whole identity is political. Their clothing is inherently part of lesbian fashion history because it is worn by the Black lesbian bodies that have struggled, campaigned and lived. In the words of Demita Frazier, when interviewed by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective:

Black feminism is a representation of Black women’s power. Black women’s agency. Black women’s right to look at their material conditions, analyse it, interrogate it, and come away with an analysis that’s about empowerment.5

The material of Black lesbian lives is weaved into this analysis, and the ideas of Black (lesbian) feminists continue to impact our lives and our clothed bodies today. The material is political, as is the personal. When any oppressed person uses their own body as a political tool and billboard, they are part of a legacy of people who refused to be silenced. 

This post is many miles away from the full story of Black feminism + lesbian fashion history. I do hope, though, that it has been a chance for the two fields to meet and mix. I am more than happy to hear criticism or suggestions about this post from any Black feminists who may be reading. This is your history to narrate.

Thank you for reading this post on Dressing Dykes! If you enjoyed, feel free to follow me on Instagram or Twitter, or leave a tip on Ko-fi.

Endnotes

1: The Combahee River Collective, ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement,’ (1977) How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) 20.

2: Combahee River Collective, ‘Combahee River Collective Statement,’ 19.

3: Barbara Smith, interviewed by Making Gay History, ‘Season 6: Episode 3: Barbara Smith,’ Making Gay History Podcast [n.d.]. Makinggayhistory.com 

4: Barbara Smith, interviewed by Making Gay History.

5: Demita Frazier, interviewed in How We Get Free, 125.

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