By: Waddell Howard Jr.
Since the inception of America and the dawning of the “great nation in the New World” the black church existed. The many people that came over to this nation under the chains and barriers of shackles with the promise of only death and a hard life, saw the “assembly of saints” on a Sunday as a way to break free for a couple of hours from the oppression and anguish that awaited them on the next day. Along with this gathering of many people seeking to find a way out of no way, was a sense of personal fashion and a pride in what was worn while in the presence of the “Most High”, no matter how little they had.
If we fast forward to the industrial age of prominence in America where many African Americans migrated from the South to the North in search of a better life that would bring a life of more promising economic stability and mobility through the class system. The factories of the North produced more income for many and with that, came the dawning of newer fashion trends with a widened budget for clothing. Wing tip shoes, Stetson hats, pinstripe suits, customized long brim hats, long tailored dresses, and eloquently kept hairdos to boot were fashions that were on display at any given church service in the black community. You wanted to look your best for worship service hence the saying “Sunday Best” in the African American community.
The church was the launching pin for new fashions and trends aside from the Friday and Saturday night life. One may ask the question of why? In an age where Jim Crow ruled the day and even in places in the North where de-facto segregation and more covert disenfranchisement ran ramped; a person of color could not show prosperity in any way that would seem ostentatious. An African American could not drive his or her new Studebaker or Cadillac to their work for fear of backlash from an employer, one could not wear their new clothes to their work or highlight the successes of the members of their family or their community; the church was that avenue for it all.
Many of the meetings, rhetoric, and actions of the Civil Rights Movement occurred within the church. When the leaders, and organizers rose up to speak to the people they had not only their own distinct rhetoric but also their own distinct style. Frontline warriors such as Adam Clayton Powell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, and many more showed not only the forward thrust for equality, but many would take note of the dress of these powerful figures of the movement. Many may have taken note of the slick tailored suits of politician Adam Clayton Powell or the dress that Fannie Lou Hamer was wearing while giving her riveting testimony to the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic Convention or the well-groomed seemingly larger than life afro of Angela Davis with a sleek turtleneck with a medallion and starched and pressed dress slacks; these were examples of the styles on display while members marched, prayed, and campaigned for justice.
The black church was a foundation for many and a launching pad for most in the black community. Many of our leaders, entertainers, and prominent figures to date were groomed in the black church. Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Sam Cooke all learned to hone their craft and use their beautiful voices in the black church. Lawyers, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, Constance Baker Motley, and Charles Hamilton Hurst may have learned a thing or two on how to accentuate their arguments in the courtroom by listening to the delivery and style of rhetoric from their minister or preaching deacons in the church. Something also tells me that these monumental figures may have gotten some dressing tips from the church along the way too!