Fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham once said “The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” People often assume that paying extra attention to style and presentation is nothing more than a shallow obsession with appearance, but this couldn’t be further from the truth, especially for communities of color.
Take for instance my grandparents, who both settled in Chicago by way of Mississippi, and lived through the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement and on into the Black Lives Matter moment. For them, physical appearance and presentation is important for several complex reasons, most of which came down to survival. In a society that forced marginalized communities to assimilate to the dominant culture surrounding them, the way that a person dressed and presented themselves could often have life-changing impact. Despite that adversity, our grandparents and parents always used their style to present their dignity and strength to the world. Now today, we continue to use style as a way to freely express ourselves and to show pride in where we come from.
On a recent trip to Puerto Rico with my partner, Gabriel, we visited his grandparents, who have both lived in a rural town called Aibonito for most of their lives. One early morning as we sat talking over breakfast, Abuela mentioned some old clothes they had in the spare room that neither of them ever wore anymore. Both huge fans of vintage clothing, our ears perked up instantly. Abuela laughed as she saw the excitement on our faces and decided that we had to take the afternoon to rummage through and see what we could find.
Of course, the clothes were absolutely amazing. Gabriel tried on shirt after shirt. Hats, overalls, slacks… most of it far too big for his slim/ athletic frame. There were dozens of dress shirts that Gabe would never think about wearing, yet suited him well, nonetheless. But, there were so many pieces, especially sportswear, that looked like clothes he already has in his closet.
For many young adults today, the cyclical nature of fashion is essential to developing a sense of personal style. A constant dance exists between garnering inspiration from the past and reimagining the future. Gabriel, who describes himself as an ‘old soul,’ explains that his own personal style reflects this aspect of who he is and his interests. That morning, amidst the pile of discarded clothing from his grandparents, we discussed the ways that style and presentation play a role in our society and how it differs from, or resembles, the way it functioned in the past.
Though Gabriel is interested in vintage clothing and even boasts a sneaker collection now, he expressed conflicting feelings on the importance of presentation and appearance. “I do think style is important—it’s the first thing that people see. Not that that really matters, but I think it’s important that people have their own individuality when it comes to style and appearance,” he said. “I never grew up with parents that were into certain styles. It didn’t really stick with them. We didn’t have the resources to indulge in certain things like that.”
As cultural norms shifted in Puerto Rico over the decades, many indigenous populations shed their traditional dress for articles of clothing that were deemed acceptable by Western society. Throughout this evolution, the one thing that has remained prominent is the integration of the environment as inspiration for design and style. The use of vibrant tones and soft textures for clothing is not only used for functionality, but also serves to highlight the splendor of the flora that covers the island.
Gabriel’s grandparents live in the mountains of Aibonito, with expansive and luscious, tree-filled hills as their backyard. Dotted with mango and banana trees, the land is bursting with colors that are largely reflected in the clothing that people wear. Gabriel shared thoughts on his own style in comparison to something more traditional saying, “There’s not anything I wear that’s necessarily considered ‘traditional Puerto Rican style,’ but it’s all about how I carry myself. And about knowing that I carry the spirit of all the people before me in my life now.”
For Gabriel, being dressed in his grandfather’s clothing holds a special value that goes beyond physical appearance. “For me it’s not the physical aspect of things, it’s more of an understanding that this man’s soul and essence lives with me,” he said. It’s the reason that some of us are so obsessed with that old necklace from a grandmother or oversized sweater from dad. It’s the knowledge of and the power behind the life lived in the garment. “I think sometimes we lose perspective of our ancestors and those that came before us. When I wear my grandfather’s clothing, it shifted my energy to be aware that I carry him everywhere that I go.”
The way we choose to present ourselves, while often criticized for being deeply performative, highlights the essence of us. From the retro obsessed, vintage-lover, to the futuristic and more experimental dresser, our styles can tell stories in a way that sometimes words can’t. Gabriel and I discussed the messy and complicated nature of navigating style and dress. “It’s funny how even now people will try to write someone off based on appearance,” he said. “I feel like we still jump to a lot of conclusions based on people’s style. I enjoy people expressing themselves how they want through their clothing.”
It’s important to remember that it is a privilege to feel free to express ourselves, to express the roots of our cultural heritage and our family histories. So, when it comes to our style, we must feel emboldened to make decisions purely off of whatever it is that we want to wear. The moment we become obsessed with people’s perception of us is when the fun ends. Let your style say whatever you want. Put so beautifully by Gabriel, “The moment that I really started expressing myself freely was when I realized that I don’t have to have the most expensive thing on, or the most well-known brand on my body, because that’s not what matters to me. It all goes back to the fact that we’re trying to express ourselves based on what’s within. The more we let go and take risks with our style, we’re allowing our souls to grow.”