Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fashion as a power tool: What do you watch and wear that makes you feel powerful?

Look at the time! I couldn't sleep and had tons to do before joining some sisters to see Treemonisha, so I got online and got busy. I don't want to miss a minute of the Black History Month activities I have scheduled today.

As describes: "Scott Joplin's only opera, 'Treemonisha' [sic] tells the proud story of the educated daughter of former slaves, who rises to greatness in the postbellum 1800s." My mother's talented and fashionable friend, Mollie Jackson (who wears a beautifully braided up-do), will be singing in the pit chorus.

[The public domain photo of Scott Joplin, right, is from]

What has any of this to do with power tools and clothing?

While I mentally scanned my wardrobe to decide what to wear today, I digitally scanned the World Wide Web to find resources relevant to my cultural/arts projects. In the course of that work, I came across the following description of "Trappings." That project, by Two Girls Working, gave me pause and I thought it was worth pointing out:

In Two Girls Working, the collaborative team of artists [sic] Tiffany Ludwig and Renee Piechocki, position themselves as assets to civic action and dialogue. Our project Trappings activates dialogue about the complicated landscape of power and its relationship to personal identity by asking women to respond to the question: what do you wear that makes you feel powerful?
Good question. I believe the answer is contextual. What makes one feel powerful (or sometimes more importantly, conveys to his or her target audience power or competence, credibility or taste, appropriateness or class) can vary as drastically as the situations one might find oneself in.

What Two Girls Working had in mind, when they launched "Trappings," was to challenge "the preconceived set of ideas individuals create based on other’s personal appearance" and to offer "a platform for viewers and participants to explore their relationship to power and investigate how they present themselves." Through the project, which "is founded upon the necessity to work, engage, and create based on a vision of inclusive feminism and social action," the originators encourage women from a diversity of backgrounds to collaborate in an open exploration of "the relationship of women to power within the construction of personal identity."

That's a call I'm moved to answer. However, as an African American Woman, I can't help but respond on two levels, the first socio-historical, the second personal.

Firstly, I am sure the costumes in Treemonisha will illustrate this socio-historical fact: garments, accessories and color schemes often telegraph or obfuscate one's socio-economic status. Trappings may also be used to communicate important messages, affiliations and roles.

Consider the secret codes used by underground railroad participants to communicate fluently with total strangers; the colors worn by undercover cops and gang members to tacitly self-identify; the color and positioning of bridal garments to connote virginity and the transition from maiden to wife; the readily identifiable uniforms adopted by various groups to identify members; and the everyday and ceremonial attire and insignia worn by such people as soldiers, clergy persons and university graduates when they want to specify their organizational affiliations and ranks.

[The public domain image of the Treemonisha opera bill, above left, is from Wikipedia.]

Secondly, in my personal life, I wear several hats. A typical Wednesday might include an early morning lecture or client consultation (which calls for a business suit or business casual attire), followed by a radio broadcast seen only by the studio crew (who could care less what I wore), and then an athletic workout, capped off by another lecture or meeting, dinner date, event or all of the above.

What makes me feel powerful, in each case, is wearing something that comfortably fits, at once, the dress code, practical realities, and my personality. To accomplish that, I keep an athletic bag, cosmetics kit and change of clothes in my car. Sometimes I start out wearing sensible shoes that let my "dogs" breathe, then slip into sneakers that let me run faster, jump higher, and later squeeze into high-heels that are not meant for walking but look great with dressy clothes. Whatever the situation, my busy schedule and aversion to fuss require adherence to the KISS principle for hair and makeup: Keep It Simple, Sister.

As casual observation can reveal, individual definitions of "appropriate" attire can be subjective. For example, one of my girlfriends validates the phrase, "We've come a long way, maybe." She disapproves of braids and twists and can't manage au naturelle, so she still punishes her hair with perms and is enslaved to curling irons. To each her own. I sport my twists proudly, and unlike her, can take my wash-n-wear tresses, relatively hassle-free, from seaside to supper, and without much fuss from the bedroom to the boardroom.

In another example, my chic and stylish, but somewhat conservative, mother loved the charcoal gray and teal suit that I wore to my father's wake (where my "target audience" was family and friends). However, she disapproved of the "beautiful" but "inappropriate" "party dress" (as she termed it) that I donned for the funeral. Indeed, the black silk number was a cocktail dress, but I paired it with a demure, long-sleeved designer jacket, the skirt had no slits, the neckline did not plunge and the hem height was appropriate for a sacred ceremony. It suited its purpose.

Here's what Mom missed: Dad would have loved that dress, and it was he whom I dressed for that day. Additionally, sporting that dress to send my father off in style imparted a sense of empowerment. My father (who knew he was dying) had made it clear: he wanted his loved ones to celebrate his memory. That we did, and although powerless to prolong Dad's life, my brother and I seized control where we could. That included dictating the details and trappings of my father's homegoing, such as what the three of us, and my young nephews, wore.

Dad would also have enjoyed attending Treemonisha; he was a strong supporter of black art and culture. Certainly, if he could see me, he would approve of the black suede skirt, wine-colored silk twin sweater set, and coordinated accessories that I'll wear to today's Black History Month event.