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African Americans' Dress During the Civil Rights Movement

AFRICAN AMERICANS' DRESS DURING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

The slave trade spread Africans far from their homeland, mostly into the colonies that would become the United States of America. After slaves were freed in the United States in 1863, blacks continued to dress in styles similar to others living in the United States, but during the 1950s and 1960s many black people in the United States began to protest the prejudice and injustice they experienced in much of American society, especially in the southern states. They held protest marches and other demonstrations in order to force changes in laws that unfairly favored white citizens over black citizens. This civil rights movement did change many of those laws and brought about many other changes in the lives of African Americans. Among these changes was an increased pride in black identity, which was expressed in many ways, one of which was an appreciation of African heritage. By the mid-1960s a new style of dress and hairstyle, which emphasized African clothing and African physical characteristics, had become popular among American blacks.

In the decades before the civil rights movement, white European standards of beauty had dominated the fashion world, and white European hair and facial characteristics were considered "normal" and desirable. African Americans had often tried to imitate those characteristics, by straightening their tightly curled hair and minimizing their African features. However, as American blacks began to speak out and demand their rights, they also began to look differently at their own bodies. "Black is Beautiful" became a popular slogan, and many blacks began to appreciate their African looks. Instead of using hair straighteners, which were often painful and damaging to the hair, many black people let their curly hair go naturally into large round afros or "naturals." African features such as flat noses and thick lips began to be viewed as beauty advantages rather than defects. Many black Americans changed their names to African names. In 1965 an African American woman named Flori Roberts started a company to make cosmetics designed especially for black skin, and in 1969 Essence magazine was founded as a fashion journal for professional black women.

Along with this increased appreciation of African features went a growth in the popularity of traditional African clothing styles and fabrics. Both African American men and women began to wear loose, flowing shirts and robes called dashikis and caftans made of brightly colored African fabrics. Many wore turbans or brimless caps of the same bright materials. These traditional fabrics, woven and dyed in Africa, became prized symbols of the heritage of American blacks. The interest in African fashion soon spread into the mainstream, as French designer Yves St. Laurent (1936), who was born in northern Africa, introduced fashion lines of African and Moroccan clothing.

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