‘Dressed In Dreams’ Author Tanisha Ford On How Culture Shapes Style And Clothing Item Comebacks

By Darcel Rockett
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Author Tanisha Ford says she realized that there weren’t that many books on fashion written from black women with a black girls’ perspective. So, she decided to write something regarding the black female experience of getting dressed and more specifically, style.

Chicago Tribune

When you look back on your youth, does fashion factor in heavily?

For Fort Wayne, Ind., native Tanisha Ford it does.

A child of 1979, Ford came into the world to parents who raised her in the Black Power, Black is Beautiful kind of way, they taught her to be tough, confident, brilliant, fierce and tenacious.

Ford, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware, takes readers through her childhood in the Rust Belt during the 1980s and ’90s in her latest book, “Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion.”

In it, we see how the historian and fashion critic was molded; we glimpse how her relationships may have been the main player, but fashion was the ever present sidekick, garments like dashikis, leather jackets, tennis shoes, hoodies and bamboo earrings shaped her view on the world, among other styles.

“When I wrote this book, I realized that there weren’t that many books on fashion written from black women, black girls’ perspectives,” Ford said. “I wanted to write a history that centered Black women and girls and our experiences, getting dressed, how we style, why we style. I wanted it to be a story that when Black women, particularly Black women from the Midwest, when they read it, they could see themselves, especially because Midwestern Black girls are so often overlooked even within Black conversations about style.

“I definitely wanted to center us, but I also knew that by centering Black women and girls that it would be a way to tell this much larger American story about race and class and sexuality and religion, all those things that help make up this thing that we call American history. I knew that if I were able to lay myself threadbare on the pages of this book, that some Black women, Black girls, nonbinary femmes would see themselves in my life story.”

We talked with Ford about Midwest fashion, “keeping up with the Joneses” when it comes to style, and if an item of clothing can ever be divorced from an era. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: Why is the Midwest left out of the fashion conversation?

A: So much industry is based on either coast, the literary world, the film and music industries. But the Midwest has something to say, too. We have our own hip-hop culture, our own fashion ecosystem, our own ways and attitude about style. And I think, as we continue to do more work on Black migration, then we’ll start to see more of the Black experiences in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, come to the fore.

I said, why wait? Instead of waiting for the industry to come to us, let me put our voice on the map when it comes to fashion and style.

Q: Can a clothing item can be divorced from an era? Will hoodies and the Black Lives Matter movement always coexist?

A: Roughly every 20 years, we see certain garments come back in vogue and a new generation does something different with that garment. We can see what young people today are doing with skinny jeans reminiscent of the ’80s. With hoodies, this was a garment that people had been wearing as part of their work uniform, so when kids in the hip-hop generation started wearing hoodies, they reimagined the purpose.

That is what creates a new foundation for the hoodie to become this global symbol of Black resistance. As a person from the hip-hop generation, the remix is so important. I’m fascinated with studying how something happens with a garment and we can completely stop focusing on its earlier history and that new history becomes the history of that garment.

Q: How do you describe your style?

A: I describe my look as Afro-whimsical. I love colors and prints. I love mixing prints. I love wearing chunky costume jewelry pieces and big hats. So for me, it’s the spirit of the African Diaspora _ like borrowing from different style traditions across the diaspora.

Q: What look do you wish would come back?

A: So much of the stuff that I liked back then is in right now. Remember the jeans with the leather down the front? I want those to come back.

Q: Is it hard to walk the line of self-identification and “Keeping up with the Joneses” when it comes to fashion?

A: It was really important for me to show that Black girls have to navigate this space between being seen as too much and not enough. On one hand our styles are considered excessive, over the top, loud by folks who live outside our communities until a white girl wears it and then it’s fashionable. On the other hand, it’s like we’re considered not enough. We are trying to find some kind of way to figure out, define and describe who we are, to claim a space and take up a space for ourselves.

I think our clothing and hairstyles became a way that we do that. Fashion is both about creating a space for yourself and about participating in this larger cultural ecosystem within your community. I like to think of it as like this call-and-response thing.

OK, you’re going to wear your bamboo earrings with your baggy jeans? Then I’m going to wear two pairs of bamboo earrings. You made the call and I’m responding. Let me one up you. I can do one better. That’s what Black style does and I think it’s innovation that comes from that.

I think that’s what makes fashion fun. It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses; it’s about what does it say about my level of power if I have the access to buy something that not everybody in my neighborhood has? Yes, we saw the Carringtons on “Dynasty” wearing fur coats but when you saw someone in your neighborhood do it, that’s what really made you want it.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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