"I lived with my grandmother on the Eastern shore and she always was very careful about what I wore. But I got into it myself. I won every good grooming contest of the 4H in all three categories from seventh grade through high school. I didn't think I was all that bright but teachers treated me differently because I dressed well.
"In high school we were into colognes and brand names like London Fog and Brooks Brothers. I had 50 or 60 sweaters and so many pants I piled them on a table next to my bed like stores display pants." John Wilson; City Council member
"When I grew up in LeDroit Park I always went out to play in white shoes.Each time I passed through the house my mother would polish those shoes before she would let me out to play some more.We were Mrs. Smith's children and we had to be well-groomed. My parents felt that they were rated on the behavior and appearance of their children. Ernie Smith; U.S. Marshall
"We lived in a city project and I can remember walking across the 155th street bridge over to Ogden Avenue. On the second floor of this building was on old black woman who worked for very rich white women. Every year she would custom make for me a suit for Easter and another for Palm Sunday. We would go back for fittings. My mother didn't get anything. My father would clean the windows spic and span so she could look out the window and see me look gorgeous." Audrey Smaltz; fashion consultant
TO BE BROUGHT up black and clothes conscious in urban America is virtually redundant. "Black style comes from the inside," says Dr. Carlotta Miles, a black psychoanalyst. "The ability to decide what really looks good and the bravery to wear it. That's ego. And one of the ways blacks can express the largeness of their egos is with clothes."
Black style has no socio-economic limits. It touches bank presidents and bank tellers, corporate executives and company clerks.
"If I can't shape the course of the world in the board room or caucus, I can make a statement to the world about what is beautiful, what is fine," says James Turner, associate professor of sociology and director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell. "How you present yourself in the community is something no one else controls but you. It is a powerful statement of identity."
Even for poor blacks, clothes are an attainable part of the American Dream, the price tag for looking authoritative and special, even if you aren't. For many, it is a point of pride, an assertion of self, and, according to Miles, "a cancellation of deprivation. It has elements of flamboyance that come from the African, culture and tradition of decorating the body.
"For the poor black, clothes may become a way of loving a child, she says. "Maybe you can't afford to send your child to college, but you can afford to give it nice clothes."
For many young striving blacks, the focus is "in" clothes with all the labels, worn on the outside if possible.
For the street culture, it's bright colored peacock dress and hats.
For celebrities, expensive jewelry (particularly on the men) and extravagant furs seem to be the rule.
And for the socially and professionally established, the men often start with three-piece suits, the women with fur coats, the status labels worn on the outside.
Black Style is not so much the clothes that are worn as the way they are worn.
Ronald Brown, lawyer, assistant campaign manager for Sen. Edward Kennedy and chairman of the trustee board of the University of the District of Columbia, starts with the typical large law firm pin stripe suit. But the snug, custom fitted shirt, the patterned tie, the hankie poked into the breast pocket of his jacket with three perfect points and the Gucci belt set him apart.
Calvin Coolidge High School senior Elston Calhoun builds his "preppy" look, like everyone else, on shetland sweaters and chinos. His sheltland, one day this week, was burgundy, folded up at the hem to show the burgundy belt and pleats of his pressed pants. Underneath the sweater was a beige round collar shirt, burgundy silk tie and on his feet, burgundy shoes. Around his neck he wore a gold rope and gold chain with zodiac medallion.
Three times this week Jackie Sullivan, a secretary receptionist at James H. Lowry & Assoc., a consulting firm, wore the same suit jacket, but no one noticed. Each time she teamed it with a different skirt, sweater or blouse and changed the color of her hose and shoes as well. "I don't have a lot of clothes, but I am constantly inventing new ways to wear them," says Sullivan, who rearranges the way she wears her gold jewelry, hair clips and bobby pins almost daily too.
Black style is not the rule, but certainly not the exception. Blacks generally dress with more care, inventiveness and imagination than most whites. The emphasis on clothes in childhood spins off from wanting to dress well, to wanting to dress better than the next. That tradition is the making of black style.
And it is the making of big American business. "We're an emerging middle class, nouveau riche with new money to spend," says John Wilson, City Council member. "We're hung up on status and brands and that is why we end up spending more for stuff."
"The 24.1 million blacks and the 3.2 million other non-white residents of the United States comprise the ninth largest consumer market in the world," wrote the late D. Parke Gibson in "$70 Billion in the Black; America's Black Consumers." "(It's) bigger than that of 114 member countries of the United Nations, buying an estimated $70 billion of goods and services -- enough to make the difference between profit and loss for many companies."
Blacks are among the best customers for high quality, high fashion, top ticket merchandise in this town, according to local retailers. "Blacks are very adventerous in fashion and clearly trendsetters," says a Garfinckel's spokesperson, who adds, "We can track the success of a new fashion by how quickly the black consumer finds it. And we know we should cut back when blacks drop that fashion for something else."
Raleigh's sells a far greater percentage of fashion merchandise in stores with larger black clientele than in their other branches. At Saks-Jandel, black customers demand the top-quality, top-fashion items, passing up the bread and butter items for the really unusual ones.
Black style is not only an influence on other blacks but many whites as well, and on designers who often rely on black models to show off their best clothes with maximum style. (In the last round of Italian collections, almost 90 percent of the models are American blacks.)
For a good part of this century, successful blacks have had a major influence on style. There was Jack Johnson's fur coat and derby; Frederick Douglass' floppy bow tie and long hair, wild intellectual look; Billy Eckstine's rolled collar and the zoot suits of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie; Lena Horne's sexy dresses; Josephine Baker's total uniqueness and Harry Belafonte's calypso shirts. Adam Clayton Powell's conservative style -- he even preached in striped morning pants and spats under his robe.
"In Harlem when I was growing up there was a tradition of dressing up on Sunday. Seventh Avenue was full of people in their finest attire, strutting and strolling and showing it off. It made you conscious of style even if you didn't participate. You were aware of the fact that personal appearance was a measure of direction and success. It was in the reach of many people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to indicate that they had made it." Ronald H. Brown; Asst. campaign manager for Sen. Kennedy
Historically, for many blacks, stylishness was a way to motivate public opinion. "You had to be cleaner than, better groomed than, better behaved than whites," says Jewell Robinson Shepperd, executive director of Workshops for Careers in the Arts, who grew up in Richmond when it was segregated. "Behavior and dress were measured against a mythical standard to show that you deserve to be treated equaly although, in fact, in a segregated society you weren't.
"The fact that you behaved (equally) showed that you deserved to be (treated equally)," concludes Shepperd.
"People deprived of all other major mechanisms of influence and prestige and having no access to the real material means of wealth or power accentuate that which they can't have," explains James Turner.
The motivation toward accumulation and display is not universally shared or understood. But the importance of dressing properly is so entrenched, says Dr. Miles, that when a black teen-ager adapts the style of his white classmates, such as starting to wear patched jeans, it often becomes the spark of clash between parent and child. "The child is breaking a rule most partents don't understand can be broken," she says.
If these are important influences on black styles, so is the tradition of dressing well, dressing equal to your peers, mirroring those you admire.
There were always good examples to follow.
In many black homes there is a photograph in the living room of grandmother, very poised, sitting in a straight, velvet upholstered chair, wearing a flattering dress and pearls.
"I have this picture of daddy at age 20 and he looks like a fashion plate today. You see those things and you subconsiously mimic them," says Dr. Robert Greenfield, obstetrician and gynecologist.
"When my mother got dressed up she was fabulous," says Audrey Smaltz, whose mother worked as an elevator operator at John Wanamaker when it was in New York. "She had a Persian lamb coat and a hat in a bright color felt that she wore tipped to one side." And about her father, a timekeeper at the post office, she says, "He only bought suits with a jacket, vest and two pairs of pants. He always looked rich."
For Smaltz, former fashion editor of Ebony and now a fashion consultant, the name of the game is looking rich, in a pin strip suit with lace blouse, a bare black gown or trousers and a sweater. "I know I can look like a billion dollars and I may not have a cent in my pocket," she says. "But people start talking to me because they think I am rich and important. If your clothes look expensive it means you are successful and you can afford it, even it you are not. Then you get what you want. It gives you authority."
Smaltz remembers buying Kimberly Knits and Goeffrey Beene dresses that cost more than the $80 salary she was earning at Bloomingdale's. "I lived at home and I wanted the best and mother didn't care," she says.
Buying the best wasn't always available to blacks before the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation in 1954, a turning point in breaking down discriminatory practices. Some stores blatantly refused to sell to blacks at cosmetic counters. Some black patrons were forced to try on shoes in stock rooms and were prevented from trying on at all items that touched the body such as hats, blouses and dresses.
The alternative was to sew your own clothes or to make alterations and even remake garments to fit.
Until the late 1950s, while most Seventh Street stores such as Hecht's, Livingston's, Goldenbergs, Lansburgh's, and Kahn's welcomed black customers, blacks knew they were not welcome to shop at others.
"I never made it up the street to Woodward's or Garfinckel's before the late 1950s," says a doctor's wife who grew up in Washington. "I knew I wasn't expected," and she felt she wasn't even encouraged to shop there. Today she shops regularly at both those stores.
Some oldtimers still stay away from stores where they once couldn't shop or even simply heard that blacks were unwelcome at one time. But most blacks would rather benefit from the change. "If discrimination kept me from doing things," says Jewell Sheppard, "there would be almost no place I could go now. So you have to accept that customs change and since you helped bring around those changes, you expect to participate in the benefits of those changes."
John Wilson tilts to shopping at Garfinckel's, not because of his wife's executive discount there, but because that is where he finds the clothes and accessories that please him most. He goes to lots of other stores as well, and except for buying a few items at Britches, he rarely shops the Georgetown boutiques. "Folks automatically assume that I am there to steal something," says Wilson.
The big boost toward quality buying among blacks was spurred in the early 1970s with the broader availability of credit, higher GS ratings for blacks through government affirmative action programs and access to the new snazzy Georgetown boutiques. (With 1980s inflation, black style is put to its hardest test.
There is great snob appeal in the swanky new stores in town, both for those who can afford little but want the schmancy store label even for a polyester skirt, and those who know the best and can afford it.
Vestiges of racism still exist and while many white shoppers find tennis and jogging clothes acceptable for shopping, particularly in Friendship Heights or the suburban malls, blacks will often dress up for shopping excursions to avoid being snubbed by sales help.
One serious shopper says she protects herself by calling ahead. When she sees something she wants to by in a Chevy Chase specialty store she says, she calls and asks a salesperson to put the item aside in her size. "When I find that specific salesperson I have less of a problem," she says. And adds laughing, "and then I get treated like Lena Horne."
Bob Greenfield shops almost exclusively at The Designers in White Flint. Like the patient who puts herself in the hands of a professional, Greenfield usually bows to the taste of the store's owner, Larry Savage. But the clincher is the store's tailor. "If clothes don't fit you perfectly, it is wasted money, says Greenfield.
Flamboyance is still alive and well on 14th Street. But stores that catered to the fashion conscious, working-class black male during the peacock dress period of the late 1960s and early 1970s found their customers seeking more conservative dress, particularly the European cut three-piece suit.
"It was probably an understanding that the colorful and extreme style wasn't getting them anywhere and that to become more accepted in business and commerce they had to conform in dress more," says Oscar Dodek of D.J. Kaufman, who notes that within the "conformity" the taste is more individual in black than white customers. And many kids again want to dress up in suits, he says.
At Cavalier Men's Shop on F Street, once a center for haute peacock dress, Izod (alligator applique) shirts, shetland sweaters and Calvin Klein jeans are part of the current mix of merchandise.
And the Cavalier shoe shop down the block has one window that looks like L.L. Bean with all the preppy favorite sewer boots, and another that shows off a fine European look.
Frank Rich, who has been in the shoe business for 30 years in Washington, once carried a separate line of shoes for his black customers. "Now all customers buy the same," says Rich, but with black customers buying those on the fast track in terms of style and always demanding quality. "It is far easier doing business this way," he says.
Just after Joe Frazier won his title, Muhammad Ali interviewed him for his autobiography, "The Greatest: My Own Story." They were riding around in Frazier's gold colored Cadillac. Frazier was dressed in a lemon-yellow cowboy outfit, and Ali wasn't about to let it go unnoted.
"Now you are known for being the best in the world," Ali told the new Champ. "Now, here's what you gotta do. You gotta dress accordingly. When a person see Joe Frazier, they should be looking at somebody more important than the president of the United States. Like you were the president of the world. Nixon only runs the country. Now, what you got on is pretty for the stage, but it's not as pretty as a black suit.
"I'm casual and lounging now." Frazier explained. "I seen pimps dess like this. They gonna look at you and respect you, but not like they would if you dressed up in a double breasted suit with a vest --like you worth four, five million.
"I stay cleaner than the Board of Health, man," said Frazier.
Ali:" . . . You a Southerner like me and we Southerners dress like that. . . like some of your friends who sing with you. But notice the hipper dudes. Notice how they dress. Get a cat like I did to put some clothes together for you. And then say, 'Man, what should I wear? What's best with this? What's the latest shirt? What's the latest ties?' And the darker your clothes look, you look more sophisticated. You look real dignified. Right now I'm dressed like a senator would be dressed. Like the way Floyd Patterson carries hisself, the way he dresses . . . He acts like The Champion."
While rich and successful whites may wear baggy jackets and too short trousers and drive beat-up vintage cars, most upwardly mobile blacks do not. "You can often measure the depth of pain in the black psyche by the amount of material objects that is used to concel it," says Dr. Miles. "It has to do with low self esteem, particularly in flamboyant black men. They need to augment their image to self. They use their cars, furs and jewelry to get the attention a beautiful person or rich person would get."
Sometimes it is not easy to look casual. John Wilson finds only rare occasions for wearing casual clothes. "I can't risk being rejected at a restaurant or disco for wearing the wrong clothes," he says.
When Wilson first got elected to the City Council, he was one of the rare ones wearing three-piece suits. Now everyone else, just about, is in them and he's ready to try something else. Tweed jackets, sheltland sweaters, a big shirt. "Very upper East side," he says, describing the overall tone that dominates New York fashion trendies. "It's a fantastic look. But everyone teases me that it is preppy."
Charles Hobson, vice president of WETA television, likes to wear topsiders or Bass weejuns, khakis and sweaters, too. The other day a friend said, "Hey, Charlie, you dress like a white boy," Hobson says. "I laughed, but I knew it wasn't a compliment. Besides, I've been dressing this way for many years."
For many blacks, high quality brand name shoes have been the most coveted clothing items, a fact borne out statistically in the Gibson book, "$70 Billion in the Black." In it, government figures show black consumers spend 23 percent more per capita for shoes than does the majority white population.
"In high school the shoes you had to have were Stacy-Adams. It didn't matter what else you wore, but if you had those shoes, you were part of the IN crowd. You were one of the big-hat-long-shoe bandits," says Ernie Smith, who says he wons about 100 pairs of shoes, and about 60 suits.
"At McKinley Tech you HAD to own Italian slip-ons called Alpha Romeos," recalls Mel West, art director at Hecht's. They were too expensive for him to own. "Did it bother me?" He laughs. "I've made up for it since. I now own 22 pairs of shoes."
Frank Rich is concerned about much of the shoe industry's tilt to synthetic parts as a way to compensate for higher shoe costs. Blacks have always been his best customers for Bally and other high quality, high style shoes."Black customers will pass up any shoes that smack of being man-made rather than real leather," he says.
Sociologist Turner puts shoes in step with fine clothes. "I learned at an early age about buying $45 shoes. It expresses a presence, success and influence," he says.
Others suggest that the coveting and collecting of shoes, even far beyond what you can wear, is a reaction to the life of slaves without shoes and Africans not wearing shoes.
"The black person is very much in touch with his or her total body and the body ego is a grand ego in the black person. Therefore, they enjoy feeling their bodies move and they enjoy decorating their bodies for their own enjoyments, and they experience that sense of self looking beautiful," Dr. Miles says.
Audrey Smaltz tells the story of a recent weekend when she and a friend were invited to Chicago. Nothing to pay but the round trip air fare and yet her friend turned down the trip. "He figured if he was going to spend $250, he was going to spend it on a $250 pair of Boticelli shoes he was dying to own rather than a trip to Chicago."
Smaltz says the appeal of shoes is simple. "When you sit down and cross your legs, it is the one measure you have of yourself," she says, adding firmly, "a lot of getting dressed is for me. If I look good I'll look at myself. I don't need you to look at me."