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‘Will to Adorn’ examines African American styles of dress, identity at Folklife Festival

Three generations of women from the Alfred Street Baptist Church show off their Sunday church hats. Dressing for church, especially with extra attention to extraordinary hats, is trait of a particular African American community of style. Alfred Street Baptist Church hosts fashion show featuring hats donated to the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) by Philadelphia hat designer Mae Reeves Saturday, May 12, 2012 at the Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va. (Sharon Farmer/NMAAHC/Sharon Farmer/NMAAHC)

There is no one reason why a couple in Chicago might wear matching green leather suits to a nightclub. Or why your favorite Detroit uncle sports Stacy Adams and nylon dress socks with his polyester shorts set. But those style inclinations share roots with the women of Atlanta’s Spelman College who wore gloves and pearls to class in the early 1900s.

They are all part of “The Will to Adorn,” says Smithsonian curator and cultural specialist Diana Baird N’Diaye. It’s one of three programs in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which begins on the Mall on Wednesday and runs through July 7. (The other two are “Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival” and “One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage”).

The program is part of an eight-cities and the U.S. Virgin Islands-based collaborative research project that began in 2010 to examine African American dress and identity. It’s an examination of styles that can be as local as the neighborhood barbershop and as global as the influence of hip-hop.

The project takes its name from folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston, who in 1926 observed “the will to adorn” is a centerpiece of African American expression. Though Hurston was talking about the embellishment of language, N’Diaye says, we also talk “about embellishment in terms of dance, movement and dress.” While dress, especially, is a form of communication and a signifier of group membership in all communities — it has always been especially important to African Americans. It has often run counter to strictures on other African American forms of expression and served as a rejection to a mainstream invisibility.

“It is dress that makes that declaration that I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m fierce. I look good,” N’Diaye says.

In the civil rights movement, activists were taught to wear their Sunday best to demonstrate seriousness and help neutralize negative stereotypes. After legislative gains in the mid-1960s, black power and pride movements gave rise to a range of expression — and all manner of dress to go with it. In a line from 1979’s “Bustin’ Out of L Seven” R&B singer Rick James, who sometimes wore tight leather pants with a pocket prominently featured at the crotch, declared his liberation:

“We’re bustin’ out and we’re free from the square/

“We done braided our hair, we don’t mind if you stare.”

The festival features three tents and about two dozen participants a day (down from six tents and nearly 50 daily participants because of budget cuts due to sequestration).

The runway and narrative tent showcases designers, musicians and volunteer models as “Exemplars of Style.” Other experts talk about the importance of dress and personal style in the civil rights movement, the Black Panther movement and black Muslim communities. The second tent brings together research partners — those at Georgia’s Frank McLarin High School and the Mind Builders Creative Arts Center in New York, who will be asking visitors: “What are you wearing? What does what you’re wearing say about who you are? What’s the most important part of looking good? What would you never wear, and why?”

That tent also focuses on health and identity with the ZuriWorks project, founded by a three-time cancer survivor who worked with a textile designer to create scarves and head wraps, and a Chevy Chase plastic and hair restoration surgeon who lectures on beauty and heritage. The third tent is devoted to “Artisans of Style” — designers, hairstylists, barbers, tatoo and henna artists and people who make beauty products.

N’Diaye says she first became interested in style and adornment traditions in the African American community as a child in Brooklyn, growing up with a mother who “was a wonderful dresser” and attending fashion show fundraisers, where people of all shapes and sizes walked the runway and a premium was put on personal style and expression. N’Daiye, had studied fashion design in high school with Zelda Wynn Valdes, who designed for Hollywood stars Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll.

After earning a degree in anthropology with a focus on museum studies, she continued her own designs and wanted to honor those who centralized style in black communities. After curating shows that looked at African American adornment and doing projects on immigrant culture, she became interested in expressing the range of cultural diversity in black communities — from the “second line” self-help societies that dress up for funerals in New Orleans, to the locked hairstyles of the Caribbean and Africa.

That personal style is an art form, N’Diaye says. “It’s a visual art form,” she adds, and just like “in music and movement, there is an aesthetic of individual expression that’s really important.”

“The Will to Adorn” program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs from Wednesday to June 30 and July 3 to July 7 on the Mall.

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