Let it be known: Black artists’ impact on fashion

Illustration of Dapper Dan, Prince, and Diana Ross wearing their trademark fashion trends
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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Black History Month is often a time when we hear of the Black writers, the activists and the firsts who excelled, the ones who beat the odds and changed America. Rarely do we hear about the Black Americans who impacted fashion and beauty in such a manner. Fashion is a part of our everyday lives, and it’s time to look at Black fashion icons who changed the fashion landscape as we know it. 

A plethora of beautiful Black art and creativity can always be found in the jazzy neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. Native to Harlem is fashion icon Daniel Day, known as Dapper Dan. With his self-taught knowledge of textiles, Dap used bootleg luxury prints from brands like Louis Vuitton and Fendi to create jackets, bags and entire outfits with his own designs. He sold these superb garments at Dapper Dan’s Boutique on 125th street in Harlem. 

His bootlegging did not go unnoticed by high fashion brands; his boutique was forced to shut down in 1992 after legal action from Fendi. It was also clear that his work captured the attention of luxury brands when Gucci had an oddly familiar jacket in its Cruise 2018 collection. The outfit in question? A brown balloon-sleeve bomber jacket, almost identical to the one Dap had made in 1989 for Olympic gold-medalist Diane Dixon. People online quickly pointed out that Dap was the original designer, and in a surprising turn of events, Dap and Gucci partnered later that year, creating a Dapper Dan-Gucci collection and even reopening Dap’s atelier. 

Dap not only made an impact on high fashion, but his logomania designs changed the game for hip-hop culture. His designs turned inaccessible luxury brands — many of which Black people had limited access to — into head-turning, chic streetwear. A trailblazer and a daring designer, Dapper Dan is nothing short of a fashion icon. 

Just as influential is renowned singer Diana Ross. As lead singer of The Supremes, a revered Motown Records singing group that gained success in the 1960s, music is Ross’ claim to fame, but she is also remarkable for her impeccable style. Ross is known as a queen of glamour, and with her sequins, sparkles and sultry fits, rightfully so. Her lavish wardrobe throughout the past decades has overflowed with glittering gowns, furs and tulles, giving her a sumptuous air.  Even when seen wearing more simple outfits, like on the cover of her 1979 album “The Boss” where she wears an earth-green shirt with a plunging neckline, she still exudes her oh-so-elegant energy. 

Her star quality and fashion splendor is seen on numerous red carpet events, on stage and in her photoshoots. The versatility and variety of her style is also what makes her so special; her fashion looks are always a splendid, noteworthy surprise. Now her daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, known for her role in “Girlfriends” and “Black-ish,” is exploring a style of her own — such as when she wore 12 different looks to the 2018 American Music Awards and every one of them was designed by a Black designer. Her fashion sense, too, is bold, and she gets it from her mama.

Also doubling as a music and fashion icon is the one and only: Prince. Thriving in the world of pop music, Prince made big waves in fashion through his androgynous style. Whether he was wearing assless pants or bikini briefs, Prince pushed gender boundaries and went into a place that was unknown to most audiences but seemed innate to him. 

In the same way, his music was often a concoction of rock, funk, pop, new wave and more, his outfits were just as multifarious. Making music while decked out in metallic blues and purples, animal prints, ruffle collars and heels, Prince was eye-catching to say the least. 

Because of his bold androgyny, he wasn’t always loved by crowds. He experienced people yelling racist and homophobic epithets at him on stage when he opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Regardless of this, Prince continued to take up space, proudly. 

In recent times, popular artists like Harry Styles have dressed in a similar gender-nonconforming fashion, and many were quick to crown Styles king of the style. However, when looking at gender expression through fashion in pop culture, it’s important to remember the first pioneers of gender non-conforming fashion who paved the way for people like Styles, and Prince is one of them. With his thigh-high boots and eyeliner, his fashion screamed freedom, knowing oneself and having the confidence to be that self unapologetically.

From the logomania of fabulous Dapper Dan to pop star Prince’s androgynous style, people remain ignorant of the Black origins of fashion trends, styles and aesthetics. Let it be known: these Black creatives and others have made waves in fashion, whether it be through their own designs or their striking style choices that have created ravishing sartorial empires.

Contact Daniella Lake at [email protected].