So I was talking to a fashion designer at special gallery exhibition in Durango, CO way back in 1999…He stopped, mid-champagne guzzle, and nodded toward the direction of an exquisite African-American woman, elegantly making her way across the floor to converse with famed movie luminary Harry Carey, Jr.
“Black women begin trends,” he knowingly stated, “and black men end them!” Despite the snarkiness of the comment, I politely ha-ha-ed. “Well, she sure does,” I added. “That's her own creation – you know, cactusopolitan, in keeping with the locale.”
The designer did a double-take. “You know her?”
“I'm going to marry her!” At which point I made a recognition nod to my soon-to-be-wife, Angela.
When I later told her what the droll artiste had said, she giggled, but sternly added, “That does not include the designers – some of the best in the industry are men of color, darling.” She proceeded to recite a roster of names, which I've since committed to memory – most of which, I'm happy to say, are included in the new addictive Glitterati Incorporated publication THE WAY WE WORE: BLACK STYLE THEN by Michael McCollom.
McCollom, himself a revered designer and photographer, has a celebrity clientele as long as Manhattan's “A” train route; he is best-known as the creative director of two luxury brands, Trilogy Collections and Fleurette. In 2006/2007, he mounted an acclaimed Museum of the City of New York exhibition entitled “Black Style Then,” which provided the impetus for this fetching volume.
Spanning seven decades of not only clothes, but hairstyles and accessories, which McCollom himself admits comprises “the good, the bad and the awful,” THE WAY WE WORE is a fascinating and often hilarious visual document of the chic, frequently outrageous and undeniably influential impact of African-American tout ensemble on world toggery.
Utilizing hundreds of photographs from sources encompassing his own collection, renowned icons such as Annie Leibovitz and friend-and-family snapshots, WORE runs the lip-biting gamut from “WOW” to “OMG!”
The aforementioned Angela, herself a former model and FIT grad in fashion design, has proclaimed this tome “essential.” There is no better praise. For nearly two decades, I've watched her, sketchbook in lap, create some amazing designs a variety of sources. Her Hollywood books, renditions etched while watching DVDs on Sunday mornings, should (in my prejudiced opinion) be in museum collections. Angie's personal enhancement of clothing from early 1930s pre-Code pics (“accumulatively the best era of fashion of the twentieth century”) and film noir are jaw-dropping. Once, while watching a 1956 Sam Katzman rock 'n' roll epic, Cha-Cha-Cha Boom, Ange went ga-ga over a svelte number worn by the amazing Sylvia Lewis. “Check THAT out!” she swooned, instantly refurbishing her own Sharpie Fine Point version. “A little more fishtail...that's fabulous!” And so it was.
I'm not meaning to digress with personal anecdotes; nor am I implying that a prerequisite for appreciating THE WAY WE WORE is to marry a beauteous African-American model/fashion designer (but it don't hoit!).
Au contraire! The humorous captions accompanying each photo provide enough of a background setting to keep novices in synch. Ditto the introduction by the versatile dancer/actor/painter/choreographer/director/singer Geoffrey Holder (who also appears in several photographs with his stunning wife Carmen de Lavallade). To quote Holder, “One should not enter a room and expect ambience; one should enter and become it.” There ya go – it's Durango, 1999 all over again.
As one might expect, THE WAY WE WORE features a dazzling array of unbelievably gorgeous folk – a Vogue's gallery if you will – including Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Bobby Short, Iman and others. Some may not be as familiar, but demand name-dropping. Bethann Hardison will knock your socks off. “Jeez,” I intelligently mouthed. “You remember A Different World, that TV show from the 1980s?” asked Angela. “That's Kadeem's [Hardison, it's star] mom.”
Another image that had me breathlessly shaking my noggin was a 1959 shot of Arlene Hawkins; won't go into detail, but she makes Grace Kelly look like Marjorie Main!
There's some riotous side-by-side comparisons; a ultra-cool 1940s snap of a zoot-suity Henry McCollom is juxtaposed with a 1970s crime of fashion featuring Bernard J. Marsh. “See the wide collars in both?” said Angela. “That one’s fly, the other…is a damn shame.” Throughout the years, I have seen my old clothes mysteriously disappear – only to magnificently resurrect themselves in re-adjusted form upon my better half's form. “What's that you're wearing?” I'd suspiciously inquire. “Oh, that's the shirt you used to own” is her standard nonchalant reply. Angela's heavily into recycling.
To hear my wife shrieking with laughter was indefatigable proof that she had arrived at a 1970s section – a sad period in time where NOTHING looked good. To quote my sage spouse, “Harlem had lost its mind!”
Sprinkled amidst the header pages of THE WAY WE WORE are quotes from Ru Paul, Diana Ross, Yves St. Laurent, Oprah (I guess it's the law), Leontyne Price, Diana Vreeland – even Malcolm X (and, unfortunately, Madonna, perhaps the editor’s only questionable inclusion). Suffice to say, they help to put each batch in proper context.
Another side-by-side worth mentioning is the “What a Difference a Year Makes” twofer. Veronica Jones looks very Diahann Carroll (or Diane Baker) in 1968... her tresses slicked in mid-1960s pop-chic. By 1969, Jones is tres radical via the Afro – a style which became so pronounced and (literally) inflated that by the early 1970s it was able to hold a concealed weapon (watch the Pam Grier/Jack Hill classic Coffy if you think I'm kidding).
Hair and hats (“never discount the supreme importance of the lid”) occasionally tend to trump the garments in overall presentation, as do a variety of funky shoes, shades and jewelry. One need only recount Antonio Fargas' 8-inch platform shoes filled with water and live fish in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka to realize the extreme (“I know mo-foes who pretty near went that far!” shockingly revealed Ms. Neuhaus). Or the incredulous threads on tykes and tots (“Look at that little playa!”).
Entertainment-wise, historically, certainly culturally, THE WAY WE WORE hits all the right notes. It's easily the most fun I've had with a coffee-table book in a long, long time.
THE WAY WE WORE: BLACK STYLE THEN. Hardcover, 11 x 14 inches; 256 pages, 250 four-color illustrations. ISNN : 978-0-9891704-5-1. Published by Glitterati Incorporated [www.Glitteratiincoporated.com]. SRP: $30.00