When you think of denim, you can’t help but also think of the All-American rugged image, shaped by ranchers and the Marlboro Man. But the history of denim is also paved by African Americans and their civil rights struggle. Before the fashion industry rewrote the history of denim, revolutionaries used denim as a tool to remind America of its poor mistreatment of Blacks. During the Civil Rights movement, denim was also used to unite the Black community and empower them to register to vote.
Denim was one of the focal points of the Civil Rights Movement because of its power to remind America about its slavery past. This was the case because back when Blacks were slaves, the plantation owners made them wear denim for work clothes. And since these plantation families wore more delicate and “fancier” fabric, such as linen suits, denim became the distinct type of clothing differentiating them from the “inferior class.” Denim essentially became “negro clothing.”
Several decades later during the Civil Rights movement, this imposed identity became an issue between the Black community. As mentioned earlier, many protestors made a conscious decision to wear denim overalls when they marched as a reminder of the denim overalls that slaves wore. By doing so, they reminded America that social and political life were still terrible for the Black community. This is something that happens throughout history, where a marginalized group adopts the symbology of the oppressor (in this case, denim overalls) so as to own it and turn it into an empowerment symbol.
However, there were several activists that didn’t think it was correct to wear denim for symbolic purposes. Instead, they believed that it was better to dress “properly” in suits and conservative dresses. These activists believed that Blacks needed to show they could be proper in society. But this was also counterproductive to many because it reinforced the idea that the Black human being must submit to the White human being. After all, the Civil Rights movement was a fight for the rights Blacks deserved and were entitled to and not about being fashionably polite. It’s obvious that you don’t fight for what you are already legally entitled to by submitting yourself to a “properness” that guarantees nothing.
What good does it do to dress in your Sunday’s best if the issue at hand is not a clothing one, but a human one? Why does it matter if a Black woman dresses conservatively so as to imply that she has manners and is a good Christian, if at the end of the day she is attacked in the street for being Black and threatened with her life daring to exercise her right to vote? What’s the point of protesting in a suit when you’re going to be beaten up by the police and bitten by their dogs? What’s the point in wearing a nice suit if you might be picked up in the middle of the night and lynched? Denim was more than just a symbol of the black freedom struggle, it became a tool of solidarity for all Black men and women.
Yes, denim has its history with cowboys, hippies, and is also associated with Elvis Presley. But before it became a fashion statement, it was politically owned by the Black community as they fought for equality and a better America.