Between the pandemic and countless protests, this year has forced the world to re-examine its politics and values, and the fashion community is no exception. Just last month for SS21, Louis Vuitton sent a clear message down the catwalk about the power of American democracy with its 'Vote' sweatshirts, and this year's virtual Emmys saw a number of celebrities honour the victims of police brutality with their bold beauty choices, like Yvonne Orji, who had the Black Power fist etched into her cropped hair.
Fashion has always been political, though, and what people wear is often considered an extension and expression of their beliefs. No political group has quite understood the power of fashion like the Black Panther Party. Established in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the Black Panthers' aesthetic has long been admired, and for good reason. The party was born at a time of worldwide revolution and while the Chicano Movement fought for the rights of Mexican Americans and protests against the Vietnam War took place, the Black Panthers were gaining recognition – for both their political message and their style.
"The Black Panther Party were and still are a power image and statement of Black culture," Taniqua Russ, host of the Black Fashion History podcast, tells Refinery29. Popularising phrases like "Black is beautiful", the party was intentional in redefining Blackness outside of the white gaze. For Taniqua, it wasn’t only a return to the origins of the Black identity but "a proverbial middle finger to white America". By wearing dashikis and traditional Kente cloths, members of the movement were able to express their allegiance to the motherland, Africa, and in the same vein disassociate themselves from the Western world. These practices helped the Black community "embrace African fashion as the symbol of pride and rejection of European standards of beauty," Taniqua adds. They spoke to the Black community's dissatisfaction with the American government, who had continuously brutalised them and ignored them, and their style helped them in their mission to dismantle the image the world had come to identify as 'the Black American'.
Taniqua, also a content creator and entrepreneur, explains that although the Black Panthers' style was new and exciting, it was also a point of contention for the Black community. "On one hand, we had leaders who championed dressing in our 'Sunday best' to change the way African Americans were viewed. Other leaders said forget the establishment, and this created a militant connotation for the Panthers."
While the civil rights movement used more subdued fashion to show that they were reputable citizens, the Panthers' bold style was for the sake of empowerment. Practices like wearing African materials were an essential reminder to the community of their origin, and the influence of these garments is still being seen today. In 2018, social media feeds were flooded with images of people dressed in Ankara prints, traditional headwraps and beaded jewellery as they went to watch Marvel’s record-breaking Black Panther. For Black people worldwide, this moment became a reaffirmation of our appreciation of Africa and a celebration of our roots in a way that was reminiscent of the pan-African movement of the 20th century.
Other stylistic practices like the wearing of the afro were symbolic of the liberation the Panthers were fighting for and sent the message that their focus wasn’t respectability but freedom. By embracing their natural hair, the Panthers were telling the world that they were no longer choosing to assimilate but showcasing their Blackness in its most natural form.
A similar wave has resurfaced over the last 10 years, with the natural hair movement encouraging Black women everywhere to adopt an afro-friendly approach to haircare. Research carried out in 2018 showed that Black women in the US are now more likely to wear their hair naturally, saying that it makes them feel beautiful. Refinery29 UK's staff writer Jessica Morgan tells me that wearing her natural hair allows her to walk unapologetically in her whole self. "It’s taken me a long time to break the shackles and learn to love my natural hair, only because everything I see tells me that Black hair is ugly," she says. Thanks to Instagram pages like @naturalhairloving and @kinkyhairrocks, we’ve been able to see the versatility and beauty of natural hair.
This expression of Black identity was the first of its kind and, like the uniform of the party, a demonstration of their commitment to reform. From the Free Breakfast for School Children programme to classes on politics and economics, the Panthers dedicated themselves to creating the change the government was failing to. Their head-to-toe black ensemble – featuring berets, sunglasses, turtlenecks and leather outwear – sent a clear message that they were unwavering in their stance and would take matters into their own hands if necessary. "Power. Radicalisation. Change. Hope. One image can speak a thousand words," says Jessica of the Black Panther Party uniform and what it represents. Taniqua adds that the uniform has impacted Black fashion for the better: "We now view afros and the all-black get-up with the beret as a symbol of power and a deep love for our community… The Black Panther Party encompassed everything that Black communities needed." It's translating to sales, too: according to shopping platform Lyst, searches for berets are up 41% week-on-week this season.
In what has been one of the most politically exhausting years of the 21st century, more and more people are adopting this aesthetic to express themselves and their frustrations. Ade, a lone wolf activist, has been to countless protests this year and each time has opted to replicate the Black Panther Party style with her own twist. "Sometimes, I like to have art drawn on my face, it reminds me of where I come from in the motherland, Nigeria," she tells me. A model and prominent speaker for many protest groups, Ade has adopted this style because of the message it sends about her, as well as others who join her in this form of protest. "When I see others dressed like me, I see how confident they are in expressing themselves. It makes me feel strong, fierce and bold," she continues. Jessica also took to the streets in head-to-toe black and a beret to protest this year, and agrees that fashion can speak volumes. "Black signifies resistance without having to say anything. My outfit was a symbol of the Black community’s struggles and hardships everywhere. It was a nod to my peers to say, 'I see you, I feel you, I got you'."
In August, the protest group Forever Family Force marched in Brixton in all-black, complete with berets and bulletproof vests. Model Adwoa Aboah covered the September issue of British Vogue sporting her natural hair, a leather midi skirt and a black beret, and who can forget Beyoncé’s legendary Super Bowl performance in 2016? A turnout that didn’t just reference the Black Panthers but served as a bold demonstration, forcing the world to look back at how far it's come (or how little it's moved forward) in terms of race relations. "Take Naomi Osaka’s masks at the US Open," says Jessica, pointing to this summer's Black Lives Matter protests across the world. "She chose to wear a Breonna Taylor face mask: a clear statement and tribute. Lewis Hamilton wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and helmet at F1, while Alesha Dixon wore a BLM necklace on Britain’s Got Talent. What you choose to wear can send a clear message without any words leaving your mouth."
It's clear that the legacy of the Black Panther Party's politics and choice of attire still resonates today. The way they mobilised simple items of clothing for their cause is testament to the power of fashion and their celebration of self-expression via aesthetics rings just as true now as it did then.