Sunday, June 21, 2020

Weekend Review: Dressed in Dreams

Dressed in Dreams: a Black Girl's love letter to the power of Fashion / Tanisha C. Ford
NY: St Martins, c2019.
246 p.
I really enjoyed this book by Dr. Tanisha Ford, who I first heard about when I put her award-winning  academic study Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul on my to-read list.

But I was able to get my hands on this particular book first, and it is much more conversational and chatty than academic; I found it a quick, entertaining and enlightening read. It's a mix of memoir and fashion history -- Ford takes a specific item of fashion as the theme for each chapter, then talks about whatever it is, ie: dashikis in the first chapter, sharing information about that fashion moment and why it is important or culturally relevant, and then how it plays out in her own life.

I found this mix really interesting. From dashikis to baggy jeans, tennis shoes to knee high boot, and Jheri curls to Afro puffs, Ford takes on elements of fashion that she explored in a search for her own identity as a Black woman coming of age in the 80s and 90s in a Midwestern factory town. She explores how fashion reflected her own growth as she reached out for an identity beyond just an Indiana girl. And she reveals how pop culture trends, in both clothing and hair and makeup, are strongly related to racial identity, as Black styles are adopted by the (white) mainstream and only appreciated after that.

Each chapter has a sketch of the item in question at the opening, done by Veronica Miller Jamison, and they are charming. And the subtitle of the book is perfectly descriptive; you can tell that Ford loves fashion. She says:
Our garments are archives of memories- individual and collective, material and emotional- that tell these rich, textured stories of our lives. To make it plain: our clothes makes us feel things. All the things.
This isn't an autobiography -- more a set of personal essays on a theme. In telling her life story, Ford skims over some years and highlights others. It's organized around memories of the fashions, in clothing and hairstyles, that defined parts of her life from the 80s to the current day -- a final chapter talks about the hoodie and the start of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It's not explicitly shown how Ford moves through some of the challenges she discusses, but it's clear that her love of fashion as expression is essential to her life. The stories of her parents and her relatives, and some of her school friends, add depth to her stories and create an engaging and wide-ranging look at style and life as a Black woman in these years, and how dress was politically charged even if she didn't want it to be.

All of her stories highlight the importance of various fashions in African American life, from the dashiki to things like nametag jewelry and bamboo earrings. Each one is tied to her life experience and the black society she found in the different places she lived while going to college and beyond. As expected from a history professor and pop culture specialist, her knowledge is wide and here it is sprinkled in among the personal stories to create a warmly informative, fascinating, sincerely told story. If you're looking for an illuminating read about Black women's lives, this is a great choice.


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