By the 1920s, a new character emerged in America, specifically in New York, in the uptown neighborhood of Harlem. The “New Negro” made his and her debut. These New Negroes as the term went were often members of the “talented tenth,” or the highly gifted and intelligent members of the educated elite envisioned by the writer W. E. B Dubois. Writing in 1903, DuBois said, “The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground… “ This essay was an appendix to the scholar’s very famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, but it first appeared that same year as a section of The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of Today. His opening paragraph reads: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men: if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools––intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it––this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must under- lie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.” 

The New Negroes were the ones carrying the hopes and dreams of their ancestors out of the South and into the promised land of Harlem, where, full of hopes and dreams, these talented people, men and women, and ordinary people who worked their way into the middle class. In Harlem, they created a “Renaissance.” They were young or middle aged at most; they were the products of the Great Migration, children of those who were the sons and daughters of slaves who left the South, a place of death and danger to African-Americans, and sought their fortunes in New York. As the distinguished African-American scholar Nathan Irvin Huggins explained of that extraordinary decade, the 1920s: “Yet, in those years few Harlem intellectuals addressed themselves to issues related to tenements, crime, violence and poverty. Even Opportunity, the magazine of the Urban League and social work among Negroes, did not discuss urban problems as much as it announced the Negro’s coming of age. In part this was due, no doubt, to the desire of black leaders to stress black achievement rather than black problems. A positive self-image–there was cause for one–was considered the best starting point for a better chance. Inequities due to race might best be removed when reasonable men saw black men were thinkers, strivers, doers, and were cultured, like themselves. Harlem intellectuals, with their progressive assumptions, saw themselves as the ones most likely to make this demonstration. They were on the threshold of a new day..”

On some scenes, such as a college campus, the new man self-fashioned himself organically and casually; in other locales, such as Harlem, the new man was a deliberate Dandy, self-consciously displaying his carefully styled self for all the world to admire. The self-fashioning captured by James van der Zee the photographer of Harlem’s aspiring population in the 1920s was a political statement. In the Jazz Age, the most-sharp dressed man was the black male in Harlem. Here in New York, he could dress the way he wanted. In the South black men were not allowed to grow facial hair, as beards and mustaches were symbols of manhood. No facial hair for the African-American male was a custom intended to force men to remain perpetual boys. In Harlem, “The Negro Capital of the World,” he could grow a pencil thin mustache and mimic the slicked-back hair popularized by the screen legend, Rudolph Valentino. This desired straight-haired look was achieved through chemicals or lye which “conked” the hair forcing it to uncurl and shine brightly. To the New Negro, as he or she was called, to wear elegant clothes and to be fashionable was to make a powerful social statement. The importance of being able to dress as one pleased had a long and dark history among the African Americans who left the South with bitter memories and traumas surrounding clothing. David Goldfield noted that as early as 1832 authorities in Charleston tried to limit African Americans to “coarse stuffs” in order to distinguish “the whites and the negroes, calculated to make the latter feel the superiority of the former.” Although the proposal did not become law, Goldfield noted in Region, Race and Cities: Interpreting the Urban South that the issue of how African Americans should dress continued to be a difficult issue. African-Americans were allowed to have separate churches but were not allowed to be educated. The segregation of African-Americans and the control of their lives down to the personal details of their attire to their access to public education continued to be points of contention for over a hundred years, well into the Jim Crow era and beyond. Circulating around the locus of power, power for the white population, such de fact and de jure set of rules and regulations trapped black inhabitant in webs of control. Once in Harlem, African-Americans were suddenly able to exercise a full range of expressive freedoms, from music, to dance, to dress, to writing poetry, to owning a home, to walking the street safe from being confronted. Under such circumstances, education, as Dubois understood, was a significant means of “proving” equal intelligence and ability compared to white people, and, more visibly, clothing retained its historical significance as a statement of–this time and in this place–individuality of free men and women.

The children of the Black Diaspora were speaking. The grandparents of the generation of the Harlem Renaissance had been slaves, wearing cast off rags, and for their descendants, now successful and middle class, to wear nice clothes was a statement of arrival. The black Bohemia of Harlem engaged in individual and social exercises of self-fashioning in a place where Blacks could be not only visible but were also able to exert their presence through a street culture that was a perpetual parade of fashion. As Monica L. Miller noted in Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, “For those attending church services, a smart three-piece suit, a hat, gloves, and maybe even a pocket square communicates self-respect, community pride, and an appreciation of the joyful solemnity of the occasion. The spiritual has always had a sartorial dimension for black people in America, as many slaves were allowed to dress in their finest clothes but once a week, on Sunday..” Over time the tradition of the male dandy was somehow stronger that the tradition of dressing well among African-American women. Miller mentioned football players and rap stars “have been instrumental in transforming sports clothing into a billion dollar fashion industry..the dandyism practiced is both personal and political, about individual image and group regard, and begs to be read from both an interracial and interracial perspective. Stylin’ out, like any performative act, needs an actor and an audience; the audience can be anything from oneself in the mirror to fellow strollers on Harlem’s 125 Street to the international media. The messages sent out by the black well-dressed must be interpreted by their viewers; black dandyism takes on meaning as black style communicates moments of mobility and fixity, depending on who is looking.”

In the famous photograph by James Van Der Zee of a Couple with Raccoon Coats was taken in 1932 on West 127th Street, and the star of the portrait is not just the trend setting coats but also the long and shiny Cadillac behind them. Even if the New Negro had some money or even a lot of money, buying consumer goods outside of Harlem was difficult, for white merchants would either not sell to blacks or would made them wait at the back of the line until the white customers had been served. The only way a black person could own a car was to pay a white person to obtain one for him or her. This form of discrimination included the selling of fancy cars and, in order to appear exclusive, Cadillac refused to allow blacks to purchase their cars. Even Joe Lewis, the boxing champion, was not allowed to buy a Cadillac. In a case of Karma, due to its small customer base, the Cadillac line nearly went out of business, but there was a pent-up desire on the part of African-Americans to buy a car. It was a German Immigrant, Nicolas Dreystadt, who suggested that the key to sagging sales was to sell the Cadillac to “the Negro market,” as it was termed in the 1920s. By the time Van Der Zee took his photograph, the Depression already had a death grip on Harlem, but General Motors had saved the Cadillac by allowing African-Americans to purchase their most desired car. 

Like expensive cars, the raccoon coat came from the elite establishment. According to Carol Tullloch in The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora, the very expensive fad fad–$200 to $500 a coat–can be traced back to Princeton University where by 1924, “coonskins were almost as thick as flies.” At Princeton the fur garment was called “the fur coat devil.” Tulloch continued, “This trend was not lsot on African-American students. For example, the March 1926 issue of the African-American periodical The Crisis has a photograph of a young man wearing a raccoon fur coat. He is kneeling at the center front of three rows of delegates at the Detroit based 18th Annual Convention of the Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest of the five “Negro Greek Letter” fraternities and sororities..The young man in a fine example of a raccoon coat of variegated tones from light to dark with a dark stripe stands out amidst the light, mid and dark shades of smooth woollen coats, worn by the elegant contingent of academics. The bulky transformation of the young man’s physique by the density of the raccoon pelt, leads to the rakish air that he projects..”

One should also note that the bulk of such a coat serves a purpose beyond keeping the wearer, male and female, warm. The large coat made the individual who put on the raccoon pelts swell in comparison to everyone else, swelling in visual importance, swelling in financial affluence, swelling in social pride. Young people and classes or contingent without real power often wear conspicuous clothing as a social statement, enlarging themselves, either literally, as in the case of the raccoon coat or the Oxford bags or figuratively and symbolically as standing out as a striking appearance. The coat, as absurd as it seems today, was, in its time, part of a set of important visual codes, all of which were linked to high social status–income, education and standing. 

In addition, as Tullloch pointed out, the coat signified “the camaraderie and group bonding amongst team or school members. Therefore, the wearing of collegiate style on or outside the campus signaled the wearer’s inclusion and integration into a particular university–that he belong and contributed to a distinct educational institutional, at a specific time in their respective biographies..The raccoon coat’s contribution to this was to be a bonding mechanism. The color line may have been separated black and white university students, but the need to bond with one’s peers ran deep on both sides..In the wrapping of black and white, male and female bodies in a raccoon coat “racial” and gender boundaries were crossed and merged, to have similar relevance to each group within the collegiate context–the pursuit of educational and personal progress.” Tulloch also made the point that, referring to van der Zee’s famous photograph, that “..this black couple, styled in raccoon coats photographed in Harlem performed a political act of self-expression and self-determination..”

The Depression temporarily ended the fashion parade in Harlem and the white middle class males ceased their extravagant purchases of shirts and suits and ties. While the Duke of Windsor retained enough sartorial support to invent the Windsor knot, a new way of tying a long tie, the rest of those men, who had followed fashion and had attempted to copy the upper classes, were financially stripped of their ability to consume for the next two decades. But the definitive style for men set by the very young men, so careless and carefree, and the designs established in the 1920s were waiting in the 1950s when once again men could become consumers of fashion. The Great Depression, initiated by the October 1929 stock market crash, ended the fortunes of the rich and the hopes and dreams of the underclasses

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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