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On the Subject of Fashion: Visual Narratives on the Celebration of Fashion in the 1990s

In 1989, Tennessee Tech students, faculty, and staff worked to found the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center.  Formally opened in August 1990, the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center provided students a space to socialize, be supported in their education, and the opportunity to learn about African American culture. Since that time, the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center has worked to create a welcoming and supportive environment for all underrepresented student groups on campus. From supporting students in their academics and beyond, to encouraging the success and well-being of students of color on campus, and helping to educate the campus and broader community about African American and African culture, the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center has served as an example of showcasing diversity and supporting students for decades through their work.

On this 30th year Anniversary of the Leona Lusk Office Black Cultural Center (which now houses the Office of Multicultural Affairs) , join us as we journey back in time and explore the year 1990 through a unique lens—fashion. Now, we may all cringe just a little when we start to think about the fashion trends of 30 years ago, however, clothing and body adornment serve an important role in creating a visual narrative of the time. We tell stories through our clothing and adornment choices, crafting narratives through dress, and creating meaning through a piece of cloth. It is an undeniable fact that trends in fashion are a mirror of the times, providing us with a retrospective look at how culture and society both shaped, and hindered, expression through the body. 

On the Subject of Fashion: Visual Narratives on the Celebration and Appropriation of Fashion in the 1990s is a virtual exhibition exploring the history of African American fashion in the 1990s, both the celebrations and appropriations, as depicted in media and pop culture. The exhibit opens on October 8th as an online gallery, which includes images from the Tennessee Tech University Archives and Special Collections and dress pieces from the School of Human Ecology MacIndoe Historic Costume Collection. Viewers may select objects to review at their leisure, in allowing for the creation of unique visual narratives by each visitor.

Join us as we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center at Tennessee Tech by taking a step back into the early 1990s.


 The Power of a Suit

 (Click on images for details) 
  • From Historic Costume Collection, Late 1980s Two Button Blazer with Flat Brim Fedora
  • Brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, Tennessee Tech, 1990
  • Brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, Tennessee Tech, 1990


Carrying over from the 1980s, early 1990s fashion loved a good power suit. Updated to be more modern with blocked jewel tones of purple and green, shortened pencil skirt silhouettes, and less extreme shoulder pads, the power suit was a staple in professional and casual wardrobes alike. From Hilary Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air donning fitted suits with gilded buttons, to the ladies of Living Single showing how to effortlessly take power suits and make them high fashion, this silhouette was a classic staple in the classroom and the boardroom.

And the gentlemen certainly were not excluded from this trend. Suit jackets grew two to three inches longer, while trousers widened. The silhouette moved to a boxier shape, mirroring the casual styles of the time. Suits were accessorized with matching flat-brim hats and loafers that emphasized style over comfort. Fashion historians reference the return of narrow lapels and trim ties in traditional male suiting as being an homage to the iconic fashions of Sammy Davis, Jr., who died in 1990 at just 64 years old. The blurring of lines between professional and casual wardrobes was a hallmark of the early 1990s. Suits were broken apart into pieces that fit a variety of styles, including a cross-over into hip-hops influence on street style


 The Athletic Appeal

(Click on images for details)

 
  • From Historic Costume Collection, 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team Starter Jacket
  • Students (on the left) assisting with creating a display for the BCC, wearing classic urban street style and athletic silhouettes, 1992
  • From Historic Costume Collection, Early 1990s Christian Dior “Athleisure” Track Jacket

 

 The early 1990s were a time to be alive in the world of sports. The Chicago Bulls were making the first of their legendary championship runs. The U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team was dominating the world in Barcelona. And Buster Douglas rocked the boxing world with a 10th round knock-out of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Few could deny that the sports world was making waves, whose ripple effect continued into fashion. From the success of Michael Jordan’s brand with Nike to the Adidas Superstars hitting the market, fashion took a noticeable turn toward a more athletic appeal.

However, the popularity of athletic fashions such as tracksuits and Jordan’s can be attributed as much to the rising hip-hop culture as it can the sports they are associated with. Still early in their careers, celebrities such as LL Cool J and Salt-n-Pepa embodied the aesthetic of an athletic hip-hop appeal. There was an emphasis on the urban element of their clothing, pushing the narrative that tracksuits were just as fashionable as a suit and tie. Brands such as FUBU, Kangol, Cross Colours, and Timberland became household names in the hip-hop community, expressing the attitudes of this culture through the body. And the world took note. Starter jackets were selling at record speed and when Snoop Dogg wore a striped Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt on Saturday Night Live, it sold out of every store in New York City within 24 hours. As Lewis and Gray (2015) discussed in their research on the influence of athleisure and hip-hop fashion, these styles represented the aspirational lifestyle of its wearers, of exerting influence on fashion in non-traditional ways. And the media was also starting to take note of this change in culture.


 In Living Color... and Catsuits?

(Click on images for details)
 
  • From Historic Costume Collection, Mid-1990s TTU Varsity Jacket and Leotard, as commonly worn by The Fly Girls
  • E! Online. (2012). Cast of In Living Color [Photograph]. https://www.eonline.com
/uk/news/308922/in-living-color-laverne-shirley-murphy-brown-casts-reunite-at-tv-land-awards-see-them-then-now
  • From Historic Costume Collection, 1989 Handcrafted Blouse and Skirt from West Ghana

 

Following Keenen Wayans’ success with Hollywood Shuffle, Fox Broadcasting Company approached Wayans in early 1990 to offer him his own show. Wayans agreed but with one stipulation: He wanted to produce a variety show similar to Saturday Night Live, that took chances with its content, and with a cast of people of color. Wayans wanted to create a show that reflected multiple points of view, a way to represent all voices, not just those consistently pushed in traditional media. And the fashion of In Living Color was no different. The shows stars often outfitted themselves in prints and textiles representative of their culture, emphasizing their heritage and the diversity of their life experiences.

The first episode of In Living Color aired on April 15, 1990, with overwhelming success. The show was touted as being smart and fun, but also very self-aware. From the infamous cat suits worn by The Fly Girls, the in-house dance troupe, to the street styles worn by musical performers such as Queen Latifah and Tupac Shakur, and the traditional African textiles found in the garments of Kim Coles and Kim Wayans, the immense popularity of the show made its mark on fashion, with youth everywhere creating outfits that mimicked the styles of their favorite In Living Color cast members.



From On-Screen Prince to Real Life Influence

(Click on images for details)
 
  • From Historic Costume Collection, 1990s Gap Overalls and Floral ShirtFrom Historic Costume Collection, 1990s Gap Overalls and Floral Shirt
  • Refinery29. (2020). Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air [Photograph]. https://www.
refinery29.com/en-us/2020/08/9960058/will-smith-fresh-prince-of-bel-air-reboot.
  • From Historic Costume Collection, 1992 Ankara Print Jacket with Silk Blouse

No discussion of fashion in the early 1990s is complete without bringing up the absolute prince of 90s fashion: Will Smith. The overwhelming success of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, coupled with an already flourishing rap career, catapulted Smith into stardom. Smith’s character in The Fresh Prince was much an interpretation of his own life, a laid-back teenager from Philadelphia who brought his street-style with him to Bel-Air. And from the Jordans’ on his feet to the neon baseball caps on his head, Smith was the epitome of early 1990s fashion. I mean, who could forget those famous light-washed overalls?!

And while we may all remember The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air characters for their fashions, the outfits these characters wore often represented a much stronger narrative. The cast has referenced on numerous occasions that they tried to always represent culture and heritage through their clothing, by embracing traditional African prints and textiles, as well as supporting brands that promoted equity. Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxwell Reid wore jackets crafted from Kente cloth and blouses with traditional Ankara wax prints. Smith often wore clothing produced by Cross Colours, a clothing brand launched by Carl Jones in 1989 with the premise of producing clothes without prejudice, to support the movement of justice, equality, and education. These fashion choices represent the power of your voice through the clothing you wear, that sometimes an unspoken truth can be represented just as strongly through cloth as it can on paper. By celebrating culture and heritage, promoting ideals through the body, the visual narrative carries through a necessary conversation to the eyes and the ears. And that is a secret power in fashion.


To the Future... 

(Click on images for details)
  • 1990 Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fashion Show and Reception
  • 1990 Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fashion Show and Reception
  • 1990 Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fashion Show and Reception

We hope this brief look at the fashions of the early 1990s has not only helped to transport you back in time, but also helped to open up the narratives regarding how fashion mirrors culture.

This exhibit serves as an introduction to a larger exhibition that will take place in Spring 2021, which culminates in a fashion show highlighting local designers and historic pieces. More details of the event are forthcoming. We invite you all to continue to join us as we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center . To all the students, faculty, and staff who have impacted countless lives over the past 30 years of the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center , thank you.

Now, go pull that neon baseball cap back out of your closet, because the 1990s are back!

 

Photographs from the Leona Lusk Black Cultural Center, Alpha Phi Alpha, and Omega Psi Phi Fashion Show courtesy of the Tennessee Tech University Archives and Special Collections, Photo Services

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