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'The Will To Adorn': What We Wear And What It Says About Us


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When you looked in the closet this morning, what did you pick out, and why? The power suit, the blouse that fits just right, the jeans and the boots? Even if you wear a uniform or overalls, we all make decisions about what we look like and why. Hair says a lot. So do accessories. But any message is also open to misinterpretation. What we hope to say doesn't always come across that way.

If there's been an occasion when people saw - what people saw was very different from what you meant, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on the program, we'll talk with columnist Clarence Page about the minimum wage and union organizing. But first Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan, joins us here in Studio 42. Good to have you with us.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And as with language, are some of us more articulate in what we communicate with our clothes and shoes and hairstyles than others?

GIVHAN: I think so. I think some people, particularly those who are very accustomed to being the public eye, have gotten a certain kind of eloquence with their style and they have a very clear understanding about how some things come across and they have a very clean understanding of exactly what it is that they want to say.

You know, I was going to suggest that, you know, you look at first ladies over time, meaning from their first month in the East Wing to their last month in the East Wing, and generally there is this progression in which they look better and better and more glamorous and more polished. And it just, it comes from practice, it comes from getting constant feedback on how their attire represents the nation.

CONAN: Some of us pick out what's clean.


GIVHAN: I think a lot of us do.

CONAN: So why is this important?

GIVHAN: Well, it's important because, you know, we are visual people, and particularly when we go into a situation that is foreign to us, we - so much of our understanding of who's in charge, you know, what the protocol is, where the power lies, we get that from the visual - from the picture. We get that from the clothes.

You know who the boss is based on attire. You know who the bride is based on attire. So all of those things help us sort of navigate the world, and I think it's one of the reasons why sometimes when we go, say, to foreign countries where the attire isn't necessarily Western dress we feel even more off of our game, not just because of the language, the spoken language, but because we don't recognize the cultural symbols.

CONAN: Let me bring another voice into the conversation. Diana Baird N'Diaye, the anthropologist and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She's also the curator of the Will to Adorn Program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which explores the variety of ways that African-Americans define themselves through dress and the cultural and historical factors that help shape those choices. Thanks very much for being with us.

DIANA BAIRD N'DIAYE: Oh, thank you. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And she also joins us here in Studio 42. The title of that program, The Will to Adorn, tell us a little bit more about that.

N'DIAYE: Yeah, well actually the title came from something that Zora Neale Hurston, who is a folklorist and anthropologist and writer said. And she said that the will to adorn was one of the most important characteristics of African-American culture. I'm paraphrasing a little bit.

But she was actually talking about how people speak and how people in African-American communities embellish words. But she herself was an incredible dresser. She loved clothing. And we thought that it was very apt - as clothing is a visual language - to express that will to adorn, that intentionality in dress, that is part of an expressive culture and an art form in African-American communities.

CONAN: Do you see that intentionality throughout our society?

N'DIAYE: I think so, yeah. The thing is I think we're all dress artists. We all have a collection of clothing, and we all go and, as my good friend - some of my good friends - Jane Milosh(ph) says, hey, you go in your closet, and you curate your closet. And you - what you wear is part of that art form, that assemblage that you create.

You also decide, you know, where you're going to get your hair cut and how you're going to get your hair cut. And you also decide what you're not going to wear, what you're never going to wear.

CONAN: It's interesting, I look at you both, you're both very stylish, but I get message from you both: It's really hot in Washington today.


N'DIAYE: True, true.

GIVHAN: Well, I mean, a lot of the way that we dress does come from, you know, matters of just practicality. But, you know, I do think that there are clearly some people who are much more intentional about the way that they dress, and oftentimes they are referred to as fashionistas, a word that I think should be banned from the English language.

But, you know, even those people who make a declaration of I'm not interested in fashion, I don't care about fashion, they're still making a choice to announce their disinterest.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear about those moments where you may have made a decision, and maybe somebody misinterpreted what you were saying with your fashion statement, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Benjamin, Benjamin with us from Milwaukee.

BENJAMIN: Hi Neal, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

BENJAMIN: So I work as a welder, and so I'm often wearing big boots and a bandanna so that sparks don't catch my hair alight and all that fun stuff. And oftentimes I'll go into the gas station before work, and being Milwaukee, especially in the summer, there's a lot of motorcycle riders. And I've - numerous times I've gone into the gas station wearing my bandanna, and people will ask me if that's my Harley outside.


BENJAMIN: And I'm like no, no, no, I drive that small little coupe over there. And they take a look, and they're like oh, I thought you were the one with the Harley. I'm, like, no - and so they automatically assume I'm either a biker, or there are certain parts of town where I have to make sure I know what color bandanna I'm wearing.

CONAN: Very much.

BENJAMIN: That's another - that's a very bad thing that they could assume. And so that's - besides, I'm about as fashionable as a painted rock, so...


CONAN: Well, maybe you're making different choices when you go out in the evening.

BENJAMIN: At times, I suppose. But then I still usually just wear jeans and just a polo shirt.

CONAN: OK, so making one of those non-statements.

BENJAMIN: Exactly, a statement by not making a statement.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call.

BENJAMIN: Yeah, bye.

GIVHAN: You know, the caller brings up an interesting point, which is, you know, the idea of having to be aware of the color of a bandanna in certain neighborhoods. I mean, obviously we've had lots of stories about the way in which, you know, clothing creates a kind of a clique or, you know, a gang or a tribe. And, you know, as the Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman trial unfolds, the question of clothing was a central part of that, and the assumptions that people make or don't make about clothing and the ways in which a particular garment, as worn by one person, sends a different message or can send a different message from when it's worn by someone else.

CONAN: Let me ask you again about that, Diana Baird N'Diaye. We're talking about with the Trayvon Martin case a hoodie worn by a young black man, meant to send one message to people, misinterpreted perhaps by others.

N'DIAYE: That's right, and I actually remember that someone on the news had said something about, well, if he hadn't have been wearing a hoodie. But if you think about it, even if Mr. Zimmerman were wearing a different color, he might have been stopped on the street himself, you know.

I think that the thing is that there's a difference between identity and self-defining, which is what we do when we curate our closets, and identification. And sometimes that identification is positive, and sometimes that identification is negative. And we, you know, we talk about profiling and so on. That has to do with our first container, which is our skin, in this society.

But I think it's also interesting, in terms of our research, the things that parents tell their children about what to wear. Sometimes it's aspirational. Sometimes it's, well, you know, you've got to put on that suit so that you'll look like, you know, you're part of the class you're aspiring to. And other times it's, you know, you better dress well when you go out of the house because, you know, otherwise you may be attacked or profiled or...

CONAN: What's interesting, our caller was saying he had to be careful about what color bandanna he wore in what neighborhood of Milwaukee. I was just reading in a book recently by Victor Davis Hanson about the days of General Belisarius in the old days of Constantinople, and they had huge competitions between groups known as the Greens and the Blues. And of course now it's the reds and the blues. It's nice to know that we've come a long way in a couple of thousand years.


CONAN: I'm a hat guy, writes Nick(ph), on email. My favorite has to be my black top hat. I wear it to say I'm unique, and I don't care if you think I look odd. A lot of people stare. Even more compliment me for it. And some assume I'm a magician. Without my hat, I'm incomplete. That's an interesting...

GIVHAN: God bless.

CONAN: God bless.


N'DIAYE: That's great.

CONAN: All right. It's interesting. You talk about clothing as a language. In years as a reporter, I was always - many times assigned to go get what we call vox pop, the man in the street interview. And the lesson you learned was always go to people wearing funny hats because those were people who were going to be outspoken and say something interesting.

N'DIAYE: That's really interesting.

CONAN: I'm giving away my secrets.

GIVHAN: Yeah, but, I mean, it's true, though. I mean, people dress to stand out, and those people who really do want to draw attention, the ones who are most likely to offer interesting commentary or to express their opinion when a reporter approaches them certainly are not likely to be the ones who are, you know, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans trying to fade into a crowd.

CONAN: Yeah, they're articulate in one language; maybe they will be in another, as well.

GIVHAN: One hopes.

N'DIAYE: That's right, in fact it's interesting, I think that there are also differences culturally, sometimes, or regionally in terms of why people - whether people choose to wear things that stand out or not. Everyone, you know, talks about New York and New York black, you know, and New York black chic.

CONAN: Well, there's Goths, too, but that's another issue.

N'DIAYE: Meaning the clothing - there's Goth, that's right, that's right. But it's really interesting that talking with a colleague who comes from a Lutheran background, she talked about, you know, you wear pale colors, or you wear colors that make you fit in that you don't stand out. And I think that when I was growing up in a Caribbean family, you just, you dress to express. You know, you dress to show your individuality but also to show your style and your color, and it's a different thing.

CONAN: If there's been occasion when what people saw was different from what you meant, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. On Wednesday the Smithsonian Folklife Festival opens on the National Mall. It's a huge, free, annual festival open for the better part of two weeks. This year, one of the major exhibits is called "The Will to Adorn: African-American Diversity, Style and Identity."

Today we're talking with its curator, Diana Baird N'Diaye. Also with us, fashion critic Robin Givhan. We're talking about how what we wear tells others about who we are and how those choices are shaped by where we're from. In a moment we'll hear more about one of the participants in this year's festival, Emory Douglas.

We also want to hear from you, though. If there was a time when what people saw was different from what you meant when you got dressed, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Diana, you have dozens of participants who are going to be at this festival: barbers, milliners, tattoo artists, jewelers, cobblers. We don't have time to talk about them all, but I'm interested in Emory Douglas. Who is he? Why did you include him?

N'DIAYE: Emory Douglas is the former minister of culture for the Black Panthers. And he grew up in Oakland, and he really exemplified the visual image of the Black Panther - or I should say he created, as a graphic designer...

CONAN: For those too old to remember, the black beret, the black T-shirt, the black leather jacket and jeans.

N'DIAYE: Actually, he didn't invent the costume, but what he did was he put it on his posters, on - in the Black Panther newspaper.

CONAN: And shades.

N'DIAYE: And the shades, of course. And we actually talked with him in Oakland about developing the Black Panther style. And he talked about how it was really a great recruitment tool. First of all, it was an expression of power, it was an expression of identity, the black leather and the jackets, and even the idea of the panther, the hungry panther.

It wasn't just a well-fed panther, it was a hungry panther that he depicted, but also that on his drawings and in what the panthers wore, they were really saying something about self-definition and power that was incredibly important and helped to recruit folks to the movement.

CONAN: Did the uniform, as it were, become - how did it incorporate into fashion beyond the members of the Black Panther Party?

GIVHAN: Can I just ask you also - I'm curious. Did he create it so that it was in direct opposition to the way that people thought of civil rights activists, who were much more sedately, respectably, reassuringly dressed?

N'DIAYE: That's a really good question. Now as I said, Emory Douglas didn't create the uniform, but he created the images that spread the uniform far and wide. And I - and with the - the uniform was slightly militaristic because it had the beret, and it was making a new statement. It was saying, you know, we're not trying to fit in, we're not trying to be respectable in the same way that folks who were in the civil rights movement...

CONAN: It was not an integration movement.

N'DIAYE: It was not an integration - exactly. That's - yeah, it was not an integration statement. It was a statement of power, group solidarity certainly, and it was something that was saying, you know, we're here, and we're staying, and we're going to make our rules, and we will fight back if we have to.

CONAN: There was pushback, as well. There were some parents who were reluctant to let their kids war the hair picks, for example.

N'DIAYE: That's right. The hair picks was very interesting. I remember being in high school, as a matter of fact, and my dad taught in the high school, and so the teachers felt OK talking to me. And they said: Is that a weapon that people have in their hair, that pick with the fist on it? You know, are they going to jab people with that?

And I thought it was very, very funny. But then recently I've been reading that there were folks who actually got suspended or got arrested because they had afro picks, and the afro picks actually were combs that had long ends, and they were - made it easier to comb out the large afros.

CONAN: Afros, yeah, which were rather large in those days. Well, let's get some more callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. LJ's(ph) on the line with us from Springfield in Missouri.

L.J.: Hello, Neal, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead please.

L.J.: All right. Is there an idiosyncrasy? What is this? I am a high school teacher, junior high teacher, former college professor, all those kinds of things. I taught, are you ready for this, for 50 years. And I wore a (technical difficulties) - I'm sorry, I'm tired. I wore a tie to my classrooms every day.

Now, I was asked a minute ago did somebody misinterpret this? Yes. There have been times when fellow teachers, colleagues, folks - are you elitist? Are you better than the rest of us? Are you - what's your deal? And it was simply a sign of, well, I was 21 when I started teaching high school classes, and I really needed to differentiate myself from my students. They were 18 and 19.

And I called them by their last names, I wanted them to call me by my last name, and I now have a Ph.D., and I wanted them to call me doctor, just as a means of respect and somewhat formal, but it was also a gimmick. On a particular day - this was in high school teaching - on a particular day when there was Shakespeare's birthday or Columbus' discovery or Edgar Allen Poe's birthday or - I wore that tie, and the kids would get points for identifying why.

And every student was required to keep a daily agenda, a log, of his classroom activities. And they all began, as I encouraged them to, to write down the tie I had on today so when an argument came and said you've worn that one before, oh, no, check your book. I haven't worn that time before. I have worn that it before.

Well, I'm retired now. What am I going to do with 200 ties?


CONAN: That's an interesting point. Robin Givhan, the tie for men has been a symbol, well, both - many different ways.

GIVHAN: Yeah, I mean, never has such a tiny piece of fabric had so much cultural and social power. I mean, when I think about politicians on the campaign trail, and they go to, you know, a factory floor, they go into, you know, some VFW hall, whenever they sort of are having their moment with the people, you know, the first thing that they do is they take off the tie, and they roll up their shirtsleeves to make sure that they don't have this sort of cultural symbol of power and elitism and the man standing in between them.

And, you know, when we started talking about - probably now it's been almost 20 years ago, the idea of casual Friday, there was this sense that if, you know, men just didn't have to wear a tie to the office on Friday, you know, everything was going to change.

CONAN: The basis of the republic would be in danger.


CONAN: Russell Weiss(ph) tweeted us: Tulsa is a generally casual city, so I'm often asked what's the special occasion if I wear a tie.

GIVHAN: Yeah, I mean again, it's this item that is so freighted with a sense of formality. And, you know, when a little boy first starts wearing sort of the big suit, he has his little clip-on tie, and it's another rite of passage when he learns how to tie the tie. And there are always these sort of very sweet moments in films when you have, you know, the daughter tying the tie of her father.

I mean, there's this great symbolism with it and an understanding that it is a sign of a kind of reassuring masculinity, and it's also the one place in many men's day-to-day wardrobe where they can be creative.

CONAN: Here's another email, this from Kevin(ph) in San Jose: Greetings, my favorite painting teacher in college, U Wisconsin, River Falls, was the Japanese painter Keiko Hara. She would comment on clothing choices we students made and point out that we had subconsciously made choices based on mood. If anyone wore red, she would say watch out for that one today. Do you find, Diana, that that has any relevance?

N'DIAYE: That's interesting because I think that it may have relevance, but it's very much culturally relevant. It's culturally different in different places. In some places, it's, you know, red signals oh my God, this one is out for trouble. In other places, red may actually be a color that's associated with power, you know, the power suit. In other places, it may be simply something that signifies that someone is part of a particular group.

Ethiopian, in the Amharic tradition, wear red velvet capes when they get married, and one of the most beautiful parts of the ceremony is when the bride and the groom come out with their red and gold capes. And certainly that sends a very different message than the guy in the classroom.

But - so - and then some people dress intentionally in colors. I know folks who dress according to the chakras, and they wear a different color every day, and red may mean it's Tuesday. So...

CONAN: Be careful what you interpret, in other words, yeah.


N'DIAYE: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: Let's go to Pam, Pam on the line with us from West Palm Beach.

PAM: Hi there, guys. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

PAM: So I stopped dyeing my hair in August, and I was at a Christmas party in December, so it was about halfway out. And my friend Luis came up to me, and he goes, I know what this means with your hair. He goes, that means you're a liberal. So that was the message, that my gray hair apparently was imparting to him. I thought that was really funny.

CONAN: Interesting because...


CONAN: ...I don't think - is there liberal hair dyeing, Robin Givhan?

GIVHAN: I don't think there's liberal hair dyeing, but I think there are certain markers that we tend to associate with political, cultural beliefs. And there is that stereotype of sort of the natural-looking, long-haired, crunchy granola, Berkeley liberal, and I think that's the connection the person might have been making.

PAM: I think he thought this was my first step down the slippery slope because I'm not very crunchy even if my politics may seem that way.


CONAN: Have a good time on the road to perdition, Pam.


PAM: See you later.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. She does raise a point, though. This is a tweet from Tara Dee Anne(ph): I'm covered in tattoos and have large gauges. In Tulsa, I'm normally asked where I'm from, the answer being Tulsa.

But tattoos is something that has just - well, I'm old enough to remember sailors wore tattoos.


CONAN: No - this completely changed.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, for a long time, they were very much seen as something that was forbidden and was something that, you know, was a sign of rebellion and subversiveness. And then, you know, there was sort of the famous "Saturday Night Live" sketch where they showed what happens to the lower back tattoo as you sort of move from 20-something into 50-something and to 60-something, and it wasn't particularly pretty.

But the idea was that, you know, what was - what is seen as rebellious at 20 so many years later is now going to be seen as this very common thing. And so, now, instead of just a single tattoo, you have to have an entire sleeve. And if you don't have a sleeve, well, then maybe you need the skull tattoo. I mean, that's the one that's really, truly rebellious.

So the bar gets pushed farther and farther as we kind of incorporate - and that's one of the interesting things to me, that everything sort of starts to merge and get incorporated, and it becomes harder and harder to be the rebel.

CONAN: We're talking with Robin Givhan, who you just heard, who earned a Pulitzer Prize writing about fashion for The Washington Post, also for The Daily Beast and for Vogue. Also with us is Diana Baird N'Diaye, a cultural specialist, curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She's the curator of the Will to Adorn: African-American Diversity, Style and Identity, which is a program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. You can find more about that by hitting on a link at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email we have from Caitlin(ph): I'm a 24-year-old young professional woman. I typically dress anywhere between feminine and androgynous. I also have extremely short blonde hair, shaved on the sides of my head. No matter what I'm wearing, though, whether it be a suit and collared shirt or a dress, people usually assume I identify as a lesbian. When I ask them why they think so, they typically say because of my hair. Can you comment on how other stylistic choices interact with our clothing?


N'DIAYE: No - well, I think that we talk about something called communities of style, and we talk about the fact that, you know, when people tend to dress along a spectrum, but there are cultural markers that identify us or that tend to identify us with either a philosophy or a particular group, and because not only are some hairstyles associated with androgyny or associated with either lesbian or gay movement - I'm not - and I'm not saying that this is the only - these are the only people who wear certain styles, but there are signals, there are clothing choices that send messages, and they send messages in terms of being part of a group, a movement of time, a generation.

And so I think that you're thinking - you're talking, again, about the identification and the identity there. And as Robin was saying with the tattoos, that tattoos were associated in the beginning with bikers, with a certain group of people, with rebelliousness and so on, and now they're coming into the mainstream. And so these are not hard and fast rules, but they do tend to speak about community and identity.

GIVHAN: Sometimes I think people are a bit disingenuous. I mean, if you have, you know, an armful of tattoos and you're wearing leather jeans and, you know, a chain as a belt and you're shocked that people think that perhaps you have a motorcycle or you're a little bit tough or you have a certain swagger, then, to me, that says, well, where have you been? You know, what...

CONAN: Have you looked at a mirror lately? Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...sort of vocabulary, have you been in engaged in? So when someone says, I tend to dress in a very androgynous way and I have this haircut where half of my head is shaved, and I'm shocked when people wonder if I'm lesbian, I don't they should clearly be taking that as anything but you are wearing things that, for a very long period in our cultural history, have been associated with a particular group. And so I'm reading those signs in a way that they've been read for many years.

CONAN: We'll end with this email we have from David: When I was in junior high school, middle school now, I found a fashion statement called an ascot. Any chance of that coming back into Vogue? Going to go out on a limb, David, no.


CONAN: Thank you so much for joining us today.

N'DIAYE: Thank you.

GIVHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

N'DIAYE: Right. Come and visit.

CONAN: We look forward to that. When we come back, we're going to be talking with columnist Clarence Page about fast-food workers, the new occupy? Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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