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Denim Revolutionaries

by Stacey Linehan, posted 02/22/2012

On Wednesday, February 15th, UMass had the pleasure of hearing guest speaker and candidate for a position in UMass’s Women's’ Studies Department, Tanisha Ford, present her talk “Denim Revolutionaries: SNCC Women and the Politics of Dress”. As the room was already filled five minutes before the talk began, voices began to quiet down and papers stopped rustling when Laura Briggs stood up at the podium to introduce Ford who was seated in the front row ready to give her talk.

Ford recently received her Ph.D. in U.S. & African Diaspora History at Indiana University and is currently a Du Bois-Mandela-Rodney Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan. She shared with us a small area of interest in the book-length manuscript she has been working on tentatively titled Liberated Soul: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment from the U.S. South to London.

The flier for the lecture was as follows: The In the early 1960s, the young women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) abandoned their dresses, cardigans, pumps, and processed hairstyles in order to adopt jeans, bib-and-brace overalls, and natural hairstyles. Why did they do it, and what does their journey reveal about SNCC’s radical brand of activism, intra-racial class politics, and youth culture more broadly? By focusing on the ways in which issues of hair and beauty factored into black women activists’ lived experiences on the front lines of the movement, Tanisha Ford will demonstrated how physical and emotional torment prompted SNCC women to abandon certain elements of the model of “respectability” that their families, elder activists, and school administrators expected them to uphold. Given the politics of dress for women in the early 1960s, SNCC’s denim uniform must be seen as more than simply adornment to cover the body. It was a cultural-political tool used to create community and to represent SNCC’s progressive vision for a new American democracy.

When Fold stepped to the podium, she began by thanking UMass, especially the Women’s Studies department for their hospitality and said she saw this talk as her way of giving back and giving thanks to the kindness she had felt prior. Accompanied by just a few significant photos flashed on the projector, Ford carried the audience through the SNCC movement of the 1960s, focusing primarily on black women and their shift in clothing and hair style as more than just a fashion statement. Her natural energy kept the attention of the audience as she discussed the impracticalities of wearing fancy clothing to sit-in demonstrations and how wearing denim allowed for these activist to identify with sharecroppers and thus, more clearly communicate their messages.

By wearing their hair unprocessed and wearing baggy overalls, these women were defining their own standards of respectability. Met with plenty of opposition, especially for their natural and often short hair styles, these women continued to wear what became their signature uniform. A sisterhood was created on college campuses such as Spellman University where SNCC members would gather to cut each others hair and sew their own denim skirts and overalls. Ford pointed out that this development of uniform was not something instant but rather a gradual, uneven adaptation overtime. She is working hard to re-insert these often overlooked women back into history. Met with plenty of applause upon completion, Ford humbly thanked the audience once more.