5 minute read





Fashion is used as a tool of communication, to convey messages of our public and private selves, to decide what we make visible and the ways in which we choose to do so. Fashion also communicates messages in the literal sense, such as political statements like “Make America Great Again” or “The Future is Female.” However, for those whose visibility of their public and private self is not simply navigated through clothing choices, those who are visibility seen as ‘other’ due to their appearance deviating from white, heteronormative, able-bodied, and/or thin—all conditions of Western standards of beauty—fashion becomes a tool of control.

Sociologist Erving Goffman invokes the term “impression management,” which is further contextualized by Emma Tarlo in Visibily Muslim. Tarlo explains how people that are visibly categorized as ‘other’ use fashion to achieve different effects. She describes it as, “the process by which people seek to manage the impressions they exude, thereby influencing the way others respond to them.” [1] Impression management through fashion allows the individual to have some control over the way their identity is viewed by others and often allows them to navigate spaces safely and successfully, often being one of the only facets of their appearance they can control. Fashion as a tool of impression management has become increasingly relevant due to the heightened awareness of violence against marginalized groups, such as transgender women of color, Muslim, Asian, and Black communities. Tarlo describes how the visibility of being considered an ‘other’ the

arouses suspicion, leading to “public anxiety and condemnation which easily turns to racist abuse.” [2] Navigating the world in an othered body requires impression management using fashion to communicate messages of belonging. This can take the form of cultural assimilation, dress codes, or even just conveying social status. Fashion serves as a tool of communication, but in this way, it also serves as a survival mechanism in navigating daily systems of oppression and violence.

For the Afro-Punk, their experience as ‘other’ exists not only in their visible race and other intersectional factors such as class, body, gender, sexuality, but also in the subcultural aesthetic. The first academic reference of AfroPunks is written by Greg Tate in “Of Afropunks and Other Anarchic Signifiers of Contrary Negritude,” where he discusses the intricacies of the subcultural identity:

The 1980s and 1990s would also see the advent of the black punk rocker, a species recently anthropologized in James Spooner’s epochal documentary Afro-Punk.

This group was shown to have its own peculiar set of behaviors around the thickets of racism, racial identity, Afrocentricity, class alienation, class privilege, class betrayal and interracial dating, black rage, black pleasure, and black feminism. [3]

The Afro-Punk subculture, while unfortunately lacking in academic research, is believed to be a product of 1970s punk music performed by Black musicians. The rise in visibility of the subculture is widely credited to the Afropunk music festival, created in 2005 by James Spooner. [4] While the space of the music festival has changed drastically since its grassroots beginnings, its subcultural ethos of creating a safe space for Afro-Punks to use fashion as a creative outlet has remained the same. Many who utilize the festival for this purpose do not have

freedom to do so in their day-to-day lives due to issues of safety and surveillance. In a video produced by online news outlet AJ+ titled “The Very Black History Of Punk Music,” musician and director Sacha Jenkins mentions the undercurrent of white privilege associated with the punk subculture.

“I can’t change the color of my skin. There is a level of privilege that goes with ‘I’m going to put a safety pin through my nose and dye my hair green for three years, and then I’m going to clean up and put on a suit and get a corporate job.’ We don’t really have that luxury.” [5]

Musician Honeychild Coleman follows up Jenkins’ statement, noting, “you also get cred for having punk years. But in my experience, working in the corporate world, I can’t let everybody know what I do outside of work because it could cost me my job.” [6] This conflict of visibility, of negotiating various positions of marginalization simultaneously is especially pertinent for the Afro-Punk. Often at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, actively choosing to use fashion in a way that may be read as further othering you from social norms heightens the pressure of just picking out an outfit for the day. Sacha Jenkins summarizes this, stating, “when you’re Black, you’re punk all the time.” [7]

The power of reclaiming fashion and using it as a tool of resistance is one of the staples of the Afro-Punk subculture. Janice Miller describes this in Fashion and Music by stating how Black music created a formula, and fashion is the outlet:

Here, they might be seen to take power not only with regard to their own part in the music industry and thus conceptually over both cultural spaces— establishing some autonomy for themselves— and cultural identities… This can equally apply to their attitudes to bodies shaped by a celebration of physical attributes that had previously been open to ridicule. As a result, the power of fashion to symbolically resist the limitations placed upon a particular group, and to be in and of itself confrontational, was established early on in music. Equally, the role that fashion and clothing could play in maintaining and articulating a cultural identity was also in place. It should be no surprise, then, that in writing on both music and fashion, black music has been identified as a place where these two forms of expression powerfully intersect. [8]

For the purpose of this research, which was originally conducted in 2018 for my graduate thesis, I employed the term ‘space’, expanding on Susan Kaiser’s use of the term in her 2012 book Fashion and Cultural Studies. I expand the term to reflect a combination of time (context of the present tense) and place (social and geographical location), which is at all times relevant to fashion. It is particularly relevant to the ways in which fashion is used as a tool of resistance, communication, control, and impression management for marginalized groups. For the AfroPunk, space can dictate when you can actively display membership of the subculture. The Afropunk festival serves as one space where they can choose to embody and perform their identity to its entire extent without fear of consequence, harassment, limitation, punishment, silence, or discrimination.