We are honored to speak with Jonathan Square, a writer and professor of history at Harvard University, who specializes in fashion and visual culture in the African Diaspora. His course “Fashion and Slavery” explores the politics of fashion among people of African descent during slavery and the period immediately followed by emancipation. Jonathan explains how the fashion system is intimately linked to the institution of slavery, and also how dress and adornment can serve as a form of radical self-determination.
JONATHAN: I've always nurtured a deep curiosity about aesthetics and creative expression. I was not always able to compute that I was interested in fashion with a capital “F,” but I always cared about how people chose to dress and adorn themselves.
As I was writing my dissertation, I became more interested in uniting my lifelong interest in fashion with my academic work. My research on slavery in Brazil and the larger Atlantic World sowed the seeds for my more recent work, which explores the politics of fashion among enslaved peoples in the Americas.
SARA: What’s the connection between the fashion system and the institution of slavery?
JONATHAN: It’s not a connection that scholars often make, but the two are intimately linked. Slavery fueled the creation of the fashion system by providing an inexpensive labor force for cotton production.
Slavery fueled the creation of the fashion system by providing an inexpensive labor force for cotton production.
On a less macro level, enslaved peoples always had a degree of freedom in choosing what to wear. Fashion was an integral part to the hybrid that enslaved peoples and their descendants created in the New World. Despite its catastrophic affects on people of African descent, slavery was also remarkably generative. Born out of adversity, sartorial ingenuity often made the lives of people of African descent under the slavery more bearable.
Though my research focuses on the enslavement of people of African descent between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, slavery was and is a ubiquitous coercive labor system. Just as slaves made, bought, and sold clothing (more often than not against their will), many people involved in our current fashion system work in conditions predicated on coercion and oppression.
SARA: Creative people working in the fashion industry generally identify as progressive, but they keep tripping over race. For example, we see tokenism and whitewashed runways on one end of the value chain, and what can even amount to slave labor on the other. What do you make of the disconnect?
JONATHAN: The hyper-commodified, Uber-fied nature of consumption in the global economy that propels the fashion system in the twenty-first century makes that people in most parts of the fashion system—except those at the very top—end up getting exploited. Despite fashion people’s professed politics, most are at least partially implicated in these exploitative labor conditions.
Moreover, the breakneck speed that the current fashion system demands does not allow for much critical reflection, which is why people in the fashion industry are continually stumbling over the issue of race. For every step forward, there always seems to be a step back.
More than one person has noted that runways are less diverse than they were in the 70s and 80s. The year’s crop of September issues were not only uninteresting, but, in large part, marked by an absence of actresses and models of color.
SARA: What role do you think fashion can play in challenging inequality?
JONATHAN: Scholars often neglect the role of fashion in fighting for self-determination in marginalized communities and pushing for a more equitable society. Yet, fashion is an incredibly useful and effective tool for challenging inequality.
Like food, clothing is something that we engage with on a daily basis and can be employed subversively. We may not be able to change the entire fashion system in one fell swoop. We can, however, change our quotidian dress regimes and that can be quite influential. Wear designers who share your values and treat and pay their employees fairly. Support slow or eco-fashion. Consume less and smarter. Think more critically about how you discard old clothes. This is really cliché, but be the change you want to see. These small acts are actually quite radical.
Wear designers who share your values and treat and pay their employees fairly. Support slow or eco-fashion. Consume less and smarter.
SARA: What does a more just fashion system look like?
JONATHAN: Simply put, our current fashion system will be more just when all contributors to the fashion system’s supply chain, from janitors, freelancers, to models, are paid fairly and treated equitably.
Jonathan M. Square is a writer and historian specializing in fashion and visual culture of the African Diaspora. He has a PhD in history from New York University, a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and B.A. from Cornell University. Last academic year, he taught in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a faculty member in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature at Harvard University. He has written for a number of print and online publications, including the International Journal of Fashion Studies, Fashion Studies Journal, Aperture, Fashionista, and Refinery29. His current book project — tentatively titled Sartorial Resistance and the Politics of Redress in the Black Atlantic— frames sartorial agency among enslaved peoples as a form of resistance and places sumptuary laws within the context of the development of Atlantic capitalism from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In particular, he is interested in how people of African descent have engaged the nascent fashion system to not only critique and counter ideologies that cast them as inferior, but also to stake a claim in larger political struggles for freedom and equity. Jonathan deconstructs the etymology of “text” and “textiles”; when enslaved peoples did not have direct access to revolutionary “texts,” they often used “textiles.” In this way, dress and adornment served as a form of radical self-determination, just as much as texts.