Aminah Robinson–Life into Art

Art work for the book The Teachings

This stunning piece is a good introduction into the work of Columbus, Ohio artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015).  Using the materials of daily life—paper, pencils, fabric, trim, and buttons, she creates stunning compositions.  The mixed media creation above serves as the cover of her book, The Teachings, about the role of spirituals in African American life. How could I not love someone who makes such creative use of buttons?

Robinson’s personal style is as austere as her work is vibrant.  In all the pictures I found she wore unadorned black clothes.  Often her only jewelry were her many ear rings.  Her head was bald.  Maybe she believed she had too much else to do to be distracted by getting dressed.

To call Robinson a multi-media artist is an understatement.  She worked in painting, drawing, sculpture, quilting, and found object collage, sometimes all in one piece.  A work she made documenting a Columbus neighborhood, “Along Water Street,” is 60 feet long.

Robinson’s Columbus home was her studio, with every room devoted to a different project.  When she died, she donated everything to the Columbus Museum of Art.  The museum now has an exhibit devoted to her home studio and her journals called Raggin’ On.  Oh, how I wish I could go.

This month I’ve been devoting my blog to older African American women in celebration of Black History Month.  At the outset I thought I would have a hard time finding sources, but I was really wrong.  Just a little searching has opened up a wealth of resources and I learned a lot along the way. I hope you have also enjoyed the journey.

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Summer at Martha’s Vineyard, 1950s

It is the wrong season for this picture, but I couldn’t resist since it contains some of my favorite elements—the many kinds of pants and shorts worn in the 1950s and a stark generational contrast between the old and young.

This photo comes from a collection of snapshots by Oiuda Taylor, now kept at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.  They document summer vacations at the Oaks Bluff community on Martha’s Vineyard.  There isn’t much about Taylor online, but the Smithsonian does have a brochure from the vacation home she ran, Taylor’s Playfair.  Perhaps the photos were not only of her own family but also of the other guests who visited.  There is a lot of interesting information on Oak Bluffs, an African American enclave on the toney vacation spot, Martha’s Vineyard.

The photo is a fifties treasure.  The younger women sport all kinds of short and pants, from Bermuda shorts to clam diggers.  The old woman shuns bifurcation altogether, showing up in her fifties style shirtwaist dress.  And while the younger folks have on sandals, she appears to wear a summer version of the sensible shoe.  Take a look through the whole collection for wonderful views of summertime fashion from beachwear, to sundresses.

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Mae Reeves, Queen of Hats

You might know the names of famous black fashion designers—Ann Lowe is having a moment on sewing sites right now.  But how about black milliners?  One the biggest names in that field is Mae Reeves (1912-2016), who ran an extremely successful business in Philadelphia for over fifty years.    

Reeves’ life and work is quite well documented.  Born in Georgia, she first had a teaching career and took millinery classes during summer vacations.  In 1934, she joined the post-World War One Great Migration and moved to Philadelphia.  Determined to set up her own hat shop, she achieved her goal by the age of 28.  Her first store was on South Street in the garment district.  Later she moved to the commercial hub of West Philadelphia. The shop stayed opened until the mid 1990s. Mae Reeves lived until she was 104, still wearing her hats.

Smithsonian Institution  Reeves in 1960

Her customers ranged from entertainment greats like Lena Horne, to white socialites, to black women who saved up money for special occasions.  Her daughter, who helped out in the store, remembers a big rush around Easter and Mother’s Day.  A part of the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia, Reeves opened up her store to political events.  It became a voting site during elections. 

After the shop closed, its contents were bought in their entirety by the Smithsonian Institution.  A partial model has been recreated at the Smithsonian’s Museum for African American History and Culture as part of its “Power of Place” exhibitions.   

If you have the time and interest, type “Mae Reeves” into the Smithsonian search engine.  You will discover many fascinating items that came from her shop, including portraits of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.  You might also want to pick out your favorite hat.  This elegant black and cream model above is mine. 

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Mary B. Talbert, Feminist Icon

The Champion Magazine, October 1916

Why isn’t Mary B. Talbert (1866-1923) better known?  I discovered her through a feature on black women suffragists at the Digital Public Library of America.  However, suffrage was just one of her causes.  She was involved in the anti lynching campaign and all major civil rights and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  After graduating from Oberlin College, she taught school until her marriage.  Afterwards she became involved in African American women’s clubs, focusing on improving black women’s living standards and access to education in Buffalo, New York.  In 1916, she became president o f the National Association of Colored Women. As part the Niagara Movement, she helped lay the groundwork for the NAACP. 

As seen in the photo above, Talbert favored very feminine styles.  The surplice neckline of her dress is accented with white lace (or embroidery?) bringing the focus to her face.  She is about 50 here.

One wonders how much she liked the more masculine cut of the World War One uniform she wore while assisting African American troops in France during the war. 

The Crisis Magazine, 1922. Via Uncrowned Community Builders

At the end of the war, she became involved in the fight for civil rights on an international scale.  She was the first African American delegate to the International Congress of Women in Norway in 1920.  The photo above shows her posing in 1922 with other past presidents of the National Association of Colored Women.  Standing third from the right, she has returned to her feminine style, with a lace collar and flowery print.  But note her extremely sensible shoes.

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An NAACP Meeting in Los Angeles, 1949

If we didn’t have the title, “NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], Los Angeles, 1949,” it would be hard to guess the context of the photo. This looks to be an organizational event taking place in the meeting room of a club or church.  An attractive, but nameless, older woman stands giving a speech next to a portrait of a young man.  She is apparently only one of many set to speak.   Is it a eulogy for the young man?  Whatever she is reading has certainly made her happy.

When the New Look style emerged in the post war years, some commentators wondered if it could flatter the older, wider figure.  One fashion writer complained that, “[T]iny waist lines, bulging hips and overfull, overlong skirts made most mature women look short, squat and dumpy.” (C. Crosby, Ebony, September 1948, p. 53). However, this woman’s beautifully tailored suit shows that a gently revised version could be quite beautiful. The slightly nipped waist gives her a nice shape, and she has drawn further emphasis to it with the beautiful pocket detail.  The long, slim skirt makes her look tall. And what a perfect hat!

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Portrait of a Woman with Butterfly

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve been searching for collections of photographs of African Americans that might include older women.  One rich source I discovered is the private collection of Mike Cochran, given to the Portal of Texas History.  They are listed as photographic negatives of African Americans found in and around Waco, Texas.

This dignified portrait shows an older black woman with closely cropped white hair.  Although the clothes and the background indicate it was taken some time ago, the hair style looks modern to my eyes.  When I used to visit my daughter in Chicago, I saw many older black women with the same cropped style. 

When was the photo taken?  The style of the shirtwaist dress, with its open pleats below the shoulders, self fabric belt, and slightly puffed sleeves, indicate the late thirties.  Of course, we don’t know how long this woman wore the dress. She might have kept it for a very long time.

The most striking element of the picture is the woman’s butterfly pin, lifting our eyes from the dark dress to her serious face.  Did she add it out of modesty, to close up the neckline further? Or was it a signature piece of jewelry?  I would like to think that she found a place for it on all her clothes.

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Of Politics and Women’s Shoes

Photo by Drew Angerer of Getty Images, via Politico

I was hoping that the end of the Melania fashion era might bring an end to sky high heels, but no such luck.  While Kamala Harris wears Converse sneakers on her casual days, when dressed up she’s in heels.  During the recent inauguration, I kept track of the women wearing vaguely comfortable shoes.  Only Laura Bush and Janet Yellen bucked the high heel trend. 

It doesn’t appear to have much to do with age.  Nancy Pelosi, 80, is noted for her wardrobe of matching high heeled shoes.  Jill Biden, 69, wears them to all political events. If we believe current fashion writing, most American women are turning to more comfortable footwear.  Why don’t women politicians follow suit?

In the photo above, the swearing in ceremony of Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary, it is easy to write off Yellen as an old lady protecting her feet with her flat shoes.  To me, though, it looks like Harris is the odd one out, with her slim heels on an uneven surface.  I wanted to grab her elbow to make sure she didn’t trip. 

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My Great Great Grandmother, Mary Wade

Family photo

It’s not often you get such a clear picture of an old relative.  My aunt discovered this photo when she was moving.  In my grandmother’s handwriting on the back it says “My grandmother Wade.”  Given all the online sleuthing tools available, it was a just few short steps to trace back from my grandmother to her grandmother, Mary Wade, born in 1851. 

According to the 1880 census, Mary Wade lived in Daviess County, Indiana.  She was four years older than her farmer husband, David.  Her fourth child, Bertha, married in 1898 and gave birth to my grandmother a year after the wedding.  After another child was born, Bertha died.  Mary Wade took care of my grandmother and her brother at times while they were growing up. Her status as a farmer’s wife doesn’t tell us much about her—even today that job could mean almost anything, from poverty to prosperity.  She looks more on the prosperous side here, though.

The Delineator, September, 1920. From Witness to Fashion

I’m guessing that the photo comes from the early 1920s, which would put Mary Wade in her early seventies. Surplice necklines were a fashionable style in the 1920s, and frequently recommended for older women.  The blog Witness to Fashion shows a 1920 Butterick sewing pattern with many common elements to her dress above, with a pronounced collar and slightly dropped waist. Mary’s long string of beads, wrapped about her neck, are another 1920s detail.

I don’t feel any sense of kinship looking at Mary Wade. However, finding an ancestor looking hale and hearty into her seventies is not a bad legacy to claim.

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Kamala Harris, Plain and Fancy

Vogue, via the Washington Post

By now you have probably heard about the dust up over Vogue’s February issue featuring Kamala Harris on the cover. According to Vogue, both photos, shot by African American photographer Tyler Mitchell, were approved for publication.  The more casual look won out. However, Harris’s team insists that they voiced a preference for the photo on the left, where Harris appears in the kind of power suit beloved by women in high places.

What’s the difference? In the photo on the right, we see Harris dressed as she often was on the campaign trail.  Although she still wears one of her signature necklaces and a fitted jacket, the rest of the look is casual.  She combines dressed up elements with short skinny jeans and Converse sneakers, an essential element of her campaign uniform.  The side bar proclaims: “By the People, For the People. The United States of Fashion.”  This implies that the magazine intends to use Harris as an example of the new trends in casual fashion brought about in part by the pandemic.  The background colors, pink and green, are those of her college sorority.

The photo on the left is a more traditional portrayal of a powerful woman.  Harris still wears a jacket, a white shirt, and a necklace.  In this case, though, the power suit, the position of her arms, and the gold background convey authority.  What’s new here is not the fashion but the fact that a woman of color is in a position of authority.  The subtitle conveys this as well.  Kamala Harris represents the New America. What is new is her gender and her color.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour defends the magazine’s choice, saying that the more informal photo makes Harris more approachable.  Critics like the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah claim it is disrespectful. “[I]n a world where strong Black women are often maligned as intimidating and unfeminine, the image Vogue chose reduced Harris just as she is taking her rightful place at the heights of American power.”

What’s more important about Harris, her fashion sense or her political authority?  If Vogue wanted to show how Harris embodies current trends, then the editors picked the right photo.  However, if they wanted to reinforce her unique historical role as the first female Vice President of the nation, they made the wrong choice. I stand with the critics on this one. The new administration, and Harris in particular, need all the help they can get–even from a fashion magazine.

What’s your view?

Posted in 2020s | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Pattern Mixing, Early 20th Century Edition

A quick glance at fashion pages these days shows that pattern mixing–combing gingham with florals or dots with plaids–is on trend right now. You might think it is all part of the “anything goes” style philosophy of the current era. However, this photo from the 1900s shows that pattern mixing is nothing new. Here a sad looking older woman combines a plaid scarf with a vaguely floral print. Of course we don’t know why. Maybe her neck was cold and the scarf was close at hand.

Do you mix patterns when you dress? Not me. As a minimalist, I have always found the final results much too busy. Now I don’t have to say that it’s because I’m too old fashioned .

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