Although this photo was taken in Harlem in the 1950s, for a London reader it evoked memories of her Jamaican born grandmother. “Their tailored suits reminded me of how my grandmother, a Jamaican woman who moved to London in the 50s, would dress to go to our local Baptist church,” she explained, “and the ubiquitous nature of the ‘church suit’ throughout the African Diaspora.”
When I was growing up, we talked about wearing out “Sunday best” to church. I had never heard the term “church suit” before. I searched through the Berg Fashion Library, which claims to have an international and multi-racial reach, but the term didn’t come up. That’s an omission, because the church suit is an important concept in African American culture and beyond. Not only are there numerous websites devoted to them, like churchsuitsunlimited.com, but many contemporary designers focus primarily on these special occasion outfits.
What surprised me about this photo is how very dressed up some of the women are, with glistening fabrics I would have expected at a wedding or an evening affair rather than a church service. And look at their hats, elegant accessories and shoes! This brings “Sunday best” to a whole new level.
The photo is dated only to the 1950s, but unless the woman third from the left was really a fashion rebel, her short skirts moves it more to the end of the decade.