Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975

Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975

Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975

Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975

Synopsis

Between the 1920s and the 1970s, American economic culture began to emphasize the value of consumption over production. At the same time, the rise of new mass media such as radio and television facilitated the advertising and sales of consumer goods on an unprecedented scale. In Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920--1975, Susannah Walker analyzes an often-overlooked facet of twentieth-century consumer society as she explores the political, social, and racial implications of the business devoted to producing and marketing beauty products for African American women. Walker examines African American beauty culture as a significant component of twentieth-century consumerism, and she links both subjects to the complex racial politics of the era. The efforts of black entrepreneurs to participate in the American economy and to achieve self-determination of black beauty standards often caused conflict within the African American community. Additionally, a prevalence of white-owned firms in the African American beauty industry sparked widespread resentment, even among advocates of full integration in other areas of the American economy and culture. Concerned African Americans argued that whites had too much influence over black beauty culture and were invading the market, complicating matters of physical appearance with questions of race and power. Based on a wide variety of documentary and archival evidence, Walker concludes that African American beauty standards were shaped within black society as much as they were formed in reaction to, let alone imposed by, the majority culture. Style and Status challenges the notion that the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s through the 1970s represents the first period in which African Americans wielded considerable influence over standards of appearance and beauty. Walker explores how beauty culture affected black women's racial and feminine identities, the role of black-owned businesses in African American communities, differences between black-owned and white-owned manufacturers of beauty products, and the concept of racial progress in the post--World War II era. Through the story of the development of black beauty culture, Walker examines the interplay of race, class, and gender in twentieth-century America.

Excerpt

In 1988, Andrea Benton Rushing, professor of English and black studies at Amherst College, wrote an essay for Feminist Studies that deftly wove together personal stories about hair, race, femininity, and family, while illuminating the cultural significance of hair in African American history. Rushing recalled that, before having children, “back in the glory days of black being beautiful, I’d vowed that no daughter of mine would have her hair straightened.” Rushing described past mother-daughter trips to New York City to get their Afros shaped and styled, and present reactions to her and her girls’ African-style braids, before revealing her own complex hair history. Amid the resurgence of relaxed hair in the 1980s and despite a daughter’s complaint that “everyone in the world but us had straight hair,” Rushing wrote, she stood firm on the straightening issue. But then she admitted, “I’ve betrayed my heritage after all. I am, you see, a beautician’s daughter.” Rushing mentioned a slew of relatives—aunts, grandmothers, and other extended family members—in Harlem and South Carolina who were “in the guild.” She described the skill these women had in using “the same Apex pressing oil,” hot combs, and curling irons to convert African American women’s hair into glossy styles, and the social relationships formed in the homes and beauty shops where women did hair and got their hair done. Rushing’s memories revealed the centrality of commercial beauty culture in the lives of black women of her mother’s and earlier generations, and she mused that, perhaps, her daughters missed out on an important part of their . . .

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