African American Women's Professional Dress as Expression of Ethnicity

By O'Neal, Gwendolyn S. | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

African American Women's Professional Dress as Expression of Ethnicity


O'Neal, Gwendolyn S., Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Abstract: The purpose of the research was to examine the use of cultural dress by African American professional women. To understand why cultural dress is used as professional attire, a qualitative methodology was employed in which data from interview narratives provided by 15 African American professional women were interpreted from an ontological hermeneutic perspective. Dress is used to define the self to educate others about the culture, and as a link to cultural origin. The shift toward wearing cultural dress evolved as the women developed an understanding of and appreciation for their African heritage. Implications for Family and Consumer Sciences professionals are provided.

Ethnicity is "among the most complicated, volatile, and emotionally charged words and ideas in the lexicon of social science" (Nash, 1989, p. 1). The concept of ethnicity refers to a socially defined group based on cultural criteria (Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Littlefield, Liebermann, & Reynolds, 1982; van den Berghe, 1978). Eicher (1995) observed:

The ideas behind ethnicity connect to the preservation of an identity for individuals that links to a meaningful heritage...discussions of ethnicity have focused on self-definitions as opposed to definition by others... (p. 4)

Gwendolyn S. O'Neal is an associate professor, Department of Consumer and Textile Sciences, Ohio State University.

Dress is used today in establishing and preserving an identity. In addition, to actively construct and reconstruct the sell dress is often used in efforts to influence or control a situation (Craik, 1994; Finkelstein, 1991; Kaiser, 1990).

The purpose of this article is to examine the use of "cultural dress" by some African American professional women. Cultural dress includes traditionally styled garments and accessories imported from various African countries, made of fabrics and other materials constructed and finished in those countries, or replicas of such. In addition, styles and forms of adornment are noticeably of African influence. For purposes of this research, "dress" is considered as a gestalt that includes the body and all modifications (e.g., painting and piercing) and supplements (e.g., garments and accessories) added to it (Eicher & Roach-Higgins, 1992). The use of the word "traditional" here is not intended to suggest the lack of change. Instead, it is more related to identifying with that which comes from Africa. Eicher (1995) states, "The body modifications and supplements that mark the ethnic identity of an individual are ethnic dress." (p. 1)

Rationale

Individuals and groups use dress to create meaning and to position themselves in society. Fox-Genovese (1987) suggested that dress has always served political functions. Its visual symbols establish codes of domination and subordination that link distributions of resources, opportunities. and respect in the society. As objects of material culture, dress is used to express symbolically cultural and philosophical orientations of the group that sanctioned it. The field of dress codes, according to Ash and Wilson (1992), has become a site of struggle for control of the power to define the situation and the self.

During the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, much media attention was given to the dress of African Americans as both males and females allowed their hair to "go natural" and wore other symbols of their West African heritage, such as bright colored kaftans. Men donned the kofi hat, and some women wore headwraps. These items became linked to the civil rights revolution and for some they symbolized rebellion. Griebel (1995) states that while many objects of adornment have been used by African Americans to carve out identities since the civil rights revolution, the headwrap is the only one to persist. While the headwrap has received attention in the academic literature, I do not agree that it is the only one to persist. …

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